Cities of the mind

October 4, 2020

Over centuries, readers have been swayed by the belief that a book opens new vistas for them by transporting them to cities that they have never seen. Now is the time to put this belief to test\

Paris at night. Picture courtesy: Grillot Edouard on Unsplash

The scepticism about travel as an antidote to narrow-mindedness finds its counterpart in the idea that a tourist who visits a city often remains indifferent to its local culture. Even when well-meaning travellers with a thirst for authenticity step out of their comfort zones, they often find themselves steeped in a love-hate relationship with their exotic holiday destinations. This is a predictable reaction as it takes time and courage for tourists to peel the layers of mystery and discover the truth about their new surroundings. More often than not, even a two-week stay is insufficient for an ardent lover of a city to memorise the layout of streets and boulevards, explore its backstreets, and understand its hidden contradictions.

Frustrated with the superficiality of travel, many of us find consolation in clichés. We have been told since time immemorial that reading is a suitable alternative to travel as it allows us to escape our own realities and immerse ourselves in unfamiliar settings. Even so, bookstores aren’t usually as crowded as the departure lounges at international airports. Travel buffs are usually intimidated by the prospect of reading a book to paint a mental image of a city and, therefore, prefer to board a flight and experience its chaotic rhythm – as tourists, of course.

The virus-induced lockdowns in 2020 have dashed all our hopes of travelling to new cities and revisiting familiar ones with a new zeal. While lockdowns have started to ease, the world is still waiting for a vaccine that will treat Covid-19. In the meantime, those among us who are passionate about travelling find themselves in a predicament. Desperate to escape the monotony, they have sought solace in old photographs from a distant vacation in the hope of reliving a memory and recreating a mental image of their holiday destination.

In an ideal situation, books can serve as much-needed passports that enable us to navigate our new realities. However, it remains to be seen if a general consensus will emerge on the issue and people will realise that reading a book can serve as a plausible substitute to satisfy the restless spirits of travel junkies. Over centuries, readers have been swayed by the belief that a book opens new vistas for them by transporting them to cities that they have never seen. From the comfort of their own homes, they are being offered a guided tour of a new world in the hope that they may be able to bridge the barriers of race, culture, religion and nationality. Now is the time to put this belief to test.

Regent street London. Picture courtesy: Jamie Davies on Unsplash

At the outset, we must remember that most writers aren’t miniaturists. The burden of producing an all-embracing view of an entire city shouldn’t fall entirely on their shoulders. Readers must realise that the itinerary for a journey that is filtered through the written word is already predefined. As a result, the writer doesn’t promise to provide an objective glimpse of a city. The parameters of the writer’s vision of a city have been demarcated in terms of time and place, and readers must learn to exist within these boundaries. Although this may seem slightly restrictive, it serves as a liberating experience for readers as their journey is not just confined to a modern-day outlook of a city. Driven by the possibilities of travelling to the city’s past and gaining an incisive look at the life of its communities, a book offers insights that often seem alien to a mere tourist.

Of the many cities that have been written about in global literature, Paris stands out as an embodiment of romance and creative enterprise. In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway evokes the sights, sounds and flavour of the city that moulded him into a writer in the 1920s. Hemingway recalls his forays into the city through descriptions of streets, markets and cafes that are captured with an unsparing eye for detail. The memoir isn’t just a paean to Paris’ magnetic appeal but also displays its darker side. For instance, the memoir begins with an avowedly unpleasant memory that Hemingway associates with the city: its inclement weather that compels people “to shut the windows... against the rain and the cold wind”. For tourists who have experienced the biting chill of France’s capital, the opening sentence conjures a familiar image. It draws you into a journey that transcends time and space.

Hemingway’s observations about life in Paris are poignant because they draw on some harsh realities that resonate with modern readers as well. “You got very hungry when you did not eat enough in Paris because all the bakery shops had such good things in the windows,” he writes. In another section of the book, he makes a reference to the perils of living in a city with an ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor. “Paris was a very old city,” Hemingway states, “and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong.”

At the outset, we must remember that writers aren’t miniaturists. The burden of producing an all-embracing view of an entire city shouldn’t fall entirely on their shoulders. Readers must realise that the itinerary for a journey that is filtered through the written word is already predefined.

Leila Slimani’s Lullaby, which was originally written in French, refers to a similar form of disparity when one of her characters refers to Paris as a “giant shop window”. The novel captures the anxieties of Paris’s middle class and the crippling desperation of the have-nots. It is unlikely that tourists can comprehend the intricacies of these class dynamics during a two-day sojourn in the city.

James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room offers a fascinating glimpse into Parisian hotelkeepers who “have a way of smelling poverty” and the women who manage cash registers like “mother birds[s] in a nest”. Baldwin’s characters also firmly believe that in Paris “you feel… all the time gone by”. Though Baldwin - like Hemingway - views Paris from the perspective of an outsider, his observations stand out because of their distinct originality. Tourists who visited the city during that particular era – or perhaps even in the present day – may find their own thoughts mirrored in these lines.

London, which TS Eliot’s The Wasteland depicts as an “unreal city” that symbolises decay, curiously remains a popular holiday destination and draws around 30 million visitors every year. Although the city hasn’t always been portrayed as a haven, it has remained the backdrop of countless novels that offer a harrowing meditation on its copious vices. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway presents the dichotomies of life in post-war London to vivid effect while Anita Desai’s Bye-Bye Blackbird highlights how the city attracts and repels immigrants in equal measure. Balli Kaur Jaswal’s Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows brings to the fore the injustices suffered by a woman who belongs to an immigrant community in South Hall. Reading these novels will surely enrich a reader’s understanding of the city and its many ebbs and tides. If that reader happens to visit the city, his or her perceptions about the holiday destination are likely to evolve.

Delhi, India. Picture courtesy: Unsplash

Delhi is another city that has been widely documented in literature. Narratives about the city are aligned closely with its illustrious royal history. Khushwant Singh’s Delhi indicates how India’s capital has been “misused by rough people” and has, therefore, “learnt to conceal [its] seductive charm”. In 1940, Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi depicted how the war of 1857 decimated the city’s culture. Over the last few decades, novels that are set in Delhi have represented the inner world of the insidious power elite. Namita Gokhale’s Priya in Incredible Indyaa, for instance, underscores these political dynamics quite convincingly. “Seek out the current lots of ‘useful’ people,” the narrator states, “scorn the hangers-on and despise those who might need you. That’s the formula for Delhi social networking.” In sharp contrast, Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness puts a spotlight on the deprived, marginalised groups who bear the brunt of partisan power politics. For a tourist who is drawn to Delhi for its historical landmarks and the thrill of visiting a South Asian capital, these books could offer much-needed insights on the haunting realities of the city’s past and present.

Since the prospects of travel appear slim after Covid-19, writers may face increasing pressure to contemplate new and exciting strategies in which their literary image of a city can be made more realistic and authoritative. While it is tempting to assume that the onus to create an authentic portrait of a city lies with writers, the reality is that books aren’t everyone’s companion. In this day and age, the vicarious journey that a book can take readers on, seems less enticing. It will be difficult to replace the thrill of excitement over a firsthand tour of an unfamiliar city with a voyage made through the words.

The writer is a freelance journalist and the author of Typically Tanya

Cities of the mind