I haven’t yet lived in a city which I can claim to be mine. Perhaps Gainesville would come close being the only place I lived on my own terms. Calcutta-buffs, I know, will scathe at me for being ungrateful to the city which doesn’t cease to amaze me. Still, I don’t seem to devour Calcutta the way others have done. Something hinders me, I can’t surely say what it is – perhaps my inability to adapt nuances of the city at a later age than required. It is technically my hometown now, but having stayed there for only eight consecutive years hasn’t given me the chance to imbibe the city into myself. I long for it when I’m away and yet I feel the longing is just for the sake of it. It is in human nature to try and own – places, people, relationships – without justifying the ownership. I haven’t consciously tried to let Calcutta engulf me into its charming tentacles, consequently being open to immerse myself into any other city in the world.
Belfast was different from all the other cities I’ve lived in because I already knew the exact number of days I was going to be there. I did not seriously know what to expect from the short-term affair with a city radically apart from the ones I’ve been to. Visiting London confirmed the hypothesis we created, that united Ireland resembles more with Europe than the rest of United Kingdom. Belfast has all the European qualities, right from pebbled streets to open-air cafes and the afternoon drinking culture which is too lethargic for London to accept. The people have a laid-back attitude, they drink – morning and noon, evening and night – because they are Irish.
We were at a Celtic bar two nights before leaving the city when we realized there is something in their drinking culture that we seem to have liked pretty much. There was a local guy casually chatting with us, an old one, almost the age of my father. He gave us an unexpected bear hug and said, “Please come back to Belfast, it’s a wonderful place. And I can see you’ve already taken to Guinness that should be enough to bring you back here.” We were pleasantly surprised by so much warmth from a stranger, his love for Northern Ireland gushing towards us ready to embrace foreigners into his own land. This incident on the penultimate day before leaving an alien land kind of compensated the racist attack on us just a few days after we landed there. It’s probably the balance of life, swinging up and down at all times trying to find an equilibrium.
There are some cities which make you fall in love with them at the first sight. Normally such a love affair would last a lifetime resulting in you settling down in the city. It happened to me too, yes, and the city was Bombay. I was neutral, nonchalant about it before I actually went and stayed there for a few days. And then a fairy touched something, and the city bloomed to life before me. It was splendid, the few months that I spent in Bombay. At the end it felt like the city belonged to me. There are other cities, which are meant to be only a muse to your life. You enjoy the short fling with them knowing that it would end someday and you will leave the place forever. There are no promises to be broken, no vows to be fulfilled, the stint is always short and sweet. Belfast became a muse to us even before we reached there. We did not have much expectations from such a small, old city and its people who were claimed to be rude by rest of the world. But strangely, I felt the affair ended a little too soon. I would have wanted to roam around the deserted city center streets in the evening when they seemed to be lonelier than me. I think I shared a bond with the narrow lanes that reminded me of Calcutta with the shadow of ancient stone buildings looming on them. I felt familiar with the streets in the evening, crackling under the footsteps of a few pedestrians rushing for home. The laid-back corner shops are enchanting when you first enter them. I couldn’t imagine an entire store dedicated to cooking accessories, from pastry brushes to embroidered aprons. And I always wondered if they really have enough sales to keep the heater running all day. There was another store that sold “world food” and had zebra steak on their menu. Never had the courage to try it, though!
It’s the muse who pleases us through these tiny moments which we cherish for the rest of our lives. It’s she who inspires us to confront life while walking on snow with a cup of steaming latte. Belfast has been an old but pretty muse to me who retained her charm ageing gracefully. The city has taught us to live on its terms every morning and evening. I miss the hustle and bustle of an old world city center, the fresco-ed ceiling of Tesco, aroma of freshly ground coffee on the streets, young mothers lazing around with scarlet-cheeked toddlers, city tour buses with wide-eyed ‘foreigners’ aiming their cameras at all they could capture. It wasn’t home and yet it was something of my own, a cozy place for retreat at the end of any bad day. After five years I have adapted to the nomadic life pretty well, much to my own surprise ‘Home’ has become an illusion now, be it my parents’ place or in-laws’ – staying away for a long time has made something amiss everywhere. Nomads keep moving from one horizon to another in search of a home, I think I’d like to be one as long as I can savour the world.