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I met some friends of a friend the other day, by the river. It was not even a weekend, but then the sun was still out, and Londoners were all clamouring to catch the fading summer sun by the Southbank. They were out in shorts and short skirts, barely there camisoles and tank tops, face up to the sun and beer mugs in hand, unwilling to let go of the threadbare summer months just yet. There I was, fully clothed, with a jacket even, thus fully attesting to my status as the foreigner in a foreign land where their summer was more like winter back home. I am glad I am not staying the winter months.
These new found friends and I had a jolly good time over dinner. And then I had to cross the bridge, across the river to catch the tube home, I was told it was the easiest way to go back. I have fallen in love with the tube. But that is another story for another day. So I climbed the steps and got on to the bridge and walked along. Mid way through there was a busker singing and playing something – I cannot remember what now. I looked to my right and stopped dead on my tracks, leading to a man behind me nearing running into me. An involuntary ‘sorry’ slipped out my tongue. It is funny how these overly apologetic British customs one wears on, when one is so frequently encountered by these things. While in Rome…
And then I turned right and saw the river lit by thousands of lights. Blue and red and cream and bright white and pale yellow lights. Just behind me was the well-lit London Eye. Even in its after hours, it was too touristy for my taste, and I ignored it. The lights were more delightful. Falling from the tall spires and odd shaped modern architectural achievements that the city’s builders own responsibility for, the lights bled into the river, in straight lines that shook, in angry annoyance, at being disturbed by the stray breeze that half- heartedly blew now and then, too infrequent though to make a difference that still night.
It was at that precise exact moment that I realized I had fallen in love. It felt a bit like being on a page in a Mills and Boon novel, where in the middle tears or anger or in a moment of great discomfort the hero and the heroine realize that they love the other. Then they proceed to deny it, unwilling to admit defeat. And that is how I am feeling right now. I do not want to admit that I have fallen in love with this city, but I cannot be bothered to hide it either. I am not a city person, as a rule cities make me cranky and crowds plainly annoy me. Neither are tall glass buildings my thing, I’d prefer older structures with some soul in them, however damaged. Some would say I am just a good old anachronism. And I would, for most parts, agree.
But admit I must, to this love affair. It came to me, this realization, with drama – the lights and the night and the undecided breeze and a slight light headedness. It felt like it was staged almost, too much a cliché for me to take it seriously. It must be a crush I thought, one of those summer flings, and I could go back to my city and forget about that one summer when something happened.
But it is never easy to forget. It happened isn’t a balm soothing enough for the memory of forgetfulness. But then here I digress.
Also, this city won’t be easy to forget. I must have fallen in love with it very early on, but it was that view from the river that got me, you know? I am not one for love at first sight, not with humans at least. But with places, now that is different. I feel it in my bones, about a place. I either hate it or I love it. No in between. Everything need not always be grey. Sometimes it is simple, simple as black and white. Love Delhi. Hate Mumbai. Love London. Love Chennai. Don’t ask me why.
And now this has happened. This new object of love. I walk her roads in happy abandon, walking sometimes only to forget, to have no place to go, to just not go back. Till the feet are sore and can’t take a step more, till the muscles cry and I stop crying. Bones are getting old. Every ache hurts just a little more than they used to. What I find odd in the first few days is how quiet the streets are. That throws me off most times. Except that there is a construction site next door to where I am living and the Eastern European workers who work less and bask in the sun, smoking, more and the relentless drilling they do, that makes me feel at home. They yell and swear and sit on the steps to the house I live in, smoking endlessly and throwing the butts down the stairs, annoying the staff here. They are not likely to finish soon.
But then, after a few days acclimatizing to the silences and horn-free roads, I begin to hear the birds. Mostly the sea gulls. I will read later that there is technically nothing called seagull. There are only gulls, some of which live by the sea, some that live inland. They are increasing in population in the city because of the unbelievable amounts of food thrown away. They are hardy, and quick to adapt. They hunt pigeons too, apparently. And they snatch ice cream from the hands of little kids. That experience is as quintessential as the English sea, I hear. I like the sound of the seagulls. I will continue to call them that, better that they sound than being prosaically called gulls. They sound fierce, strong, independent and headstrong. Qualities one ideally wishes to continuously possess while fighting in this world. I listen to them these days when I walk, like looking for company where there is none.
And so it is that I walk. These days I am armed with the latest book I am reading, Lauren Elkin’s Flaneuse – Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London. It is delightful. Cultural and sociological history might just be my new thing. I have Rebecca Solnit on my list next, that cult writer on walking. It feels pretentious and predictable and inevitable and natural all at once, to be walking here in this city and loving it a little more every day.
And then just like that, there was a word for what I have been doing in other cities in other countries for years. Flaneuse.