Thursday, January 16, 2020

House lizard’s confession (and a “postcard” from Sweden)

I haven't really written here about my Sweden trip in September-October (I put up a few jokey posts with photos on Facebook, which seems the more logical place these days for that sort of thing), but am sharing a little something now -- one reason being that I wanted to thank the writer-editor Anjum Hasan for inviting me to a writing residency in Sweden last year, and Ann Ighe and Marit Kapla for being such wonderful hosts. Another reason is to provide some context for a longish essay I will be sharing in the near future, the piece – for the Swedish journal Ord&Bild – that the residency was oriented towards.

A year ago, on January 8, 2019 to be exact, Anjum mailed me to ask if I would consider spending two weeks in the town of Stromstad. I replied on the same day with a clear “Yes.” Anyone who knows me knows how uncharacteristic this was, but the main reason I felt I could do it was because the residency was nearly nine months away – and if that wasn’t enough time to prepare for a long trip, what would be?

And even then, I was nervous. The many caregiving duties of the previous few years, which ended (at least in terms of looking after humans) with my mother’s death, had made travel very difficult: getting away from Delhi for even a couple of days sometimes meant weeks of planning and fretting, making sure the right support system was in place etc. Then, after a few months of respite on that front, new problems had arisen in September 2018 when Krishna, the girl I had employed to look after my Lara in my mother’s old flat, had to leave because of a family crisis. Thankfully I found a new person quite fast, but there were lots – lots – of teething problems that I won’t get into here. Between getting Reena settled, keeping Lara (a very high-strung, dependent, problematic child) comfortable, AND handling the medical crisis of another dog (Chameli, about whom more in this FB post), I essentially lived in my mother’s flat for the best part of three months, even more melancholy and embittered than usual, and my work was often on hold. (When I look at my blog archives and see the few columns and reviews I did during those months, I have no memory of how I found the mental energy for them.)

So Anjum’s offer came at a time when I felt like I had to push myself into doing something that didn’t come easily to me, something that might even worsen the paralysing sadness and isolation I had been feeling. (The first time I left Delhi after my mother’s passing, though it was only for a couple of days, it was almost unbearable to return to her flat knowing she wouldn’t be at the door. I had felt similarly after Foxie’s death in 2012. I wasn’t sure how it would feel returning after being away for over two weeks.)

There were other misgivings in the months that followed, as well as a comical (in retrospect) situation involving a passport reissue delay and visa-related suspense that almost cleanly scuttled my plans... this would have been quite the anti-climax after all those months of biting my nails about the trip! But in the end, fortified with the encouragement provided by Abhilasha and Susmita aunty that things wouldn't come crashing down, I managed to go -- and I'm very glad I did. In a weird sort of way, the apartment in Stromstad came to feel like home: I fell into a routine within the first few days, and felt a sense of loss when I was leaving. Maybe that can only happen to someone who doesn't travel a great deal, and who has never had the boarding-school or hostel experience.

Plus, the essay I wrote turned out okay in the end; or at least Anjum tells me it did. (It is about experiencing various sorts of “religious” cinema, both Indian and European, at different points in my life – and also about my ambivalent relationship with my nani.) It is currently being translated into Swedish for Ord&Bild, and I will share the English version after it has appeared in print.

This post is also a context-setter for a dear-diary-ish piece I did for the “Postcard From____” section of Indian Quarterly magazine. Here it is. (It’s basic and sketchy, so no expectations please.) I’m sure there is much more I can say about my time in Stromstad (and I have shared some posts about the trip on FB earlier), but for now this will have to do. Also sharing a few photos here.

Postcard from Strömstad
(You’d think spending a full two weeks in a Swedish town would give you enough time to see and explore everything you need to. But when a place starts to feel like home, you stop behaving like a tourist)

To understand the strange yearning I felt for Strömstad when I returned to Delhi in mid-October, you need to know this about me: the two weeks I spent in an apartment in that small Swedish harbour town (which calls itself a city) was the longest I have lived in a single residence outside of south Delhi’s Saket, anytime in the last thirty years.

During all that time, I listened with a mix of bemusement, envy and pity as friends spoke of their boarding-school days or their years studying abroad. I, on the other hand, am not just a homebody but also a chronic worrier, the house-lizard who refuses to go on vacation because who will hold up the ceiling?**

Which was one reason to say yes to a writing residency in Strömstad – to drag my reptile brain out of its comfort zone. I had months to prepare, yet I never stopped worrying about the daily responsibilities I was leaving behind, or feeling certain that I would be doomed to 16 days of homesickness and missing my dog.

And there WAS homesickness… to go with the inevitable sense of adventure. But there was something else I hadn’t anticipated: finding a different sort of comfort zone, a (pleasant) mundaneness; falling into a routine that wouldn’t be possible on a conventional vacation. My time in Strömstad came to feel like a condensed version of living at home, something I might have guessed would happen from the minute I entered my room in the residency flat and began unpacking my things and strewing them around, achieving a level of messiness to compare with my room back in Saket. There was to be no traveling from one city to another, no checking in and out of hotels; for 14 days my desk would stayed cluttered with books, travel plugs, medicine strips, half-packets of biscuits, chargers, the cup I kept in my room all day, to be refilled with tea or coffee or Baileys Irish Cream.

The apartment – shared with other writers – was a stone’s throw from the main part of town, a short walk from the railway station, the harbour, the promenade, and a smattering of restaurants, bars and shops. The bulk of Strömstad seemed to exist within this two-kilometre radius, and soon I fell into a routine: going on the same walking trails each day, my feet leading me inevitably to the nearby supermarket Coop from where I would pick up seafood and cheeses and big bags of candy.

Since I risk putting you to sleep now, reader, here’s a quick list of the touristy things I did:

– I took a 40-minute ferry to the nearby Koster Islands, Sweden’s first national marine park – though it was too much of the off-season to do more than go on a long hike. Which I did, a bit fearfully – the trail markers were spaced out much more than expected, it wasn’t easy to be sure of the route, and no one else was around; there were deserted lodges that put me in mind of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre — but also a growing sense of independence. It was a gloriously sunny day, and one scenic stretch, out of the forest and along a beach, justified the excursion.

– My flatmate Girish Shahane and I bussed it to Blomsholm, six miles away, to see the stone ship, a prehistoric grave made up of 49 large standing stones. Again, the place was almost empty and didn’t feel like a tourist destination: the stone ship, majestic and poignant and creating a real sense of deep history, was just there, in the middle of seemingly isolated farmland, with dozens of hay bales piled up in the distance – worlds removed from the carnival that you’d find around a Stonehenge.

– The thing that most resembled regular tourism, though, was taking a big luxurious ferry – a round ticket ridiculously priced at just 30 kronor, approx 220 rupees – to Sandefjord (one of the reasons for Strömstad’s importance is its proximity to Norway). It was a day trip, but as my friend, the writer-musician Zac O’Yeah deadpanned, “You’ll be able to boast to people: oh Norway – yes yes, I’ve been there too.” We visited the whaling museum, gaped at enormous cetacean skeletons and then walked around the city for a bit, stumbling on a lovely local cemetery – row upon row of tastefully decorated gravestones and dedications – that turned out to be much larger than expected. 

So: Koster, Blomsholm, Sandefjord… those were the bona fide “outings”. But there were other satisfying ways of filling one’s time: walking around the harbour and finding new angles from which to take photos of the striking stone gate; using an indoor swimming pool at the bath house-cum-spa (there was also an outdoor bath house, the Kallbadhus, from where one could splash around in the river – I was tempted, but desisted); spending an afternoon at the local library, with journalists, on the day of the Nobel Literature Prize announcement; watching Joker in a charming little restaurant-cum-movie hall that seated exactly 79 viewers.

The rest of the time was spent mainly on long walks, savouring the hours of sunlight (we were mostly lucky – only three or four consistently gloomy or rainy days), figuring out where to eat every day when one wasn’t content with throwing together bread and egg concoctions (one issue was that hardly any restaurants accepted cash, and our residency stipend was in currency notes). Astonishingly, I even got tiny bits of writing done – in the afternoons, in the apartment’s covered balcony with the sun shining through the glass windows. And I watched some Netflix at night – something I would never do if I was on a shorter getaway with the express aim of cramming in as much sightseeing as possible into each day.

There were missed opportunities. I had already spent ten days in Strömstad when I discovered, by chance, a lovely little walking trail that wound through a foresty area and led all the way up to the river bank, with colourful cherry trees along the way, a quaint little bridge and a fountain statue that seemed like it had been casually left there and forgotten. If I had known about this track earlier, I would have walked it every day of my stay. I think.

Then, on the very last day, like procrastinating writers who had just realised a deadline was right upon them, Girish and I walked up the cliff behind the train station to find a viewing spot, with benches, that we had spotted from far below. There were false starts, we almost gave up, but then located a space where, by clambering from rock to rock, it was possible to reach the right vantage point: from here, one could see almost everything that was worth seeing around the harbour area. In a way it was appropriate that we did this after getting to know the town so well at ground level – but really, ennui was the main reason for the delay.

There were other little things I put off until it was too late – such as taking a photo of the guard-dog statue placed outside a shop. Or consider this: a film buff stays in a small town – to which he knows he will probably never return – for a fortnight, learns that that just 40-odd kilometres south of that town is a place named Fjallbacka, where Ingrid Bergman lived for years (and which has a statue of hers in the town square) … and he still doesn’t find the time or will to visit that place.

But maybe all this was confirmation that Strömstad had come to feel like home, and so one could take it for granted: like all those places – parks, restaurants, monuments – in Delhi that I have still not visited.

In this light, a defining moment of the trip for me happened at the end of that Sandefjord day-trip. Since another big ship was stuck with a mechanical problem at the small Strömstad dock, our return ferry – due to reach Strömstad at 7.30 pm – had to turn around and head back to Sandefjord when the journey was almost complete. This was frustrating – we were tired, the ship announcements weren’t in English and it looked like we were in for a long overnight delay – but Scandinavian efficiency kicked in; we were herded onto buses and eventually, at 1.30 AM, we found ourselves back at Strömstad station, with the apartment a 10-minute walk away.

Teeth chattering, dressed too lightly for such an adventure in the middle of the night, we scampered as fast as our freezing bones would allow us to. “Home, thank heavens” was the first thought in my head when I saw the welcoming light outside the apartment door. Returning to Saket a week later didn’t feel all that different.


** House lizard reference comes from Ratika Kapur’s novel The Private Life of Mrs Sharma