I go to the bathroom, remove my clothes and pace up and down. This is the only bathroom in any house I’ve ever inhabited that’s given me such legroom. I open the large doors – meant to be windows – to lean my naked body breast first on the warm railing, hang loose my arms, head and hair. I’m six floors up and if I fall, I’d be mangled, bloody, naked-still.
I have to picture this every day, every time I go for a shower. It’s always good to know what happens when you hit the ground.
I look at the expanse of Milan in front of me. The humid blue sky, matte clouds fixed above particular buildings all day long, no birds, dogs latched to old people, brown residential buildings a residual brown, daisies and meadow flowers whose names I don’t know, the widespread canopy of soiled-green green trees and the cross bearing tower of a church that pokes out in between.
This is Via Valsesia 8, on the border of Baggio, a district in Zone 7 of the fashion capital. This is where the old live. This is where the slow live. This is where the commuters live. This is where Tom and I, two young writers from the Warwick Writing Program, have lived.
Even on the last day, even hours before flying out to London, handing over the keys to this bird’s view of slow life, I find it hard to believe that my head hangs in Milan, that this too is Milan, that I am in Milan.
I’ve noted more than often that this monochrome suburb hesitates to be jubilant with me, explode now and then in firework rapture for all that we’ve been through. But no, Baggio couldn’t care less. Nothing moves here. Not the air, not the cars parked half on the road and half on the pavement, not even dogs. Everything’s nailed to tar roads, so much so, if you turned their worlds upside down, none of them would succumb to gravity. Even me. If you turned upside down the scene where I hang out of my bathroom – wanting to see me splattered down on the earth, six floors down – I wouldn’t fall. I’m nailed to this floor. My breasts are stuck to this railing, thighs pressed to the glass below it.
I’ve come to possess a sense of being, a form and a body I didn’t possess before these three months in Milan. Would you believe it if I told you that my takeaway from this city – everything of it from its centre to its inconsequential ends – with its catwalks, expensive stores, sneering men, powerful women, smell of money, pockets of literature, the Last Supper, statues of great men, museums of greater things, and devout residential areas is a lesson in being?
It’s the contrast between the silence/stillness in this part of the city where I live in and the noise/movement of its other busier zones where cobbled streets are lined with café terraces and pubs. It’s how I move inside and outside these two zones, where I don’t actively contribute to either the silence or the noise. When I go to the noise, I go as one who comes from silence. When I go to the silence, I go as one who comes from noise. Apart from this opposing allegiance that I bear, I’m merely a spectator who enters these zones, almost always with an attitude that intends to spy. Later in the perimeter of the exact opposite environment, I stay still and scrutinise the other for its colour or the lack of it. It surprises me that I remember the details of the silence during periods of noise and the details of noise during periods of silence.
By carrying out a scrutiny of silence in a territory of noise and vice versa, I become a medium for silence to meet noise or noise to meet silence. In this queer interaction, I lay limp, reminiscing, again surprised that I remember details from nooks and crannies I only caught in the periphery of my vision.
In my bedroom, where silence abounds, I curl up and remember the flapping of doves in front of the Duomo where men persuaded me to buy bracelets or feed birds or have my photograph taken. By way of a noisy memory I drip a noise into this silence.
This act of remembering was often carried out with the duty of a porter who transported baggage from one end of the platform to another or a historian who documented alternate histories and found the need to expose them to those who didn’t know or just a bird who collected twigs and food for the nest. But it was decided quite early on – when I took up this duty – that I couldn’t just take from one place. I had to take and give. Give and take. Hence the unbiased involvement with the two opposing zones. I am staunch in the following view – that in neither zone was there an ache for the other. When in silence there was no yearning for noise. When in noise there was no eager wait for silence.
The underground metro connects these two worlds for me. A rite of passage from one zone to the other. From an empty train car to the abundant smell of makeup with sweat as we get closer to the centre. A car packed with the slow murmur of the people it loads. As if inside the train, it is right to only talk in whispers. The cumulative whisper, the giant one that reaches me tramples down my spine intruding my body with a burdensome reception of lives and stories told in a language I don’t understand. Maybe this is why I’m a spectator. That I hear them all but don’t understand. This is also why the noise is louder.
I’m stiff, ready for anything. My body knows the exact number of people around it, in this car, consciously takes a seat closest to the exit and never has its back turned away from people. According to the climate of the car, my body takes a stance of ready defence.
When the evening in the centre is over, I walk down into the metro once again and take the M1 back to Bisceglie, the closest metro to Baggio. It is a kilometre and a half walk back to the flat and when the remnants of the train disperse, I’m always left alone, making my way down either via Via Lucca or Via Viterbo. A figure trotting into its silence, bearing a record of the day rewound and replayed, littering the straight road with high-pitched Italian life.
Of course this is not specific or special to Milan. The centre of a city and the suburbs of a city are almost always fraught with such oppositions. But the lack of friends, the lack of social interaction or lengthy conversation left me with a heightened interaction with the city and its nervous system. I’m inside it. I’ve been immersed in it and I move through it with pores, newer pores sprouting on my skin every passing day, to exhale and inhale. In the three months here – noise or silence, centre or suburb – by sniffing the air, catching a whiff of the climate, my body moulds itself to a corresponding response or state of mind. They – the mind and body – are no longer two separate entities but one being.
Wander was not all I did in Milan. I came here as a writer, with a desire to be more of a writer. Inspite of having been to innumerable writing workshops before where my works were read and asked about, I disclosed very little – both as the text and as explanation for the text. But when I arrived in Milan, I realised that I could no longer play hide and seek inside my own words. One of my weekly duties was to meet Tim Parks, my tutor at IULM near Romolo and discuss my writing. I knew from the start that I couldn’t dodge questions whilst put one on one with a reputed author who had taken the time to help me with my work.
Then there was Tom. Tom and I are separated by a thin wall. Sometimes at night I can hear him type or chuckle, even pull down his blinds. Tom was one of those writers who had a healthy habit of speaking about their writing. I suspect this was Tom’s way of creating a mental blueprint which he then put down to paper. Talking was his way of scribbling on the first draft and thereby making a clean second one. It wasn’t just common courtesy that pressed me to reciprocate. Tom wouldn’t leave me alone. He had to question me whenever he met me. He had to ask about my writing.
Apart from these two men, to whom I was on contract to open up about my writing life, I took it upon myself to visit the Basilica of Sant’ Appollinare, a five minute bike ride from the flat. Every evening, I’d go down to the Basilica, lean on a mighty pillar and recollect what I’d written either the previous night or that day. I’d struggle for words. What did I write today? I’d ask and stare mutely at the suspended Cross in front of the altar. I’d look up at the meshed windows in the dome and slowly order words. No, I didn’t demand a recollection of the storyline or the intricacies of the course the novel was taking. I merely wanted to tell myself how much I had written, what it was that I had written and how long it had taken me to write it. As simple as this exercise sounds, I shrugged away from the question.
Truth was, I was never satisfied with the response. It took me a long time to write. Unlike Tom or unlike most writers who banged their words onto paper and very much unlike the writers of the Beat generation whom I adored, I never wrote in a trancelike, continuous state. I had started that way, but changed somewhere in between. In short, words had become more difficult to spew out. I often found myself waiting for words to slowly brew themselves. One at a time they order themselves in a very complex and difficult sequence leaving little room for the reader to squeeze in.
In that church, I stood hidden behind a pillar, in fear that the six hundred words I had written in just over fourteen hours would soon crumble to lesser and one day nothing. Before leaving, almost always tear stained, from Sant’ Apollinare – the patron saint for gout, epilepsy and other cures unrelated to my epidemic – I’d kneel down to pray. Dear Father, let’s keep writing.
The same knees that lock themselves together in prayer on the cold floor of the Sant’ Apollinare are locked together in tame posture in front of Tim. Every week before I go to see him, I send him some pages of my novel to read. He goes through them and returns them with notes. With this initial interaction done, I meet him in person. He’s never angry but it’s easy to tell when he thinks something isn’t right. With stern lips he enunciates every word only after ample forethought. He’s got a mathematical face. One that is glazed over by compassion. The right amount of compassion. Precise compassion, to be more mathematical.
How long do you write? How often do you write? How do you write? How long does it take for you to write a page? How many pages do you write at a time? Try writing with a pencil on paper. Try writing without a break, all at once. These questions and answers of Tim choke and relieve me even now.
Tim is meticulous. Excess words are cut out. Expressions are questioned. To many of my favourite phrases he asks, is this important, is this relevant? Then there are the syntactical errors. My language is difficult he says. Neither can tell if this is good or bad. When there’s a knot like that, he just says, keep writing. Every time we part he says, keep writing.
Tom wakes up in the morning, showers and gets dressed. He cannot sit at the table to write without looking like he’s ready for work. I knock at his door or find him in the kitchen or wait for him to come out of the bathroom. I have to see him before I start working for the day. Some days go by with barely any talk. But some days, we sit in the kitchen over a drink and talk about our characters. Tom enquires about anything and everything. He remembers significant details. He tosses suggestions around carelessly.
I learn to treat him like my other half of writing. One who I was forced to marry but with time, learned to live with, even look at fondly. With constant probing I tell him my storyline, my desire for these characters. But it takes him time to make me spill my doubts for them. If something was too much for me to talk about, I’d create an alternate storyline to tell him, which would then find its way into what I was writing. Unconsciously I found the alternate more appealing than the earlier fixture of plot.
A few days before I leave Milan, Tim asks me why I write, if I write to be published. Not immediately I say. Not now. No. That’s the one thing I know about my writing, my novel. That inspite of all the imaginary Q&As and award ceremonies I’ve enacted in the shower, I don’t write it to be published. Published eventually, I say. Yes, he says, what will you do if it gets published already, when you’re in your twenties? What will you do later in your life? Now, is for struggle.
This is what happens on paper: there are two zones – that of silence and noise. I go from one to the other. In silence, when there is no typing away, I remember noise. They float in my head in big chunks of words, memory, experience, grief, sensation; gearing up to be spilt, then ready to be spilt. When spilt, there’s noise. Like rapid rain, mixed with hailstones. You know the noise they make when they just fall, all at once, for a quick two minutes? That. Then it’s quiet again. Remember, there is no falling, no gravity acting if the floor becomes the ceiling.
On paper, like in Milan, I learn to stay still and allow. Allow silence to drip into noise and noise to drip into silence. I learn to not scramble for the noise of fingers against keys or the sight of words forming on paper like a puffing train with a destination to get to on time. Like in Milan’s zones, on paper, I have to take and give. Give and take.
I leave Baggio with a hand dragging a heavy black suitcase. I look up and down the stretch of Via Valsesia. Nothing is alive. I have to get going before I disrupt this stillness. The clouds rumble. Two drops of rain fall on my head. In disbelief I look up to see a double rainbow through the scanty rainfall.
That day, as I left, Baggio did celebrate with me. We celebrated a few months of silence, noise and everything in between. Perhaps – and this is an afterthought – as the city formed me, so I formed the city.