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TEMPERAMENTAL CITIES

In his book, Istanbul, as much an account of his childhood and early youth as of his city, Orhan Pamuk uses the Turkish word ‘huzun’ to describe the prevailing mood of the city as he grew up in it. The word means sadness, melancholy or grief, caused by a deep spiritual loss. Pamuk writes: “For me Istanbul has always been a city of ruins and of end-of-empire melancholy. I’ve spent my life either battling with this melancholy, or making it my own. The ‘huzun’ of Istanbul is something the entire city feels together and affirms as one. Because of the ‘huzun’ they derive from the city’s history, they are broken and condemned to defeat.”

For a background, we need to recall that when Turkey found itself among the vanquished at the conclusion of the World War I and the Ottoman empire went to pieces, its leader, Kemal Ataturk, chose to move the capital of the new republic from Istanbul, of grand history and dark intrigues, to upstart, non-descript Ankara. That was in the 1920s. To Ataturk, it signified a clean break with the past and a fresh beginning. But, as a consequence of first, the crumbling of the empire and then, the loss of even the fig leaf of the status of capital of a much-truncated land, Pamuk, born some three decades afterwards, found his Istanbul poor, shabby, fallen from grace, and denuded of the successful sections of its population, isolated. ‘A great world capital’ was suddenly reduced to the position of ‘a poor provincial city’. Hence the ‘melancholy’ that descended on Istanbul and its inhabitants, to last forever.

When I read the book, my first thought was: can a city really mourn a ‘loss’, nurse a mood of its own, and besides, is that mood static, a cross to bear forever?

As an interested outsider, I have seen Pamuk’s city in a vastly different light. My first encounter with Istanbul had come in the late 1970s. The bus I was travelling in was crossing the Bosphorus bridge in the half-light of dawn, when the great city suddenly sprang into sight, dark shadows blurring its distinctive domes, the magic of the Bosphorus not yet on show. The sleeping city only seemed a little mysterious. As the day progressed, however, the streets and bazaars of Istanbul got crowded and cacophonous. Its worthy and enterprising citizens were bustling with activities. They were focused on earning a living and making the most of their lives, against some formidable odds, in the economically distressed and socially splintered Turkey of the time.

The same cheerful resourcefulness and drive were on display two decades later when I went back. Istanbul was now prosperous, a gleaming westernized city, with a new-found swagger, as behove its status of the economic engine of a regional power arriving triumphantly on the world scene. What I did not find on either occasion was any sense of melancholy weighing down the people that their city was not what it used to be in its glory days.

In professional and personal wanderings over the years, I came across other human habitations of varying kinds and qualities. Some were just pretty, some quaint but a little irrelevant, others throbbing with an animal energy and raring to go. I thought two things contributed in some way to the making of the ‘character’ of a city: its history and its geography (including unique physical features). It is not always that the two are to be found together. Istanbul, for one, is blessed to have both: a hoary history as the seat of mighty empires, and a stunning location straddling two continents. (I have always thought that without its signature watercourse, the Bosphorus, Istanbul would have been only half a city.)

But geography was not much help for superbly located Algiers that I found surly and xenophobic, yet to get over its blood-splattered colonial past and face to face with the beginning of a long civil war. History was of no use for Bukhara in Central Asia, once the stuff of fable and seat of a powerful and much-feared Khanate, which now was a dusty, sleepy, tree-lined ‘provincial town’. Samarkand, associated with that formidable conqueror, Timur, was only marginally better. Ferghana of Babur did not boast a historical monument or any significant contemporary accomplishment, but its wide open spaces lent it an individuality, conjuring up a past of racing cavalry and clashing swords. Khiva in Turkmenistan, Bagan in Myanmar, Siem Reap in Cambodia — all thriving centres of human activity at one time — were shadows of their former selves, dependent for survival on tourism from home and abroad.

So why does one city meekly surrender to reduced circumstances, and another go on glittering? Why should Istanbul and Bukhara, both once finding fame under powerful rulers, have had such vastly different career paths since? And, to go back to Pamuk’s theme, would the one that ‘failed’ then develop a comforting huzun, in the belief that henceforth that was to be its lot?

Here we come to a third element that also goes into shaping a city’s ‘character’, and decisively, its fate: a ‘purpose’ for its existence, a continuing ‘relevance’. In its absence, countless cities and towns that once had power and prestige, became in course of time footnotes in history. I remember seeing some of the Roman garrison towns that dot the Mediterranean — with their careful grid-based planning and functional efficiency they evoke wonder even after the lapse of a millennium and half — which were once busy and vital outposts of one of the greatest empires of the world, and are now attractive ruins. It is because at some point in their career, they lost their purpose, and their relevance, and hence the justification to exist.

So I conclude that re-invention of oneself applies as much to an individual as to his habitation. Istanbul could successfully re-brand itself, Bukhara and Samarkand — just two examples — could not. So it was purpose, more than pedigree or location, that decided each city’s fortune.

Perhaps a city can have its moods, but not the way Orhan Pamuk felt them in the context of his own city: “the black mood shared by millions of people together, a feeling unique to Istanbul.” For me the mood of a city is the aggregate of the moods that animate its inhabitants at any given time. These moods are dynamic and open to external stimuli. Istanbul in 1918 would doubtless have felt broken and devastated, mirroring exactly what its people at the time had felt. But once it went a fair way in recovering lost ground, the huzun, the albatross that hung round the city’s neck, was gone.

Pamuk visited India for the first time while I was still in his country. Upon return and asked what city in India had stirred him the most, his unhesitating reply was Calcutta. He had found in Calcutta the same melancholic mood, a lingering sorrow over loss of past glory. (The historical reference could have been to the city, once the seat of British imperial power in India, ceding that position to Delhi in 1911, or to the fall from the dizzy cultural and intellectual heights it had reached during the Bengal ‘renaissance’.) It was an interesting observation from a person of acute creative sensitivity, but I could not set any more store by his comment in the case of Calcutta than I had of Istanbul. I thought Calcutta’s cross was less a negative historical experience and more a lack of purpose.