New Orleans: Memories of a Summer Lost

Summer has long since dwindled into the cold heart of winter, and I have found my home once again. The blues of the skies are now hidden, Calcutta busily robbing me off the luxury of gazing at infinite azures once again, dazed as she is about her overt familiarity. Sometimes it is the trees that I like to blame, the ones that pepper the sky with their mystifying green. Most of the time, however, it is the city’s blasted white noise that wraps me in this unwanted cocoon of ordinariness.

So as I sit in my favorite cafe, unable to differentiate between a Monday and a Saturday, the days now missing their individual gleam, moments chained into infinity loops of the same tasks over and over again, I drift off to New Orleans.

Between copious cups of piping hot tea, my only tether to reality, I travel 8, 801 miles effortlessly, I chase the sound of some nameless street musician’s saxophone as she plays ‘La Vie En Rose’, I chase the street magician who befuddles his crowd with lovable parlor tricks, and I chase the girl that I had been in those sleepless 48 hours in the Big Easy.


New Orleans, an aging city, where the past lingers in every by-lane of the present, isn’t perfect, far from it. But then again, she never made promises of painting a pretty picture, did she? You see, you can find New Orleans in the French Quarter, in Bourbon Street, in the high roofs of St. Louis Cathedral or perhaps in the blowing winds by the Mississippi river. But then again, you can find her in the unnumbered potholes in her cobblestone streets, in the Southern lilt of her citizens, in the old beagle that sat with her older masters in Jackson Square and in the intoxicated homeless musician who played his saxophone for me sometime before dawn colored the skies.

I am no travel blogger. I cannot give you an inventory of the places you must visit in a city that is perhaps as confused as me. I cannot tell you that you must visit the French Quarters right before the sun sets and see all the voodoo witches reading the palms of tourists, or that the best time to addle your senses is at midnight in Bourbon Street. Because, you see, in my sleepless 48 hours, I have lived an eternity in the Big Easy. I have sat by the steps of some stranger’s house at St. Charles Avenue, only intending to do so for a few minutes, and I have let hours pass by instead, watching a couple in their seventies dance like unabashed adolescents to the blues of a traveling band. I have walked by the cobblestone street behind St. Louis Cathedral when the summer rains had decided to shower upon me, only to be saved by a stranger with green eyes and his red umbrella. I had spent hours standing underneath that crimson canopy and I remember falling in love with him. But when the sun shone saffron, us coincidental lovers had parted once again. And I have lived lifetimes sifting through the pages of moth-eaten yellowed books in the tiny haven of Faulkner Books, only allowing myself the luxury of a recess when the pangs for a Gelato set in. Because I went as a traveler, but New Orleans had made a home for me instead.


And when I no longer wished to be lost in the crowds, I had walked by the hundred miniaturist shops that litter the city, tiny remodels of the American Civil War standing proudly in their ornate shelves, with my sister. I had feasted on prawns and craw fish in restaurants that charged a fortune, and I had devoured the delightful beignets, those sugar-coated warm pastries, at Cafe Du Monde, a cafe that had once seen the works of Tennessee Williams come to life in her little tables.

And now as I sit scribbling snippets of my memories, I wish I had more montages to travel back to, I wish I had stayed in the Big Easy a little longer, I wish I had lived a little longer. Because I have only a handful to offer you; because spending only an hour at the Saint Louis Cemetery, trying to remember the names of the dead is not enough. Because spending only half a twilight in the river-walk, begging to board that ship which sailed across the Mississippi is not enough. Because spending only a couple of hours standing on the deck of the Carnival cruise ship, the tunes of Ellington’s ‘Star-Crossed Lovers’ fleeting toward you, is not enough. Because a lifetime spent in the Big Easy is not enough.

You see, I am still in love with New Orleans. I am still in love with the stranger with those green eyes. I am still in love with the old couple dancing like the world would end the next day to a blues song. I am still in love with the artist who paints pictures of Mr Rabbit and His Three Red Balloons in the streets of the French Quarter. I am still in love with the three ladies who stood by a pink Cadillac on the Easter Parade. I am still in love with Cecille Robelet, a woman who slumbers in her grave in Saint Louis Cemetery. And I am still in love with the man with the sleeping dog, a man who would pen you a story for a dollar. And perhaps, just perhaps, I am still in love with the girl I used to be in the Big Easy.


The Melody of Words: A Review of South of the Border, West of the Sun

The evening falls in like the caress of a lover. The lights dim, and a heart of darkness is awakened. A faceless pianist plays a rendition of Duke Ellington’s ‘Star-Crossed Lovers’ in a jazz bar in Tokyo. Hajime, the narrator, sits there, at home and yet stranded, sipping his last drink of the night, when the doors open, and in comes a woman, a woman with a face he treasured in another life.


‘“For a while” is a phrase whose length can’t be measured. At least by the person who’s waiting.’ South of the Border, West of the Sun

In 1992, Haruki Murakami penned a story that started in a quaint little town in Japan in the 1960s and sped across decades into the heart of a beguiled jazz-loving romantic Tokyo. South of the Border, West of the Sun is a rendition of the swansong that was Hajime’s life, one intermixed with love and melancholia in equivalent proportions, and narrates a simple, and eerily futile, tale of an ordinary man’s life, a man burdened by enormous dreams.

Growing up as a lonely single child, Hajime the child finds friendship and the first pangs of unrealized love in the company of Shimamoto, his childhood friend. Carrying her memories and the symphony of Nat King Cole’s ‘South of the Border, West of the Sun’, half-remembered in the sounds of vinyl records and the silence of afternoons, Hajime steps into adolescence. He finds love in the arms of his classmate and girlfriend, Izumi, and yet, the sense of incompleteness, of inadequacy, never truly deserts him.


Ending the relationship at the cost of being haunted by ghosts of regrets and guilt in years to come, Hajime the dreamer comes to Tokyo, where he continues his education and gets himself a job as a book editor, only to be disillusioned by the monotony of his existence.


The following years are spent as Hajime the young man who finds stability and settlement in life, as he makes a home with his wife Yukiko, and opens up two successful jazz bars with the help of his father-in-law in the popular city. Yet the memory of the wraith from an unfinished love story never truly leaves him, giving him only a half life in return.


That is where Murakami uses his sheer brilliance of language to create a trance and uses his knowledge of music to frame a sequence that forever emblazons itself into the reader’s mind, somewhere after a third of his short novel is completed, as he reintroduces Shimamoto, the phantom of Hajime’s past in the heart of his present, inevitably creating the most iconic turning point of the plot.


Spinning a tale that follows a lucid trajectory, South of the Border, West of the Sun is by no means a complicated novel that keeps you on the edge of your seat. It does not drive you to constantly be on your toes, or crave for further details. Instead, it flows like a stream of words that gradually woos you into its lull, offering you the aftertaste of melancholy and inadequacy behind.


But the essential soul of the novel lies in the spin of its words. Murakami masterfully injects a unique Murakami-like melody to his words, threading the spaces in between with music, especially jazz, as he sews in a heartland of ineffectual romanticism. In an act that is not often associated with the writer, he lets the grand narrative and the overarching threshold of the novel supersede the character depth, letting the sequencing of events speak bounds about it instead.


And with this conjugation of music and lyrics, Murakami lets the novel transcend to a plane hitherto achieved by a handful of contemporary books, where language creates visual frames of reference with every change of sequence. From a description of poring rain to the sunrise in the end, the words weave themselves to embody a lens, something to view Murakami’s world with.


Another added layer of penmanship is the rise and fall of the counter-development of characters. Even if Hajime is the compass of visualizing the plot, Murakami lets Shimamoto rise as a concept perceived by the narrator, as if looking through the haze of a dream, while Yukiko gradually, and steadily, rises as the pillar of reality, Shimamoto’s polar opposite. The graphs presented by either of the two women form the moral framework of the novel, as the reader is forced to dwindle in the insufficiency of the narrator, only to question the trajectory of the novel even when the last line has been said and done.


South of the Border, West of the Sun is a rendition that is borne of words, caricatured with imagery in interloping sequences, and a powerful ode to the bildungsroman genre, with the signature Murakami taste of existential crisis. And even when the book has been long since read, its words half-remembered and erased, Ellington’s notes resonate to the lull of melancholia whenever you hear ‘Star-Crossed Lovers’ in the years to come.


The Library or the Prince?

The first time Woody Allen realized he was different was when the boys in his kindergarten fell for Snow White and he found himself infatuated with the Evil Queen.

I never found that strong a calling, but when I was five, still crying buckets over Mufasa dying, I found myself conflicted between choosing the library or the prince in Beauty and the Beast.

I assure you, I was no reader back then. I honestly started reading seriously when I was twelve. Before that, I found reading to be a lonely exercise, a wasted one too. I would rather have had my feet strongly settled upon the hardness of reality than let myself be swayed into fantastical lands with gentle beasts and cruel humans.

My tale of reading is just as common as every other Bengali in this city. With my father taking me to the Kolkata International Book Fair, and asking me what I would like to read. Considering myself different from the dreamy and delusional girls in my class, I had picked up Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, because, hell, what could be realer than a murder in a ship?

But the first seeds of my love for words germinated in the heart of an enormous animated library, when the Beast had taken Belle to a world of books. The sheer magnanimity, and perhaps the majesty too, had blown me to bits until I found myself muddled in another object of affection—the Beast himself.

For a five-year-old, the world was still colored in only black or white. There weren’t grey complications in between. Lions were gentle majestic beasts, not conniving and incestuous, and wolves were bloodthirsty, cruel creatures that ambushed Belle and the Beast in packs, instead of waiting for winter.

Life was simpler, fantasy, simpler still. Before fiction, came non-fiction, or rather, studying people with the gods they worshipped, ergo, Greek and Egyptian myths (thanks to Brendan Fraser being my swashbuckling hero).

But that story shall be retold later. For now, I need to face the dilemma that has confounded me for the last decade or so: Will I choose the library or the prince?

I have always prided myself as a realist, someone who is calculative of all the steps she takes, and even though the world may see me as a impulsive creature, perhaps I too have used that as a layer of my being, portraying the person I wished for them to see.

Perhaps I complicated my stories myself; even before all hell actually broke loose.

If you ask me now, I would choose the library in a heartbeat. I would spend hours, watch them turn into days, months, and years, until I could infuse myself with the endless wealth of knowledge that library must have had. I still romanticize a certain motion, a montage of fantasy really, of me seating on a regal antique chair, books scattered around me on a mahogany table, while candles light up the words. I see the wax melt and smile, counting the hours I have spent trying to lessen the distance between me and the words on paper.

And perhaps that is all it is—a fantasy of a child of five that grows more details by the day.

But it is still the most beautiful one I have till date.

And like every other self-serving intellectual, I have studied, dissected and interpreted my fantasy in a hundred other ways. My chair symbolizes my need for stability, the table a symbol of my raised stature, and the scattered books show my thirst of knowledge. Finally, the trickling wax of the candles shows that I am always, always, running out of time.

It has always been a race really. Now that I think about, when did I ever remember to breathe?

But my little fantasy has its secrets too, conniving little secrets that shove me into my decade-long dilemma.

In that little montage, somewhere far off from reality, as I spend my hours reading, lost in the world of words, I feel a hand on my shoulder. I presume I will be scared by the sudden interruption, but I am not. I smile, and when I turn, I see the Beast. Mind you, never the prince. I see the Beast instead.

And I don’t mind as I usually do in my reality, I don’t mind being interrupted from my reading. I am not even a little miffed. A part of me realizes that I welcome this interruption.

And that is also when I know it is fantasy.

But our fantasies, our dreams, the books we read, the words we choose to convey our thoughts, all of these are our mirrors. Only through them can we actually see the kind of souls we really are.

So, perhaps I do want the candle-wax to trickle away, reminding me of my mortality. Only, if only, in the end, someone would interrupt me, take me away from my books, even for the spell of a moment.

Belle fell for the Beast, so did I. And maybe that was why I could never stand the thought of him turning into Adam in the end. I didn’t want a beautiful prince, not when I was five, not when I am twenty-three. I wanted a flawed being, a human who perhaps didn’t bathe in his blemishes but was accepting of them, maybe of mine too. He wasn’t supposed to be a god, not even a humble one, but just that, a beast. Someone who has his scars, his regrets, his sins, his cynicisms, his cruelty, and underneath all of it, his humanity.

The Beast embodied all the souls I have loved, unearthed, seen, and still embraced. Be it seventeen, or twenty, I have found myself falling for the dark spots, the grey limbo, the uncharted waters, and the forbidden fruits. And not for a moment, did it make me want to run back to the prince, to the perfection. I was happy in my misery, I was in peace in my chaos.

So, perhaps the real dilemma never really lies between choosing the library or the prince.

Perhaps it only exists between the audacious hopes of finding a beast with my destined library, and the knowledge that I shall never have it all.

But, c’est la vie, mon ami. After all, it is all about the journey, the trickling candle-wax, and humming while reading secret stories.

All I can do is keep repeating Doris’s words in a litany, wishing someday, in some place between fantasy and reality, I will collide into a Stradivarius that still plays the tunes of Tale as Old as Time.

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