Monday, January 23, 2006

City spirits and the form

Cities have resident spirits.

By spirit, I don't mean, soul. No, 'soul' is just not definite enough. The soul of a city is - perhaps - can be found reflected in the collective character of its citizens, its actions and decisions. The soul is what a city truly is - you understand this when you've lived in it, spent time with its people. But a spirit is what you think a city is, it is the voice in which an urban space first calls out to you.

A city's spirit is like a vibe. A little electric current. A vision. A visible-insvisible something crossing the streets, something that could almost be a ghost - it is just that tangible, and no more... not real. Not the truth. It is illusion, but it is a special illusion because it is a moment that's yours alone.

If you want to catch this vibe, see the forn of this spirit, you've got to catch it within the first five minutes of stepping into the city.
Preferably the railway station or the bus stand, because airports, you see, are like roses. An airport is an airport is an airport is an airport. (Clean airport, filthy airport, big airport, funny-shaped airport, warm airport, glassy hi-tech airport... But an airport, still.) It tells you nothing about things of the spirit or the soul.

For the first five minutes after hitting the road, if keep your eyes wide open... if you don't let hassles like getting a taxi, finding the person who's going to receive you, locating a hotel etc, get in the way.... if you open yourself up to the city - each sense along the first layer of consciousness.... if you don't try too hard - don't look for the unusual; don't try to stop oddities; just absorb everything, and wait... If you're going to get the vibe, that's when you'll get it.

Take Chandigarh - the vibe is an indifferent one.
If I had to imagine a form to go with the spirit, I'd conjure up a large-squat person who is standing beside the pavement, but is not looking at you. He (it's very definitely male) is not particularly interested in you, the newcomer, and doesn't want to know much about anything. He is moving, with direction, but not with purpose. He's not positive; he's not negative. You pass him by; he passes you by.

Delhi's vibe is different. The city is a woman.
Even before I came to live here, I thought of Delhi as a quiet, dangerous female spirit. Like a woman with dark hair and flowing robes... a curious woman, pretending to ignore you. Or somebody who already knows everything about you. Any moment now, you'll see her turning a corner and in doing so, she will look over her shoulder and beckon to you with a crooked finger. She is not evil, but... but how you do you know she isn't?

Raipur has a warm, welcoming vibe.
As soon as I stepped out of Raipur station, I felt a ripple of... niceness, openness. It was like a teenaged boy's grin. Not entirely innocent, but fresh and toothy. Like just-baked muffins. [No, I didn't eat any muffins in Raipur].

Lucknow has an exhausted, plodding vibe.
Though I've been here too many times, lived here too long, to absorb the vibe as a newcomer would... but every time I visit this city, this vibe settles around my shoulders like a coarse shawl around an old woman. The spirit is a tired old woman who lives alone - in a big house that she can no longer manage. She looks a little resentful at changes happening without her permission.... but really, she couldn't care any longer.

Bombay gives off a busy, earthy vibe.
I think of Bombay's spirit as a sexless... creature (it's not a sexy city, for all the population and assured sex in it.) I cannot even imagine it as a wholly human spirit. When I envision a physical entity, I see something only half-human, a mythical creature but one very certainly borne of this earth... ugly, all limbs, but surprisingly strong. It running about all over you... You're not frightened by it. But you're in no rush to lock lips with it either.


Nessa said...

Hmm, I found this very deep and profound.. *bovine sounds of me munching this dainty*

I've been to Delhi just once, but 'she' scares me now... was there through one summer a long time ago (maybe 7 - 8 yrs. ago).. but she was, indeed, cold..

Other places, I've unfortunately never been to any of them..

Mumbai, my hometown.. well, you've done a pretty good job describing 'its' vibe..


Vijayeta said...

Why is everyone writing about cities suddenly? :) I had my BIG big moment of "figuring out Bombay" last month... (I'm still quite stumped though!) But i like what you say about Chandigarh and Lucknow. I often get the same vibe in Ajmer as you mentioned in Raipur (But i think, you now do get muffins in Ajmer, along with, cappucinos!)

Dilip D'Souza said...

Yes, but what about Gummidipundi?

Annie Zaidi said...

nessa: the capital can get cold. but warmth lurks in the shadows.
vej: no BIG moment for me in delhi yet. am content skimming the surface rather than cracking the urban code.
dilip: where's that?

Anonymous said...

Curious about your description of Bombay. TO me Bombay is the Mother Goddess envelping everyone in a her fold. In that sense mythic and also earthy. She is sensuous (not sensual). You can't escape the sweat and the sea of bodies. There is also a rhythm to Bombay. As an instance, notice people during rush hour. They all indvertently are walking at a comparable pace, in unison, to a beat as it were, to the beat of Bombay's heart

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