In an issue about place, to talk about placelessness is about the most obvious thing I could have done, and the most boring.
But this is just what I am going to do, and like most things, it has an odd reason. A few years back at my Rhodes scholarship interview which was an absolute disaster, I remember being asked about my ‘academic interests’. Girish Karnad, the playwright, was the one who asked the question. Now the least that he could have been sure of was that a third year literature undergraduate might have passions and ambitions, and a heart to reach them, but he does not have this stale thing called ‘academic interests’. But my answer was as rehearsed as his question. Indian writing in English, specifically the novel, I offered.
I had an excellent teacher for Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, I could not have said anything else. But Karnad smiled menacingly. Shit, I should have said drama, Indian drama. Give him what he wants, what he does. He went on to say: ‘So you are interested in the Indian English novel, so let us ask you about poetry.’ Blast! What? Is he kidding me? Poetry? But I just said…! Anyway, that was when the downward spiral began. My answers were as stupid as his question was sly. Talking about placelessness when I should be talking about its opposite is my childish revenge on Karnad. I am going to be as obvious and as unimaginative as he was. If this piece is a disaster, I would have succeeded.
Lengthy preface, I know. But let us get back to what a third year literature undergraduate does have and what a Rhodes interviewer does not: a heart. Let us talk about the place of the heart. It is a tough job to begin because you do not have a precise point to set off. It seems to me that the heart is a name for all kinds of movements. Your heart goes out to the things you like, the people you adore. Involuntarily, it seeps out of you and lands at the step of the objects of your affection. It is a gift like no other. It may be accepted or rejected. It may be kept in suspension, waiting for an answer for days on end. It may be the epitome of placelessness. And yet it is winged, air-borne. “The verie instant that I saw you, did My heart flie to your service,” Ferdinand tells Miranda, lovers you might recall from Shakespeare. It jumps out of its slot and goes elsewhere. When you say too much, share too much, you wear your heart on your sleeve. So how do you ever stop and look when your heart jumps to so many places?
And since there is no fixed point for the heart, that red apple like heart we see all around us was the nearest we have got to a consistent shape, at least. But that shape does not remain. The heart is brittle; it breaks in suffering. You eat your heart out in sorrow, you weep your heart out in pain. Never a fixed point; always opening up. And what do you do when someone you love passes you by and your heart starts racing? You forget about the point which has now become a line, at high speed. And who can gauge the speed of a racing heart? Not even those who try to wrench it away from you.
Sometimes you wish that the others had a heart, sometimes you wish you could part ways with yours. It was Ghalib who said “Wafa Kaisi, kahan ka ishq jab sar phorrna thahra/ to phir aiye sang-e-dil, tera sang-e-aastan kyoon ho”1 Khushwant Singh has done a translation which scarcely passes muster but I have no one else to quote: “What kind of loyalty, wherefore this love? It is my own head I have to break./ Then, O stone-hearted one, why at your threshold must I smash it for your sake.” What sort of thing is this heart which sometimes we ache to part with, bestow it as a gift to someone else, and at other times, we feel it throbbing with pain or happiness, somewhere near us, in us, in a good or bad shape? Full or incomplete. Because sometimes all of it is there and at other times, a part of it. When we cannot concentrate on something, we do not do it with all our heart. The promise that we make without our heart in it is a bad promise, unlikely to stay. It has the effort but not the guarantee. It is half-hearted.
It was near the end of the first year of my PhD in London. I used to live in Stoke Newington. It is a nice, bustling place in Hackney borough. Concentric Zone Two of London. Despite having spent several months there, I did not seem to know the place, whatever that means, knowing the place. Of course I knew the streets and the turns but I did not get that feeling, you know, the one which comes from your gut, or from your heart perhaps. Five years in Delhi had to have its withdrawal symptoms. I seemed to have had all the fun in central London where most of my friends lived. And I knew I was going to shift out in the second year. So I set out on a mission. One of my friends Shilpa Phadke had once said that loitering is the best way to know and own a place. So be it, I thought. I set out to know and own Stoke Newington. Often during late nights, eleven sometimes, sometimes two. Some of my friends would have killed me if they knew that I was roaming around Hackney at that hour. They had heard pistol shots, they told me. They always hear pistol-shots, don’t they, never see one being taken! But the walks paid off. They started in this artificial, commissioned kind of way, like an air-steward’s smile, but they ended in a way only surprises do. With a sense of wonder. With the rarity of genuine effect. There was this one image which has stayed with me from during those walks. And now at least with the recollection of that image Stoke Newington has become a memory. Perhaps the only thing we can own in any definite way is a memory. We own a place by remembering it. It never leaves you at any rate, for all you wish. At one of the turns, I saw a small church. The clergy seemed to be trying to be cool and get the young ones in. On a big white board an apology of a valentine card. “Gd ♥ U / Y dnt U ♥ Gd?”. SMS lingo to attract a pious congregation! England has as many denominations of churches as there are people; desperate times call for desperate measures. But it is that heart that has tied me to the place. Tied, I mean, in the way it is possible to be tied to places. I reached back home that night and one of my friends’ Facebook status messages was “I ♥ NY”. t was a vulgar coincidence. But it was heartening!