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Tales of many cities

How do writers of non-fiction write about cities, and can their books capture the essence of a metropolis?

March 13, 2021 / 09:20 AM IST

In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan that cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears. “Even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”

That is why they are endlessly fascinating. Virtually every bookstore has a shelf groaning with narrative non-fiction on Venice, New York, Barcelona, Rome, Istanbul and all the rest. While one waits for travel to be safe again, it’s worth thinking about whether a book really capture the soul of a city.

After all, cities, like those who live in them, contain multitudes. Narrative non-fiction has to choose perspectives, mix subjective with objective, and tread carefully around stereotypes. (How many times has one been told that the people of New York are rude, that Istanbul is a bridge between east and west, that Mumbai never sleeps?)

Another balancing act is between genres. There’s travel, of course, but also memoir, architecture, urban planning, food, history, and profiles. The structure of such a book, then, deserves attention.

Samira Shackle’s gripping Karachi Vice, for example, explores Pakistan’s largest city through the eyes of those who know it inside out. Among them are an ambulance driver, a social worker, a TV news reporter and a social activist. The tone is journalistic, speaking of her meetings with these people, recounting incidents, and filling in the blanks with background.


A similar method leads to dissimilar results in Ramita Navai’s City of Lies, about lives in Tehran. Navai writes of residents such as a young woman who stays devout while her husband carouses; another who becomes a porn star to support herself; a revolutionary bent on assassinating a government official; and a gay militiaman at odds with his way of life.

However, Navai makes it clear that the characters are not distinct individuals, but composites of several she has met. The book is readable and revelatory, though the writing style can tend towards the theatrical.

Another approach is a first-person account that foregrounds the nature of travel. In the process, a stranger becomes familiar with a strange land. William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns, about a year in Delhi, is an apt example.

Also notable is Jan Morris’s Venice which, she says, is not a work of history, a guidebook, or a report, but “a highly subjective, romantic, impressionist picture less of a city than of an experience.” Those words can be a useful lens to view such books.

The ‘insider-outsider’ tactic is an effective variation. Typically, this is about living in a city after a considerable time away. In Amit Chaudhuri’s winsome Calcutta: Two Years in the City, he returns to the place of his birth to discover the differences between the metropolis of his memories and his current experience.

Likewise, in A Matter of Rats, Amitava Kumar goes back to his hometown for “the chance to examine the distance that divides different versions of the truth that I, and others, have told about Patna.” Kumar’s book is part of a series on Indian metropolises that take the form of candid histories by those who live, or have lived in, the places concerned.

Thus, Naresh Fernandes’ City Adrift is the fruit of “many weekends trying to snatch visions of Bombay’s future by making sweaty expeditions into its past.” And Indrajit Hazra’s Grand Delusions, on Kolkata, is “a biased, coloured, palimpsestic story of a village that pretends to be a city.”

Viewed in this way, Suketu Mehta’s sprawling, vigorous Maximum City is a combination of approaches. He delves into representative lives in Mumbai and his close interactions with them, but also includes efforts to fit in after decades in the United States.

“I went back to look for that city with a very simple question: can you go home again?” he writes. “In the looking, I found cities within me.”

Perhaps the most imposing portrait of a city by a long-standing resident is Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul (translated into English by Maureen Freely). It’s a melancholic memoir, with historical anecdotes and observations on other writers and artists influenced by the metropolis. “Istanbul’s fate is my fate,” Pamuk muses. “I am attached to this city because it made me who I am.”

For Rebecca Solnit, it’s walkers who are the true “practitioners of the city.” It is “made to be walked…walking is the act of speaking [the city’s] language.” Walter Benjamin, thinking of Baudelaire, once pointed out that the flaneur is “an unwilling detective.”

Nonetheless, as Lauren Elkin asserts in Flâneuse, “our most ready-to-hand sources for what the streetscape looked like in the nineteenth century are male.” The reasons are only too evident. This is changing, but not nearly enough and not fast enough.

A recent example is Taran Khan’s intrepid Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul, the result of Woolfian “street haunting” in the Afghan capital over a few years. She visits cinemas, graveyards, bazaars and more, records observations, and speaks to colleagues and others in striding through a city of memories and investigating the relationships between past and present.

In such cases, serendipity is one’s companion. Insights emerge from lived experience and later, in the telling of it. For instance, E.B. White’s short classic, Here is New York, takes the form of a stroll through neighbourhoods interspersed with observations such as: “The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines.”

Like human beings, cities have personalities that change over time. To expect a book to definitively convey these is a tall order; it should be enough, as Jan Morris observes in the introduction to a revised edition of Venice, that the city is “seen through a particular pair of eyes at a particular moment.”

Echoing this, Darran Anderson writes in Imaginary Cities that “authenticity is in the eye of the beholder”: it shifts and evolves according to perspective. Best to view such a book as a mirror that reflects the writer against the backdrop of the city.
Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.
first published: Mar 13, 2021 09:20 am

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