Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Business Mirror
December 1, 2006

Far away from home, you draw on your reserves and dwell in a lonely residence, inside the only possession that ultimately matters, inside that inexhaustible, final lode.

There is a room there for each deposit, for each vein of wonder and longing and dread. Inside, there is a headstone for each regret, a lapidary for each celebration, and while the markers made for every little deed we have accomplished or failed to achieve are not always evident, the skin of our mind somehow tingles when we pass by these signposts, as if we were rubbing against the surface of a strange leaf, and seconds later we wonder in silence and search for the itch, which we cannot locate much less scratch.

Maybe this is why some make such a big deal out of selecting the right book or books to bring whenever travel is imminent. Maybe this is why some are impelled to write while abroad, or strain to listen to or recall or carry what they think is the right music. Maybe these are unconscious attempts to locate particular rooms, or avoid the more unpleasant ones. And yet, whether as bound material or creative compulsion, the shape of what we decide to bring in the end still depends on where our dust chooses to settle on a given day.

Narratives and imageries vie for our attention in the boisterous walks of Naples and Bangalore, and until we get to sit down on a dry patch of grass or, with wine or water in some quiet refectory munch slowly on a square of pizza or a piece of chapatti, the great book or cherished pen will likely remain in the rucksack.

Then there are the still places where silence is a persistent, abrasive intrusion, such as the district of Bad Godesberg in Bonn, a place so placid you can hear yourself think. In this locality, the insects are polite; they move slowly and don't buzz around, and the glum birds that flit from empty bench to empty bench largely keep to themselves; no small talk. The town is so quiet you feel as if there is no volume or traffic control on your thoughts and you cannot sleep and staying awake is unbearable, and if the district's visitor is an avid scribe, the dilemma is manifold. The writer creates incestuous silhouettes, said the poet Bloke Modisane about his craft. "I talk to myself when I write, / shout and scream to myself, / then to myself / scream and shout: / shouting a prayer, / screaming noises, / knowing this way I tell / the world about still lives; / even maybe / just to scream and shout."

What is it that we shun and what is it that we desire when we are not with the familiar? I suspect that for some of us, it is not the din or docility of certain locations that we spurn or ache for. Many of us are contemptuous of ready-made meanings, which some today call tourism, and in general we spit out noise. I think what we covet is the space that a place can represent, a province that we can mine and name to recover new and recognizable intimacies.

It doesn't have to be far. It can be a gazillion miles away.

"I have sought for happiness everywhere," said Thomas a Kempis six centuries ago. "I have found it nowhere except in a little corner with a little book." But which little corner, asked Argentine author, Alberto Manguel, "And which little book? ... [And do you] first choose the book and then an appropriate corner, or first find the corner and then decide what book will suit the corner's mood?"

Aside from enduring weeks of its disquieting stillness, my other memory of Bad Godesberg is a dusk conversation one cold day years ago, when I met Rafiq in a Pakistani eatery near the district's railway station. We talked for an hour about the merits of lentils and roti, Kolsch beer and ground turmeric, which, he said, aside from making things taste better, could cure pretty much everything save the nuclear idiocies of New Delhi and Islamabad. His parting culinary counsel -- "too hoppy, not happy; avoid anything with tamarind sauce when you're having a Kolsch."

Getting to the gist of a place does not always have to mean unlocking the granary of secrets inside some castle built atop a holy mountain worshipped once upon a time by Germanic followers of Wotan. There are days when you just fortuitously sift through the grist of stories, and then you notice that one odd, special grain. It doesn't always help to try too hard. Sometimes you have to try not to try at all, because things just happen. Billie Holiday sang it for us decades ago. "Don't threaten me with love, baby. Let's just go walking in the rain." #

1. Modern Poetry from Africa, Ed. Gerald Moore and Ulli Beier (Penguin Books, Middlesex: 1966)
2. Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading (Penguin Books, NYC: 1996).
3. From Beer Advocate, a reliable beer site, here are two short reviews regarding one brand of the Kolsch-style, which you can get from many places in Bonn (by train, near Cologne), including Bad Godesberg in draught. The second review is more accurate though the comment on the first is understandable; Kolsch is not for drinkers who are used to full-bodied beer. A fuller description with helpful links is available from Wikipedia of course.
4. Wotan is real and related to Woden or Odin of Norse cosmology. Start here for a bird's eyeview.
5. From the superb www.ThinkExist.com

Istanbul pigeons photo from Red's Nokia, 2005.

1 comment:

KC Constantino-Torres said...

sometimes, life doesn't even allow you to choose your corner even if you wanted to. always, however, one allows himself to bring whatever book is dear to him. i will choose my book first, and if turns out to be a wrong read, then by all means, i can always shout and scream to myself, / then to myself / scream and shout: / shouting a prayer, / screaming noises, / knowing this way I tell / the world about still lives; / even maybe / just to scream and shout.

Nice piece, big bro!