A place where I can find out again who I am and what I must do. A place where I can stop and do nothing in order to start again.
—James Baldwin on Istanbul
Upon returning from Istanbul to Delhi in the summer of 2019, I realised that I had spent the previous five years, since March 2014, in spiritual exile in the latter half of the 16th century. That was the age, about 1550-1600 CE, in which my inner life unfolded, regardless of how things appeared on the outside.
In the course of these years, I lost both my parents. As their only child, I had no idea how to cope with their departure. I withdrew, instinctively, from the routines and pressures of work and home into a cave of my own memories. When I ventured out, my line of sight was dominated by three beautiful monuments in the three different cities where, as luck would have it, I spent most of this time: Humayun’s Tomb, in Delhi; San Giorgio’s Church, in Venice; Cihangir’s Mosque, in Istanbul. Three massive structures that I could circumambulate or enter, pass or stop to stare at, and of which I took countless photographs, at all hours, in all seasons.
These became for me repositories of memory, shelters from the collapsing edifice of the life I had known from infancy—objects of enduring beauty to contemplate in the midst of painful turmoil. I didn’t notice it at the time, but they were all created in the same period: in Mughal India (during the reign of Akbar the Great), Renaissance Italy (in the Venetian Republic, ‘La Serenissima’) and Ottoman Turkey (during the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent), each the acme of their respective civilisations. However, the buildings in their present form had undergone extensive renovation, preservation and sometimes reconstruction, so that what I saw was not the same as what had been in the past, but a reminder—and a remainder—thereof in the present.
A withdrawal into history came naturally to me as I turned away from my circumstances. There were lively counterpoints to the monuments, too, to draw my attention: in Nizamuddin, delicate flowering trees and raucous green parrots; on Isola San Giorgio Maggiore, a glimmering Palazzo Ducale and Piazza San Marco visible over the gently lapping waves of the Giudecca Canal; in Cihangir, the many-hued Bosphorus, by turns inky and turquoise, charcoal and blue, ethereal and profound, and in the middle distance the surprising geometry of the Hagia Sofia, beacon of Byzantium. Boats, trees, birds, people. The drama of light on the surfaces of these buildings and in the sky framing them never disappointed my eyes, however dark the shadows that lurked within my heart. The hubbub of life and the motion of the elements surrounded the monumental stillness of architecture: I felt consoled despite a persistent undertow of grief.
The Persian Mirza Ghiyas, the Venetian Andrea Palladio, and the Anatolian Mimar Sinan—the names of these three architects shone out over the four centuries separating us. Their luminous works dispelled my gloom as I brooded about my parents, hearing their voices the way they had sounded in my childhood, irretrievably slipping away like sand from my fingers. I slept very little; I walked like a fiend. Often I listened to music on my headphones while an app counted the kilometres I traversed on foot, failing nevertheless to get far enough from the thoughts tormenting me.
Every few months I would find myself back in Delhi, back in Istanbul, back in Venice. Whatever else I had lost in the meantime, these structures remained steadfast in their apparently unassailable loveliness. The domes and minarets, arches and columns, steps and corridors, white and pink, grey and gold, shadowy and lit, the poetry of built forms set against undulating waters, amidst green gardens—each day that these pieces came together in a gigantic puzzle in the air, they gave me solace. But at the same time, political troubles and environmental crises in all three places exacerbated my feelings of personal loss.
India, Turkey and Italy all moved inexorably towards the right, destroying old civilities and the cosmopolitan sophistications of centuries in a matter of months. Democratic societies succumbed to populism; multi-religious cultures devolved into a naked majoritarianism. Fish and fowl were disappearing and dying in the polluted waters of the Bosphorus and the Venetian Lagoon; in my own Delhi, the Yamuna has long been officially pronounced a dead river.
In the five years that I tacked incessantly between Delhi, Venice and Istanbul, two questions plagued me: How do we lose what we lose? Why do we love whom we love?
When it came time to move to Istanbul for a long sojourn starting in the summer of 2018, I began to consider how to prepare myself for life in a country that was a fraternal twin to my own. I could recognise innumerable words taken from Persian, Arabic, English and French that populate the vocabulary of modern Turkish, but the language itself in its contemporary form was opaque to me. I could see the striking resonances between Turkic and Indic architecture, calligraphy, miniature painting, carpets and textiles, pottery and tiles of the Ottoman and Mughal (and earlier, Seljuk, Timurid and Sultanate) periods.
But I knew little of how these influences and styles had travelled and conversed with one another over centuries. Nor did I quite understand why this exchange has been utterly forgotten in both Turkey and India. Any traveller who goes between the two worlds would find herself in what I have come to regard as the unfamiliar familiar, or the familiar unfamiliar.
Le Corbusier, whose views on Turkish architecture and urbanism I discovered quite recently, must have had the sensibility of a tuning fork whose one prong was Delhi and the other Istanbul. The modern French architect and planner was as interested in the architectural history of the great oriental cities as he was in the urban future of new nations like India and Turkey. He offered himself as a consultant to Jawaharlal Nehru and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, leaders of their respective peoples, evangelists of secularism and passionate modernisers both.
Nehru invited him to build Chandigarh, a planned city conjured out of thin air and Partition’s chaos, unlike any other in the whole of postcolonial India. But Le Corbusier, by his own admission, lost his chance for a similar commission in Turkey: he wrote a letter to the Atatürk in which he proposed that Istanbul be preserved as it is, “with the dust of centuries on her buildings”. He lamented that but for this letter, “the biggest mistake and blunder of my life”, he would have been the one to work on the urban design of modern Istanbul and not his great rival (Henri Proust). He realised he should not have advocated nostalgia to a revolutionary.
The Atatürk did not share Nehru’s love of history or his appreciation of tradition. When India shook off the chains of the British Empire to emerge as an independent nation-state, Nehru could still appeal to a long precolonial past in his imaginative history, The Discovery of India. But Republican Turkey had to break the shell of its own Ottoman Empire—no foreign master, that—to be born anew. Its capital went to anodyne Ankara; Istanbul was abandoned to the vagaries of time, left to sink under the weight of its former glory.
What makes old cities like Venice, Istanbul and Rome beautiful? Le Corbusier did not like New York (here I cannot agree with him; for me, New York defines the romance of the metropolis, a city one can love more intensely than a human beloved). He disapproved of skyscrapers, of their unrelenting vertical lines and edges, of the way they render a skyline broken and jagged. Istanbul’s grace came from the silhouettes created by Sinan’s mosques against a low-slung, flat horizon.
“The fervour of minarets, the calm of flattened domes,” he wrote, “Allah watching over all, oriental in His immutability!” (Surely half a century later Edward Said would balk at Le Corbusier’s Orientalism.) But again and again, he pointed to this same principle: the most massive buildings are made of stone, suggesting permanence and serenity. They rise above a sea of red roofs (in Venice as in Istanbul): “They emerge; they assert themselves. Architecture disengages itself from the urban magma”.
During the year we were to spend in Turkey, I had a bunch of Sanskrit texts I was meant to work on. I carried them with me, but they sat unopened for months on my desk overlooking the Bosphorus, silent and meaningless without the vast cultural landscape of my native subcontinent. I remembered the great German Jewish philologist Erich Auerbach, who wrote his classic of criticism, Mimesis, in flight from the Holocaust, at Istanbul University, in the decade between 1936 and 1946. How are you supposed to do philology without access to your texts?
Edward Said recounts that when German academia collapsed under the pressure of Nazism, and the Atatürk’s Turkish Republic offered little by way of resources for research and scholarship to the exiled European, Auerbach went deeper into his own memory and understanding of the literary texts he had loved. From those inner wellsprings of knowledge, sans footnotes, came the ultimate book about the Western canon. Said quotes Auerbach: “For there is always going to be within us a process of formulation and interpretation whose subject matter is our own self.”
That insight remained with me, a talisman for my own year at the crossroads of East and West, Europe and Asia, so far from home. I may not have studied my Sanskrit texts, but I developed a new affinity for what they were trying to tell me about a past that was lost to me and a present from which I felt increasingly estranged, thanks to the politics of Hindu nationalism currently infecting India (that resembles more and more Germany of the 1930s).
As Said explains, Auerbach was able to transform the relationship between the dead letter of a classical work and its contemporary reader-critic from a “one-way interrogation of the historical text by an altogether alien mind at a later time” into a “sympathetic dialogue of two spirits across ages and cultures”. As one struggled to make meaning of texts without their appropriate context, I gathered that at least one could aspire to “that combination of erudition and sympathy that is the hallmark of philological hermeneutics”.
Auerbach’s great hero was the poet Dante, the inventor in a sense of literary Italian, who broke definitively from Latin and made possible a new language, the very plinth on which was erected the entire edifice of the Renaissance in Italy. What a contrast in the creation of newness, in the inauguration of a language and with it an entire culture that it enabled, between Alighieri Dante and Kemal Atatürk!
The one drew from the deep sweet waters of the classical and the other swept away every trace of the classical in a tidal wave of self-negation. With the erasure of the Ottoman world, the Arabic, the Persianate, the Jewish, the Armenian, the Greek, all of these varicoloured threads were torn out of the fabric of Turkey—it was drenched in a monochrome dye of secular modernity.
Auerbach became the exiled memoirist of the invention of modern Italian in Dante’s Divine Comedy, and the unintentional witness of the invention of modern Turkish in Atatürk’s Republic, the two roles converging for him in Istanbul, at a distance, whether physical or temporal, from both pre-Holocaust Europe and Ottoman Turkey. Both of those worlds—linguistic, cultural, aesthetic, moral—were on the verge of vanishing forever, and they did, and there was no going back, for Auerbach, or for anyone.
At the edge of history’s abyss, in the searing heat of this bonfire of civilisations, he wrote his magnum opus. (Nehru too wrote The Discovery of India in jail, without any of his books to hand, from memory and from a desire to salvage his country and its traditions and monuments from the wreckage of war and the collapse of empire.) How do we lose what we lose? Why do we love whom we love?
India I could always return to, later. What about Turkey, which surrounded me and yet remained mysterious? From long habit, I turned to my principal window into Turkey: the writing of Orhan Pamuk. I returned to his books that I had read and loved, Istanbul: Memories of a City; Other Colors: Essays and a Story; The Museum of Innocence; My Name is Red. And I read his new novel, The Red-Haired Woman.
I began walking, and slowly in my daily hikes—sometimes extending for hours and kilometres that might have surprised my trusty iPhone app, had it been a person and not an app—I retraced, in Borgesian fashion, Pamuk’s map of Istanbul in its actual dimensions, directions and distances. Every moment was absorbed in navigating a universe in which I got my bearings from his essays, novels, memoirs and criticism. I walked at once in the lost city of his childhood and youth, and in the city of my own hiatus from life and of his mature commentaries as Turkey’s foremost writer at the height of his literary fame, creative powers and critical faculties.
Every few days I would take the boat from the European to the Asian shore and back, tacking between different stations: Karaköy-Kadiköy-Beşiktaş-Kadiköy-Eminönü… and from the Bosphorus I could see, in a different perspective, where I had walked, along the waterfront, Karaköy-Galata-Tophane-Cihangir-Kabataş-Beşiktaş, and then behind those, invisible from the boat, Çukurcuma-Iştiklal-Pera-Taksim-Nişantası.
I never tired of my walks. I am convinced I could spend several more years walking those streets, uphill and downhill, inland and along the waterfront: mosques and markets, cafes and cats, Paris and Brooklyn, pastry shops and çay shops, delicatessens and fresh fruit juice stalls, red Turkish flags and yellow taxis, the gliding seagulls and the leaping porpoises, the whole city a wonderland of earthly delights, endlessly diverting, intricate, intimate—my balm, my refuge, my consolation.
A micro-cartography of Beyoğlu, I mapped, on foot, memorising every sudden view of the Bosphorus looking down from a height; every opening between buildings where one could get a glimpse of water, sky, bridge or the Asian shore; every cascade of wisterias down the side of a European-style apartment building that made one giddy with fragrance; every unexpected tree laden with glowing oranges growing out of a walled garden.
I knew the walls covered with graffiti, the remnants of wooden yalıs, the vintage cars permanently parked, the Turkish movie posters that were reminiscent of Bollywood ones, and the antique stores full of their fascinating wares. I came to know several cats and dogs by their name and address (or locality, more precisely, since in Istanbul these animals tend to be more communally shared than individually owned). I knew that what I saw was what was there but also what was not. What Orhan Pamuk remembered, what Mimar Sinan designed, what Sultan Süleyman decreed, what Kemal Atatürk allowed, what survived, what remained, what was past, and passing, and to come.
The ugly skyscrapers in the distance, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s new city, the skyline jagged just as Le Corbusier would have feared, the historic silhouette of Istanbul shattered—these I edited out of my field of vision. I only saw in cinemascope, a theatre of evanescent light, like a Nuri Bilge Ceylan film. A panoramic sweep, a vision that was as much history as present, as much imagination as reality, as much beauty as truth.
Sometimes I went around the Golden Horn and up and across to Balat and Fatih (on foot, by boat); sometimes across the Galata Bridge and then into Beyazıt and Sultanahmet; other times from Beşiktaş further towards Ortaköy and the Bosphorus Bridge; and rarely, even further, to Bebek and Rumelihisarı, and the gorgeous campus of Boğaziçi University, where James Baldwin used to visit. The Süleymaniye Complex in Fatih, site of one of Mimar Sinan’s finest mosques, was like a miracle: a dream of Iran or a memory of Kashmir so vividly realised in Turkey as to seem like a conjurer’s trick, a trompe l’oeil. Enormous Chinar trees grace its gardens; slender irises bloom on the royal gravestones. The view of the city down to the Golden Horn is so perfect that it appears like a painting.
I took the tram and the metro and the cabs and the shared dolmuş vans and the vapur ferries, but most often, and with most pleasure, I walked on my own two feet, whether as a medieval traveller or a modern flâneur, I couldn’t say. I listened for the musical tinkle of the truck that came around to deliver gas cylinders (“Aygaz!”), for the singsong call of the vendor of the traditional yoghurt beverage, Boza. Along with the cry of the gulls, these sounds, like the hands of an invisible clock, brought time to a complete halt, suspended the day in a segment of eternity. The familiar was unfamiliar. The unfamiliar was familiar. I was at home, abroad.
All the time in my head the questions ran, and the answers formed and dissolved. How do we lose what we lose? Why do we love whom we love?
This essay was originally published in the July-September 2019 issue of The Indian Quarterly. Photographs by the author.
Ananya Vajpeyi is an intellectual historian and the author of “Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India”.
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