Journeys, Memories and Invisible Cities


[Statutory Warning: This piece is borderline narcissist. I am ashamed about that but I felt as if I must write this.]

If one goes through their social media feed it will feel as if whole world is eating or travelling. Travelling has become some kind of virtue lately. No one is a greater hero than people who are leaving their jobs to travel.

In that standard I am the greatest villain. I have travelled less than most people I know. It is not that I hate travelling, it is just that things rarely align correctly for me to travel.

In addition to that I really don’t want to travel to some of the special places, which I really really love to see. Now this may seem contradictory to you but let me explain my point of view.

For instance the cherry blossoms in Japan something I would really really love to see but if tomorrow I get a chance to visit Japan and see them then I won’t go maybe. Because when one has intense anticipation about anything or anyone the reality always disappoints and I don’t want ever to be disappointed by cherry blossoms. Secondly, after the build up there is a big pressure from others and from myself for maximum enjoyment. The pressure becomes too much for me to enjoy even a little bit. I always choke under pressure. And finally once I will see cherry blossom in real life the pleasure of anticipation and the fantasy are all gone. Who wants to live a life without fantasy?

However, things were not like this always. I used to travel a lot while growing up because my father was obsessed about driving.

Since his main objective was to drive (or ride his Enfield Bullet) my travelling was more about the journey than the destination. The few destinations we went to were rarely any famous tourist destination. The destinations used to be some obscure waterfall or temple or a shrine inside a forest.

I used to soak up all the scenes playing in the sides while on journey. Afterwards when I used to recall the scenes the facts effortlessly mingled with imaginations and all became part of my memory.

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The mingling did not happen only at the instance of recalling. It happens in many other ways. Sometimes if I have a travelling plan then I imagine how the journey would be and then when the real journey happens my imagination mingles with reality. Sometimes I imagine a place and then the journey plan gets cancelled and my imagination becomes reality in memory. Some other times I imagine while reading about a place and after some time that fictional place becomes real.

Now I can’t even remember how much of my memories are real and how much are imaginary.

As I am growing old my memory is growing stronger giving me a sense of intense nostalgia sometimes. And memories or memories of imaginations take up more parts of my mind than hopes or anticipation.

I am getting strong urges to go on destination-less journey like my past only to get the feeling of nostalgia. Nostalgia has become kind of drug for me and I crave for the doses all the time. So I have been forcing my poor family into few such journeys lately.

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In the current journeys again the destination is not important for me. I just want to see the scenes running on the sides like a movie – homes of strangers, villages, cities, fields, farms and forests.

My memory is comparatively vast now and I feel each scene in the journey reminds me of something from the past – I had a long chat with friends of these trees once, I had visited a home similar to this home of the stranger, this city has people with individual lives of which each life I know very well, the water of this river had quenched my thirst, this temple has few familiar stones and so on.

Each scene from the journey along the nostalgia gives a new impression too. My memory eagerly absorbs the new impressions.

While I have been going through this overwhelming personal experience it was a huge coincidence I decided randomly to read “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino. Actually not so random given the fact I specifically looked for a thin book in my library to beef up my annual number of books read and I am already in awe of Calvino so this book became my obvious choice.

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The book, on the face is narration of the descriptions of cities given by Marco Polo to emperor Kublai Khan. Marco Polo travelled the length and breadth of Khan’s empire and narrated his impression to the emperor. Did the cities really existed or just imagined by Marco Polo?

In the latter part of the book, the emperor asked Polo to find the cities he himself had dreamt or imagined or at least theorized.

The book obviously is highly symbolic. Using the cities as symbols Calvino has said so much in the tiny book of 148 pages. The cities are individuals, ideas and worlds. The crisis of modern life especially the spreading of cities into fields and forests, environmental issues and cities losing their unique nature are some of the chief themes of the book

Like my destinations the cities in the books are invisible or insignificant. What is significant is the memories and imagination the cities can bring.

When Khan was depressed he imagined the cities rotting and when he was in jovial mood his imaginations were rosy and beautiful.

The memories of cities cross the time and space gap sometimes. A traveller sitting at home can see the images of journey, which are not always from their memories. And sometimes traveller sees the images, which are from their own time or from the imaginations they had while reading a book on twelfth century difficult to say.

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Finally who is the actual narrator, Marco Polo or Calvino? Because sometimes the cities have airports and tram lines. Or it is just the narrator has managed to travel across time?

I felt like each line of the book is written only for me. That is of course presumptuous of me. The book talks to each traveller in their own language.

The chapters go like statements, something like Khalil Gibran’s works but no way straightforward and preachy like Gibran. This is a book where each line has to be felt, realised and matched with something from the memory, instead of reading just literally.

The size of the book is deceptive because to soak up one line it takes up a long time. Readers can drink up beauty of every single word.


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