The old city starts leaking back into me the minute I step out of the aeroplane’s fuselage. The air hits me first, clammy and hot, exactly like it always was at this time of the year. The summer season is never kind on our country’s populace in general, and on my old city of Joy in particular. The next thing that hits me is the smell, though it’s not a smell in the most common sense of the word, it’s not what it smells of but how it smells of it. I like to believe that of all my senses, my olfactory ones are the most keenly tuned, and I identify cities and places not by sights and sounds, though these play their own part as well, but it is always my nose that informs me, with almost divine certainty, that I have arrived home.
And as the taxi speeds past old haunts and familiar corners, places I would stop by so often as part of a daily or weekly routine, they seem somewhat foreign to my sense of sight and sound. It’s as if you’ve been dreaming about a city all your life and one day you wake up to find that it’s actually there in front of you. Only now, since you’re not dreaming, the spaces between the lines drawn by your imagination are filled out by untried colours and words and splatter of urine and paan and old telephone wires tangled in a bunch underneath poles hoisting lamps that have long stopped working. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I ever remembered it as being clean, it’s just that perhaps I forgot about the muck, or perhaps it has really grown dirtier since I last left it. I’ll leave the choice up to the reader, for there is only a limited amount of certainty by which an author can assert him or herself.
But when I step back on foot onto the streets that I once danced, the sights and the sounds surrender to that all surmounting power of smell and that smell, dank yet breezy, yellow yet grey, is what anchors me back to my own recollections and convinces me that this all has not been a dream. I walk, through bright lights of the city’s largest streets and through lanes and dark alleys where two cars can naught pass each other on, I walk, past trams clanking along slowly barely half full with passengers and street vendors doling out copious amounts of their wares onto leafs folded into watertight vessels filled to the brim with spiced water, I walk, back into memories and thoughts and faces and names that I can’t remember but know of all the same, I walk, and realise how true it really is, that places and people, even myself, are but an image of what is remembered forever.