Our imagined spaces

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Writers on cities and how they teach us to live

Photo: Geoff Pugh

The most romantic literature, in my mind, is born when writers write about “their” city, and its imagined truths and changing façades. These writers amble along the city’s long and winding alleys and roam the bazaars; they pass old men on their way, men who have seen the city blossom and decay, and be reborn again. The writers walk on her cobbled streets, gaze at her domes, arches and synagogues, and sit quietly by the graves of her other lovers, those whom she has claimed in the past.

They can be found at the roadside dhaba or at the corner café, watching the city go by, but remaining unnoticed themselves. They know when the city wakes and when she goes to sleep. They know how she shimmers in the warm glow of halogen bulbs and shines against the bright neon lights. They have walked her streets in the humid heat and have seen her dance in the rain with renewed life. They are the first ones to learn about her trials, when her pride is hurt, and the place where she goes to seek respite, perhaps from thoughtless infrastructure development or her insensitive citizens. These writers know her pulse and they are her flâneurs.

Flâneur, as defined by the academic Heather Marcelle Crickenberger, is “a French word understood intuitively by the French to mean ‘stroller, idler, walker’. He has been portrayed in the past as a well-dressed man, strolling leisurely through the Parisian arcades of the nineteenth century – an intellectual parasite of the arcade”. The word might be French in its origin, but perceptive individuals from all cultures have engaged in this act of flaneurie, as was evident in the musings of Australian author Patti Miller and Indian writer Amit Chaudhuri, who shared their memoirs on Paris and Calcutta respectively, at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

Amit Chaudhuri revels in the quotidian life of Calcutta – her green Palladian windows and red oxidized stone floors. He talks about her lyricism and how it continues to inspire those who live in the city. He decries the slow decay of Calcutta, due to a lack of vision and hence, “progressive development”; and yet he marvels at how she continues to linger on in the minds and dreams of those who have left her behind for a “better” life.

Yours truly here is guilty of leaving her too. I left the vermillion red Krishnachuras and Kadambas back home in Calcutta, first for the Amaltas in Delhi and later for the sandstone-loving banksia in Sydney. But there is a catch here, wherever I go, I find myself looking for Calcutta in Sydney’s rivers and creeks. I see the Howrah bridge in the Harbour bridge and realise how both the bridges are not mere architectural models, but a way of life for people, they form a crucial part of the cities’ identity. I look for Delhi in the domes of Sydney’s buildings and in the alleys and avenues of its suburbs. We often subconsciously seek what we know. There is perhaps only one city for each one of us, and that is the imagined city which has made our mind her home. It is perhaps different for each one of us.

On a lighter note (that echoes the same thought above), even Patti Miller is able to find herself in a café named ‘Kookaburra’ with an Australian barista in Paris. I would like to think it is only fair that Australians seek their flat white wherever they are. After all, they know their coffee!

Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities explores this realm of imagined spaces. In the book, Marco Polo “conjures up cities of magical times for his host, the Chinese ruler Kublai Khan, but it gradually becomes clear that he is actually describing one city: Venice”. Jeanette Winterson, in her book review, writes “Venice is a city you must design and build for yourself. The tourist Venice is a chimera, the historical Venice is a museum. The living Venice… has been privately mapped. No one can show you Venice. Out of the multiple Venices, none authentic, only you can find the one that has any value.”

This premise of thought, where we seek our own imagined spaces, where we build and decorate our rooms, our roads and our suburbs to represent a version of us, is especially true for Sydney. What is “the real soul” of Sydney? Is it the smell of Lebanese kebabs in Lakemba, or is it the visceral sounds of the didgeridoo that enchant passers-by at Circular Quay? Or is it the freshly brewed Campos coffee at Newtown or the jacaranda-filled hilly stretches of Kirribilli? Is it not then an imagined city, or perhaps a gamut of several imagined spaces fashioned by those who call her “home”?

Calvino has come up with a credible answer to all these questions. He says, “You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.”

Our imagined cities, together, should be able to give us a sense of belonging in times of need; to narrow the gap between colours, cultures and creeds, and make us ask more questions about our inner and outer worlds that need to be asked. Most importantly our imagined cities should be able to coexist and mingle together.

What, then, are we fighting for really?