There are distinct layers of cloud overhead: little dark wisps in front; behind, the bigger white flocculences that have presided over the sky all day. It starts to rain and I quicken my pace. From the west the sun still shines uninhibited. On reaching Minto Park I stand under a tree next to a gazebo full of people. I watch the light change. The park is dominated by a small square lake, onto which both the sun and the rain now fall, drawing on its surface a delicate green crosshatch.
On the other side looms the rectilinear modernist architecture of the Bellevue clinic. Looking at it, I am reminded of another Bellevue on another lake in a different time. I am reminded of the Bellevue sanatorium on Lake Constance in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland, where Ludwig Binswanger founded existential psychology. There was a class at college on Kreuzlingen and Binswanger that I sat in on for some weeks but now I remember only a few details and the general thrust of the discussion. I remember verstiegenheit, a term Binswanger borrowed from mountain climbers, which describes the anxiety that occurs when one ascends so far that descent is no longer possible. The class was about madness and modernity.
As ever in this city, the cars are honking. But something has changed. The horns sound mellower now. Another sound fills the air: the swish of tyres on wet tar.
I am reading Death in Venice, where Mann writes, “solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous—to poetry. But also, it gives birth to the opposite: to the perverse, the illicit, the absurd.” In solitude lies madness, he seems to be saying. There is madness too, I think, and poetry, here in this roiling metropolis.
A racket spills in through the open window. I am trying to write so I close the window but the noise won’t go away. Giving up, I go outside and join hundreds of people watching a procession of floats and dancers making their way down the street. There is a military band; a group of ladies waving their arms in the air; a gaggle of white-clad men who hop and clap in time to the thunderous music; a truck fitted with enormous speakers, connected by tenuous cable to a generator on a cycle-rickshaw that rides alongside. One float has on it bearded costumed children standing in front of a vaguely European-looking cardboard house. Their faces are painted and a girl with a yellow face furiously rubs her eye. A man with an SLR is trying to make the children pose with their bows and arrows. Everyone has their phone-cameras out, documenting the event.
I ask someone what’s going on. This is the Rath Yatra, I am told; Lord Jagannath is making his rounds.
The biggest float of all rolls into view. It is at least two storeys high, each wooden wheel taller than a person, and it carries Lord Jagannath himself. Four white plastic horses adorn its prow. Above them stands a pale, bespectacled man, who is using an old-fashioned ship’s wheel to steer the enormous chariot. The god depends on his followers for locomotion: in accordance with custom, hundreds of people fight each other to get a chance to pull the chariot along by means of two long thick ropes. People wear t-shirts that read: “I pulled the Lord’s Rath. Did u?” A man dressed in a dhoti and white gloves attempts to direct the chariot-pullers. “Slowly, slowly!” he cries, desperately but to no avail. There is confusion when the chariot gets to the T-junction at the end of the street. Each group of rope-pullers goes in a different direction. For a moment, there is a tug-of-war with the god stuck in the middle.
Three such chariots pass by, interspersed with more groups of singing and dancing devotees. On the back of the last one is a sign that reads, “Courtesy: PEERLESS Smart Financial Solutions”. An ambulance brings up the rear.
I emerge from the subterranean at Esplanade to find myself in front of a grandiloquent edifice with gilded domes, its five floors towering over the crowd. This street has two principal classes of business on it: Muslim tailors and Chinese shoe shops. I need neither clothes nor shoes so I walk on. Drawn by the name, I enter a narrow alley called Crooked Lane and follow it through many left turns until I find, by chance, a place I’ve been looking for. I have been told to try the street food at Dacres Lane, and here I am now. It begins to rain and I sit down on a wooden bench under a tarp and eat chicken stew, savouring the big potatoes that have absorbed the meaty flavour of the gravy.
The weather has observed a fairly predictable cycle during my time here. There are periods of intensely hot sun followed by the sky clouding over, wind beginning to blow, and a short burst of rain. The rain gives way to a dark sweatiness; the air seems to coagulate. Just when you think you can no longer breathe, the sun comes out again and the humidity lightens a little. Not far from Dacres Lane is a crumbling white building with a portico in front, the Great Eastern Hotel, and when it starts raining I take shelter there. Under the portico, along the front of the building, stands a row of truncated tree trunks. They are the banded trunks of Cuban royal palms, an introduced species. Squares have been cut into the roof of the portico, allowing the trees to grow out into the sky, and their tops are not visible. Watching the traffic, I am troubled by questions. How old is this building? How old are the trees? Did the building come first, or the trees? What will happen to those holes in the roof when the trees die?
The rain stops and I step out, eager to see what the building looks like from across the street. The tree tops are withered, only a few decomposing leaves still attached to the trunk. I am reminded again of Binswanger’s verstiegenheit.
After a day of walking I close my weary eyes and have a vision of myself gliding through the city; it is as if I am wearing ice-skates and everything is frozen.
According to me this is one of the great walking cities of the world. The walks I have taken here have filled me with pleasure and melancholy. There have been short strolls around the neighbourhood, quick trips down the road to get dinner, as well as longer walks, four-hour forays into an unknown world, punctuated by frequent chai breaks and maybe a meal or two.
Now I am in the heart of the business district, surrounded by successively grander and more magnificent buildings, with names like Gillander House, The Oriental Assurance Building, Balmer Lawrie House. I am filled with the sweet smell of incense. The streets are teeming with people: businessmen, managers, peons, chaiwallas, beggars. None of them looks up. They are inured to the fading splendour of their surroundings. I scrutinize the imperious facades of these edifices but can’t imagine what goes on inside, what has gone on inside. It makes me uneasy, this hidden depth.
It is midday and it is sweltering hot, but the buildings make me shiver. Names can be misleading, I realize. The Writer’s Building is not what I had expected. The writers in question, it turns out, are the numberless functionaries of the government. I peer into a ground-floor window, past the grating. Out of a long, low corridor with fluorescent lighting blows a musty wind.
There are places in every city where people go on Sunday evenings around sunset to relax, stroll around and eat ice-cream. Across the street from the Victoria Memorial is a musical fountain choreographed to instrumental versions of Bollywood classics. A crowd stands up against the fence that separates them from the fountain, enraptured by the flying streams of water. Hundreds of others are milling about in the paved space that is home to puchka vendors and dancing monkeys. A line of horse carriages stretches down the street. One man has set up four little plastic chairs on a rotating contraption; unable to find customers, he spins it around empty. When it becomes a little darker, coloured lights come on. The song reaches a crescendo, the water spins higher and higher, little jets shoot out at all angles, and the spray thrown off by the fountain drifts off into the twilight.
Tired, I walk around drawn to certain luminous presences: a dog sniffing a pile of rubbish; a recently married couple eating popcorn on a bench; a father’s proud smile as his son dispatches balloon after balloon with an air rifle; two beardless boys smoking cigarettes behind a tree; the dancing shadows thrown by the bhelpuri seller’s oil flame. A thin mist descends after sunset and dissipates five minutes later. My existence feels preternatural; the world and its fleeting motions feel like shadows that are more detailed than the things that cast them.
I love cities. I love the feeling when from a high place in the middle of a huge conurbation I look out and in every direction there are only rooftops. But one evening I realise I need open space, so I ask a policeman for directions to the river. To get to the waterfront I cross the circular rail tracks and enter a gate marked Fairly Place Jetty no. 2. Office workers stream through; they are taking the ferry home. There is a space of around 60 feet between two floating docks where a concrete hill slopes down into the water and people bathe and wash their clothes. A man in a turquoise shirt sits between two peepal trees, his gaze caught by something faraway. I settle down next to him and feel on my skin the last rays of the setting sun. A ferry chugs in from the right, turning sharply; with a low roar it pulls level with the jetty, and the travellers embark and disembark. Wavelets lap at the city’s concrete side. Boys leap off the dock into the thick brown water. A paunchy man lathers himself. The hum of a distant helicopter permeates the air. Behind me, I hear train-sounds. Ferries come and go. Clouds drift over the far shore. The world is in motion. I am bestilled.