In Search of Idea Cities
If this blog needed a purpose, I have one now. I started writing just for the sake of writing, and later, used this space for reflecting on my experience as well as exploring ideas and connecting with people. It was a serendipitous journey, with twists and turns of my wandering mind suitably exposed, and I assiduously avoided being boxed, or turning this blog into a commercial promotion of myself. And, this is not a holier-than-thou stance - I indulged in usual narcissism on Facebook and tried to do desperate social climbing on Linkedin - it is just plain love, of words and of ideas and of conversations, and I wanted to keep this one space uncorrupted of the other 'social me', in order to welcome them as they came.
But then there is something I love. And, all my wandering is really a quest for that one thing, in a way. My otherwise pauseless life may not allow me the space to love anything except for the socially mandated, all the middle class stuff about careers, mortgages, grammar schools for children and advance holiday plans for the next summer, but the moments when I can be free - and I prise myself free when I write - is the quest for those conversations which expand my horizon and lift my spirit. I know this to be true deep inside, both in its absence - when a perfectly pleasant party with friends leaves me tired to the core - and by its rare appearance - when a whole day spent hopping coffee shops, restaurants and bookshops with inspiring company leaves me wanting for more. This love makes an effortless appearance when I sit down to write, in a dingy small desk cramped with books and strewn with paper, completely distinct from the laboured effort that I have to put in to write marketing materials for a new business venture. This is a personal quest, that lasted almost all my life, from my awkward youth to emigration and various attempts at being and becoming, is for an environment of ideas, of enlightened company, for exploration and creation, of freeing my mind and opening my soul, of being able to envision both my life and the world around with possibilities outside the immediately obvious. This is why conversations that zoom into the long horizon, people who transcend the obvious and friendships that go beyond the incidental, provide the necessary impetus for me to live. This blog, despite its appearance of apparent waywardness, is my insistent quest for such environments and peoples of ideas.
Lately, in my struggle with my own inauthenticity, against all those care for social mores and meek virtues of a middle class man, this love has come out in sharp relief. Part of it is a personal quest, of going beyond the incidental and the accidentally imposed, and looking out for new possibilities of friendships, connections and conversations. The other part is intellectual, a singular, even if confusing or vexed, quest for a city of ideas, the places with their moments in history which opened the doors to new ideas and newer possibilities. It is indeed my roots, my unexpurgated love for the City of Calcutta (now Kolkata), a poor malarial city teeming with people which once became the hotbed of ideas and creativity, that drives me. It is part nostalgia - what would it have been to sit in Calcutta's once-famous Coffee House, one of the most celebrated 'Third Places' in Indian Cultural History, in the 50s - but part of it is to inform and to act - to understand and to advocate and to act, to rise above the carefully cultivated myth of Bengali laziness and hopelessness, and to imagine a new future beyond the lumpen rootlessness that seems to stare in the face of people I call my own.
But, this is not just about nostalgia, going back in time or just about Kolkata. As much as anywhere else, Kolkata's own moments of enlightenment hide as much as it speaks: It remained a dirty, poor, disease- riddled place, full of superstition and ugly thoughts, nasty snobism and opportunism like anywhere else. It excluded more people than it let in, and in the end, declined and culminated in a whimper. The great metropolis of the British Empire turned into a City of Slums in a manner of decades. My romanticism about Kolkata excluded this hard reality, but eventually I had to come to terms with it. But that very process of coming to terms with it required an widening of my quest, looking out for cities of ideas all over the world, their moments of flourishing as well as decline, their heroes but also their ugly realities, what made them come into being and what made them wither. In this, I sought to find my way to come to terms with the limits and limitations of Calcutta of my imagination, and also my redemption of hope, of finding a new promise of greatness again.
This theme has now pervaded my work and my studies. I signed up to research History Of Ideas at the University of London, and this has now become the focus of all I do. Indeed, this is a nice wide lense, allowing me excuses to travel and to learn, around the great cities and about the great creative minds: How ideas emerge and disappear, transmit and transcend, rebel and return, of men and women who carry them and those who try to stop them, of its promises and hopes, as well as of its violence and abuse - have now become the thing I think and write about. And, this indeed is one worthy and meaningful thing I can write about here.