ON A RAINY DAY, ROME
How do you feel when you’re on an airplane, traveling somewhere far away from home? Do you still care for the window seat which once made you supremely excited? Or do you just ask for the seat by the isle, when you check-in, so that your frequent trips to the loo are smoother ones, less bothersome, less annoying? As your airplane journeys towards the west, towards sunrise, do you feel bothered when one of your less privileged co-passengers in the middle-row leans towards the window by you, armed with his sky-blue compact, attempting to make best use of the golden light amidst the sea of blue and white enveloping the airplane? Do you curse him silently? Do you silently smirk at the middle-aged lady exclaiming at a high pitch, marveling at the beauty surrounding you all? You ask yourself if what is being admired is really so marvelous a scene and try to think about the last time you exclaimed in joy, marveling at something which bedazzled you. You can’t remember such a moment, can you?
As you cruise through the darkness of the night, heading Romewards, the darkness around you is interrupted frequently by road-signs, gleaming cheerfully, caressed by your cab’s headlights. Ikea waves at you from a distance, like a lighthouse far away, promising you of your approaching destination. Rome at night is like a dream. Or perhaps, any city at night is; when the cities are naked, stripped of her robe of people that clings to her at daytime. The beautiful chauffeur in her mid-fifties serenades you in her sonata of broken English, showing you the wonders of Rome as you pass by. You roll down your windows to catch the fresh air, which soothes you and freshens you up after the daylong flight from the city of your heart, the city you call home, the city of Calcutta. As you pass by the Vatican, as you make your way towards your hotel by the Piazza della Repubblica, you are mesmerized by the beauty of a city in slumber: a masterpiece of sorts. Tell me honestly, didn’t it shock you, seeing a different Piazza della Repubblica, hustling and bustling with life, the scene you beheld the morning after? Wasn’t it all so different from the desolate dreamy city of the night? But isn’t it rather strange that you fell in love with both the two selves of the city, just like one dearly loved his wife, his mistress with equal passion, in antiquity?
Opposite your hotel, a row of little bookshops attract your attention. Bookshops heavily pregnant with old, second-hand books, bookshops full to the brim with discs, old books and new discs punctuated by new, virgin books. Old books have always attracted you, haven’t they? As you cross the street and rush to the bookshops smeared with graffiti, as you rummage through the books with hopes of salvaging something precious, your eyes fall on the rows and rows of DVDs up for sale: HARD, someone has scribbled on a piece of brown cardboard, atop one of the rows. As you attempt to leaf through this lot, endless streams of pornographic films overwhelms you. As you walk to the next bookshop in the row, another few rows of such videos greet you, each waiting to be yours at €3. As you again dig into more books, you suddenly find a Warhol book in the midst of it all. Warhol’s Queens. After a bit of negotiation, you return to your hotel carrying the milk-white book, as happy and proud as that little boy of your favorite Cartier-Bresson photograph.
When you reach Vatican in your Green Line bus, a green sticker pasted onto your chest, a green earphone plugged into one of your ears, following the beautiful woman holding up her green umbrella, amidst a sea of tourists all following their guides in groups, the guides holding up umbrellas of different hues for her group to follow, you are suddenly reminded of a quote shared with you by a dear friend, from the Geoff Dyer book, Working the Room:
“Tourism is the march of stupidity. You’re expected to be stupid. The entire mechanism of the host country is geared to travelers acting stupidly. You walk around dazed, squinting into fold-out maps. You don’t know how to talk to people, how to get anywhere, what the money means, what time it is, what to eat or how to eat it. Being stupid is the pattern, the level and the norm.”
Your Green Line mates are divided into two groups; your heart sinks when your beautiful guide asks you to follow a grumpy octogenarian with the airs of a mathematics teacher. ‘All in line, all follow me! Don’t get lost! Listen to me on your headphone, especially when you get lost!’ As you pass by the marvels of Musei Vaticani, a distant cousin of the Stendhal syndrome somehow creeps in. And then, out of the blue, you’re inside the Sistine Chapel. Tell me, my friend, how did you feel about being in the womb of the Sistine Chapel, a marvelous wonder of the world? I know, I know. You won’t say anything about it because there is nothing left to say about it. But won’t you tell me about the occasional hissing of the guards, commanding you to remain silent inside the chapel, which echoes inside, which somehow makes marveling at Michelangelo more beautiful? Won’t you say anything about the Pietà? Or perhaps about that uncouth Indian male in his middle ages, a sparkling Nikon dSLR bouncing on his paunch, in a newly purchased hat, smelling of Pan Bahar, exclaiming at the sight of the Pietà, ‘Aare, yeh toh woh lamp-shade wala statue hai!’
The evenings in Rome are splendid, aren’t they? Much of it, when you’re not going to and fro are spent with the young men from Bangladesh who’ve made it to Italy by the road, selling scarves and stoles by the street, the colorful silk scarves fluttering happily in the cool breeze of the evenings. On your first day, weren’t you surprised that you would end up speaking more Bangla on the streets of Rome than when you’re jaywalking through Calcutta? Isn’t it a wonderful feeling, to be able to speak your mother-tongue in a land far away, in another continent, across quite a few time zones? But why is it wonderful, a feeling? Is it because you long for home? Is it because of centuries of colonialism that has had some subtle effect on you, unconscious to us all? Or is it simply because of the surprise and the fun of speaking Bengali everywhere in Rome, of all places? Why don’t you tell us all about Rubel, the young man in his late twenties who has already spent three years in Rome, after arriving here by road: a perilous journey with dangers strewn everywhere. ‘Oh, you’re from Calcutta!’ he had smiled, ‘I once worked in Jamshedpur for three months, before I set out for Europe! This is so wonderful a place, no one bothers you unless you bother someone; you can be in peace here. I even have a beautiful girlfriend and she loves me so much, she works in Florence, we meet once or twice a month. She loves me a lot, more than the love I have for her.’ Rubel takes out his mobile phone from his tight jeans, swipes on and on until finally emerges a photograph of the two, together: in a sunny beach, the sands white, Rubel and his partner smiling at you, at the camera, the blue sky an apt background for the matching orange bikini and orange trunks, as if straight out of a David Alan Harvey photograph. An elderly British gentleman passes by with his partner, planning tomorrow’s trip to the Colosseo. Rubel darts ahead, catching up with them, the scarves dancing cheerfully in the breeze, ‘Scarf, madam? It’ll look beautiful on you! Only €5!’
As you walk from the Piazza della Repubblica towards Stazione Termini, you meet a few dozen more young men, with whom you stop occasionally to talk. As you think about actually writing a piece about these men, now your friends after four nights of being in Rome, as you dig deeper into their lives, you are surprised to find out that many are from the Madaripur district, where your grandfather had spent quite a fraction of his childhood, the same Madaripur he talks about whenever you visit him, as the two of you journey into his childhood, into those moments of joy spent swimming from one bank to another, accompanied by Kalu, his faithful canine companion. In the few days in Rome, a visit to the Termini Halal Food, a joint by the station, run by a band of friends becomes your nighttime destination. Being open till 1am, it is one of those places where food is available cheap and hot, where beer is chilled, where you are served with extra care, with extra affection, for being able to speak Bengali, for hailing from familiar terrains. As you dig into your biryani, young men interact behind you, about business not being good, people not buying enough scarves. A man excitedly talks over the phone with his mother in another land, in a raised voice, enquiring after his abbu recuperating from the stroke. Men are violently playing football on a television screen atop you, kept on mute. The lone girl with tattoos all over her body, her hair pink and face riddled with piercings, her head resting on her hand, plays tiresomely with her fork, a plateful of shish kebab in front of her. A young man from Nigeria stares blankly at the wall, his eyes full of dreams, his steaming biryani awaiting his attention. Jahangir Alam, in his late forties prepares to depart at the end of his shift. ‘Take care of my friend from Calcutta, okay?’ he asks his colleague at the restaurant, as you two bid each other goodbye for probably the final time. You walk home. The chairs and tables outside your hotel are empty, people have left. In one corner, two homeless men have fallen asleep, a blanket sheltering them from the rainy night ahead. Boscolo’s lobby is empty now. The piano man is no more, neither are the men and women losing themselves to his melody. As you head towards your room, you hear the sky groan. By the time you reach your room, strip yourself off the stinking socks and wash yourself off the tiredness, it has started pouring. When you wake up the next day, it’s still raining. Rather torrentially, like in the depth of the monsoon back home. Armed with an umbrella, you head out for another tour of Rome, in search of more relics, in the quest to experience more of what is needed to be seen, and to find out where Keats had breathed his last, where Gregory Peck had been smitten by Audrey Hepburn. But rain comes between you and your plans. And suddenly, right outside your hotel, you behold quite a wonderful sight: Rubel, Sobuj and all their friends are out on the streets sporting colorful ponchos, selling umbrellas to anyone in need. Umbrellas are selling like hot cakes; the whole city it seems is using umbrellas peddled by the army of friends. It’s electric: the rain whitening everything around you, the young faces sporting big smiles and the cries of excitement, of joy, ‘Ombrello! Ombrello!’
Postcards from Italy: http://www.soham-gupta.com/postcards/