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.
– Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Do the cities with their sensorial excesses of sights, sounds, smell, and touch shape the way writers experience their quotidian lives or do the bodily experiences of writers as inhabitants of cities lend the cities their unique character? Straddling these two perspectives, the slim volume comprising fourteen essays by Indian English writers drawing from their personal associations with and physical and metaphysical responses to the cities they write about opens fresh perspectives about the cities and their relationship with the writers. Each writer engages with their geography in their unique way and the city responds in commensurable measure by unfolding itself in all its spectacular to banal spatio-temporality in accordance with the quest of the writer.
Chandrahas Choudhury speaks of moving between Bombay, the place where he was born and raised, and Delhi, where he received his higher education, and how living in Delhi allowed him to write about Bombay. The ‘pulsating energy’ and ‘profound exhaustion’ of Bombay could be felt in its fullness only when he escaped to the alienating impulse of Delhi, as he says, ‘I wanted, that is, the Bombay of Clouds to be a much bigger city than that of Arzee the Dwarf and it was Delhi that allowed me to conceive of how to do this by giving me a point of view not just on Bombay but on India.’
Contrary to the experience of Chandrahas Choudhury, to whom distance offered by his stay in Delhi provided him with a vantage, Cyrus Mistry is afflicted by the dilemma, ‘If I was to leave Bombay for a strange city, what then would I write about?’ Mistry is convinced that Bombay is ‘a cornucopia of stories, an inexhaustible compost pit of literary wealth, and that, if I really wanted to write, I should never forsake it, simply stay put and continue to mine it.’ In other words, while Mistry is all for rootedness as a fountain of writing, Choudhury pitches for the pursuit of rhizomatic existence or what Edouard Glissant terms as ‘poetics of relations’ where each object is illumined in relation to other objects, each experience in relation to other experiences and each place in relation to other places. Not surprisingly, Mistry’s quest is doomed as with changing times places also change their character, frustrating the idea of a fixed root. If, for his immigrant brother, Rohinton Mistry, the depletion of the reservoir of memory of Bombay forced him to stop writing, Cyrus’s own decision to stay back did not help much because the city soon becomes ‘a far cry from the Bombay of the 70s I had considered would always be home to me.’