Of distant longings

May 31, 2020

For one traveller, the long winding road to Rome is lined with enough memories to weather one summer of confinement

Fishing ship off Antalya.

Lately, I have found myself staring at the noon-day sun falling blindingly bright on the yellow terrace wall, framed against spring foliage of the mango and guava trees. The colours remind me of the city that for most of my life had existed only as a vague and distant longing.

Vainly thumbing through my passport, I reminisce about the long road that led me to Rome. It began in the east.

Surprisingly, my strongest memory of the land of the rising sun is not of the magic of Miyajima Island but of a simple and quiet night spent in the hills surrounding Hiroshima. Our large, disperse group was bunking in the modern-minimalist hostel of a monastic youth-center. I had taken the opportunity of everyone being occupied with the entertainment to avail myself of the communal shower in relative peace. Only a cockroach disturbed me. When I returned to the hall the group had already left. Abandonment, at sixteen, can be a devastating blow.

Just then, the boy I had been eyeing all through the trip came up behind me and I smiled. He told me, fumbling, that he had to stay behind to pack up the guitar and drums, and if I wanted, he would walk out with me to join the others.

It was a balmy summer evening and the hills were very quiet. We walked slowly and talked of many things. As we reached the park where the others were playing football the night had enveloped us in a veil of seclusion. Loath to let it go, we headed instead to a bench under the tree cover far from the others. There he explained that he was not being standoff-ish, he just thought I was too cool for him. And I found this utterly absurd. And I fell so deep into his blue eyes that all roads remaining to be travelled in Japan became just ones that led me away from him.

Piazza di Spagna.

Years later I came to India for the first time. Delhi, built on a much grander scale than Lahore, was overwhelming. Everything from the width of the roads to the scale of the buildings in Connaught Place and Sansad Marg simply dwarfed you. The throng of people buzzed day and night as if it were one great unwashed body. This clearly was the theatre of the Raj.

One afternoon a friend and I were walking to Janpath, where we used to shop down to our last dime on each visit when she stopped to have her fortune told. Prejudice and superstition would not allow me to accept the tawdry embarrassment of this spectacle. But she was lovelorn so I gave in.

A newspaper was laid out for her to sit as people shoved by us on the footpath. I do not recall what the palmist told her but it did not make her very happy. On my turn, I took the newspaper seat grudgingly, was told that I shall never want for money and marry twice, the second time for good. I am, more than a decade on, neither rich nor in want of a husband, though not on account of having acquired even one.

Yet, I do recall the palmist asking me what I was studying and ruefully pronouncing, through a cigarette butt clenched in stained teeth, that he too held an Economics degree. I remember that moment of alarm quite acutely as I encountered a future my privilege had never called on me to consider.

The road that led away from Delhi moved on a meandering path westward, bending several times through the Middle East and at least twice through Turkey.

Once I took a dizzying run through Amman. Far too many new faces crammed into far too small a space. For four days I was made of smiles, and never even had a moment to dip my toes into the Dead Sea. I do recall staring across its waters though, out to a country where geopolitics would not allow me to visit a friend who was then dear to me.

The road that led away from Delhi moved on a meandering path westward, bending several times through the Middle East and at least twice through Turkey.

There were some stolen moments. Under yellow streetlights I walked the ancient cobblestones that bore the mark of prophets. On my last evening there I was sharing a drink with a seasoned Algerian diplomat with whom I had established something of a friendship. She caught a fleeting glimpse in my eye of an ocean of wariness. She smiled at me and reached out to squeeze my hand and told me I would be perfectly suited to a career in diplomacy. That pleased me because I always wanted to grow up to be a ‘great man’.

Some three years later in a museum in Antalya, I came across a sculpture of the emperor Hadrian which had lost its nose and nearly both of its arms. I was unable to look away from it because what remained of the arm was marked so clearly by veins that my hand was drawn instinctively to touch the marble to confirm that it was not indeed flesh. I smiled because history had taught me that Hadrian was a great man.

The next year the road took me all the way West. In Boston I found myself at the Stuart Gardner museum, acting on a friend’s recommendation. At the end of one of the corridors of Isabella Stuart Gardner’s Spanish Villa that houses her magnificent collection, hangs a painting by her protege John Singer Sargent. This, the El Jaleo, depicts a Spanish Gypsy dancer in white with her face in the shadows, and you could stand there and look at her for hours.

It would be another four years before I found myself in Spain, trudging up to a Flamenco club in Sacromonte, on a blisteringly cold December night. Behind us the spectacular ghost of the Alhambra still looked condescendingly down on the Gypsy hill.

I was depending on the flamenco performance to salvage the disastrous day my friends and I had had. I lingered outside the claustrophobic confines of the dancer’s cave to steal a smoke before the show. Cigarette dangling in freezing lips I fumbled for a lighter, but then one appeared before my face. A gold zippo proffered by refined, long-fingered hands, accustomed to lighting a lady’s cigarette.

Trevi Rome.

I thanked the handsome older gentleman who introduced himself as the master of ceremonies, and we shared a smoke over an elegant little flirtation. He put his cigarette out before I did mine, and then gave me a long appreciative look. To have been looked at like that, on a winter’s night in Sacromonte, by such a man, fulfilled the longing of a lifetime.

I had to wait till the following summer before I finally made it to Rome. I was unaccompanied and had felt a little ridiculous initially, as if I had overstepped somehow.

Rome, however, had no time for my conundrums. It took me bodily into its meaty arms and pulled me through the doors. Rome is not the glamour of designer-clad crowds nor the scorn of Empire architecture. Bernini, Borromini and Michealangelo step down into the muck of laughing children to rub shoulders with you. The call of seagulls interrupts the music of tenors moonlighting in the street. Not built for an itinerary, Rome is not so much seen as it is felt.

On my last night there I went to stand before the Santa Maria Maggiore. Its towering facade was lit up as if for a Sorrentino film set, the street was quiet, and the church bells rang out. It stood before me as remote as God and as personal as my darkest secret. At once base and divine, it was the very essence of this city: cita de eterna, which now held my heart in its ancient hands.

In that moment I knew, no matter how many roads I travelled, or however long it took, I would always return to Rome. Just perhaps not this year.

The writer teaches high school sociology  and politics

Of distant longings