Thursday, October 04, 2012

Istanbul, not Constantinople

As a number of academics will tell you, some of us are only in the business so that we can travel. We, of course like our work, and our field-sites, and our analyses, but even more than all of these, we like to be the carriers of our always-on-the-verge-of-brilliance accounts to those bizarre social events that we call conferences. But it all depends on that one true mantra of all smarmy real-estate agents; location, location, location. In fact, travel is the twin side to our erudition. We get on a plane, and therefore we are. We scour the list of conference venues to determine our poison of choice. So what will it be today, heterodox heteronormativity in the former Helvetia (yes, I have stamps that prove this) or Malleswari Mami and other forms of pulp fiction among diaspora in Malaysia? And yes, I made those up.

Our tribe shows some peculiar ticks. For example, we talk of a month in our city of residence as imprisonment and two months as solitary confinement. The amount that we carp about said city is inversely proportional to the number of conferences we attend in a semester. Its follies, provinciality, and general lack of enlightenment are regular lunch-time conversations.

We can get ready for travel in lesser time than we take to bicycle over to the campus to teach. We have opinions about airports. Some of us collect miles and get upgraded to first-class (You know who you are, you skanks). And some of us wear red shoes. We also like melatonin. And have packing lists. Some would mistake us for corporate travelers, except that we have neither the wardrobe nor the financial acumen to match. However, we do have travel outfits (Tights, loafers, messenger bag) and PDFs on iPads. We like our travel sized cosmetics and hoard them. Have you ever noticed the infinite pleasure accorded by a set of beautifully packaged tiny face-washes, shampoos, and soaps? Like a little bit of complete life without the unwieldiness that largesse or largeness begets. Airport cab drivers in the city know us by first name and family background. Some of them ask us out.

On one such conference sojourn in Geneva, I decided that I must couple pleasurable business with pleasure-able pleasure and made my way to from India to Switzerland on Turkish airlines through Istanbul. Sigh, Istanbul. This was five years ago, which is why I'm sure my memories will barely perform the work of memory leave alone verisimilitude. What I remember is an overwhelming set of atmospheres.

Istanbul is affect laden. But then it also depends on when you decide to visit. I was there in November when it had begun to get cold. The flight from Geneva to Istanbul was, to put it mildly, rather like being plonked onto a roller-coaster perched above a volcano, seat-belt-less. We flew through a thunderstorm. I had previously stuffed myself with some delightful gnocchi and wine. The food on Turkish Airlines, by the way, is excellent. One cancelled the effects of the other; little potato pellets are excellent hangover cures I have since discovered. So here I was, in a plane full of slightly hysterical screamers trying to psyche myself into thinking of this an amusement park ride with a safe ending. It worked. We landed. And clapped. Between lightning, thunder, nerves, and nausea, I disembarked slightly off-kilter. Only to be out right back on my feet by my dear friend Can Aciksoz, purveyor of all things food-like and wonderful, who hosted, fed, and guided me through a nothing short of fantastic week.

My first impression of the city was a certain kind of confusing magic. It was European, yet not so. It looked superbly modern, yet not so. The men and women looked perpetually ready to attend a soiree, a concert, a conference, or a refined tête-à-tête. Coiffures or salons littered the streets. The air was perfumed with smoke, tea, and water. The raki was deliriously good, and the food never-endingly delicious. I, like the Imam of the eponymous Imam Bayildi, fainted many times everyday. The mosques made me desire religion, the city made me crave smoke. The men called me Rihanna, and the women uniformly looked down at my ragtag attire from the heights of their perpetually perplexed eyebrows. I brought home kilims that I now lug around the world. The Bosphorus flowed merrily as we went meyhane-hopping. I learnt to cheer for Beşiktaş. I met a theorist called Mladen Dolar who has since reminded me many a time of the uncanniness of voice. I also met a media artist who told a story through hyperextended wired arms and in his other life, was a butcher. Over dinner, he spoke very little and gulped his food in quick, short bursts as if it would run out any moment. Conversation flowed freely, and friendship was available for the taking. Smoky gray cats ate black olives from my hands.

There is a song playing in my head right now. A song in praise of wandering and being lost. And I gain strength from thinking of all the places that I have wandered to, and found pleasure in. I remember Istanbul, like it was yesterday that I was there.

Our fantasies as much as our daily waking up, bathing, eating food, scrounging for love, are also after all, part of our lives. We are singular beings, with a little wherewithal and scrawny arms. So I put away scenes in my head into this fantasy life. I file them away into the memory palace that is also my home. And sometimes in this fantasy life, I sing full-throated and dance on tables. Perhaps I ought to add Istanbul to this story. After all, a good lie is always partly true. And Istanbul is so true. In the middle of all the falsity and innumerable types of dissembling that life practises, one needs truth.