The Power of Places

The lofty, encompassing conception of a place, a location, where we live and grow in, has always baffled me. This niggling feeling, driven by my restricted movement around the earth, and definitely by my less than a hand’s count of “homes”, was reinstated with a muted observance when my friend solemnly declared that I had changed on my return from Uganda. Actually, to quote her more faithfully, she insisted that “Africa changes you.”

Africa changes you. I was stunned for a minute, but swallowed the dire implications of this observation in a jiffy and moved on to less notorious topics (it must have been about the raging, unrelenting weather in a typical New York City winter). It remains a chronic condition of my milieu, that controversial conversations are seldom explicit between two polite, yet well-meaning friends. Desperate proclamations may be issued as a simple, single statement, and unless the victim chooses to pursue it, the statement hangs mid-air for a second while both parties absorb it. And then, just like that, the moment is gone. The well-meaning friend said what they felt they had to. The intelligent victim understood the insinuations, agreed or disagreed, yet chose not to articulate the same to avoid, as we all do to maintain status-quo, confrontation. Yes, my friend had indubitably linked my sudden behavioral changes to an entire continent. But I would be damned if I sat there and disagreed. After all, what cogent thoughts did I have in my arsenal to defend myself or for that matter, Africa? The status quo brooked no denial.

In a follow-up conversation many moons later, my friend attributed some of her own personality traits as having been nurtured in the loud, impassive, glamorous confines of New York City. It was a serious enough transformation to effectively hold in place a gaping chasm between us, she implied. Here was a person, I suddenly realized, who believed whole-heartedly in the implicit power of places. Of cities, towns, quaint little hamlets that mulishly protected its own boundaries, but worked relentlessly to expand yours. It was a simple, clean association, this one between me and the place, that explained everything so elegantly. It was certainly tempting to subscribe to this school of thought, where the city was happy to swallow the genesis of your dark shadows and muted sorrows with nary a sound.  But at the same time, it was infinitely frightening. Because if I believed, if I started to believe, then all it would take was a quick and expensive flight to reach the furthest recesses of the planet, to change who you dislike, or at any rate, to blame these darkest corners for the changes that have to, and will, come anyway.


And then one fine morning, I was reading Suketu Mehta’s article on New York City in Newsweek. It had a brazen photograph to announce its commencement. An Asian man in his barely-there underwear was sitting on a fire escape; leg crossed, hands balanced, to hold him steady, sipping on his soup without a care in the world, while New York City’s famous traffic rushed on beneath him. The caption read: newly arrived immigrant eats on a fire escape. It was an effective jumpstart to what followed, a disambiguation of New Yorkers. Mehta claimed that there now existed, in the modern world, three different kinds of New Yorkers:

“the people who act as if they were born here, who have a sense of entitlement about the city even if they arrived here after college; the people who are here and wish to be elsewhere, so toxic has it become for them; and the collection of virtual New Yorkers all over the world, in cities from Sarajevo to Santiago, who wish they were living in New York. These are the three New York states of mind, and what they have in common are longing and a quantity of delusion. It’s a city of dreamers and insomniacs.
As the article progressed, there was a sudden shift from talking about New Yorkers to talking about New York City itself. It was slow, it was deliberate, and on a quick first read, it was most certainly imperceptible.  Indeed, there was an implied message, that New York City was what New Yorkers are (endorsed, apparently, by Mayor Bloomberg as well). Or to put it more roughly, a city is only as good as its people. This was interesting, because what it meant is that the people got the city, the city did not get you. That a London, or an Amsterdam, or a Paris could not be a New York City because it lacked the latter’s people. It seemed conceivable that New York City’s towering, shiny skyline developed a distinguished character, something it could call its own, because its people changed it. As more and more people fell into its endless warrens, they lived out their stories, and added to the colossus that is, and will remain, New York City. On the other hand, it seemed far more incredible that this monolithic city could exact any changes in one tiny person. The scales just did not match.

More recently, I chanced upon Pico Iyer’s memories of Oxford in Granta’s issue on Britain. This time around, there was a more generic photograph at the beginning of the article. A bunch of young people lounging around in a narrow, claustrophobic alley, most of their backs turned to the reader. The photograph had no caption. In the article itself, Iyer observed how we conceive a place to be a place in time. More specifically, we conceived our places to be frozen in our history of time.  

“Places don’t change easily inside our heads. We rarely allow them to. So often they’re just the way they were when we first knew them, much as my old school friends, whether captains of industry or grandfathers now, are always the scruffy, shifty, misbehaving boys I first met at fourteen. If you’re surrounded by a place, you don’t notice its changes; and if you’re exiled from it, you refuse to accommodate the ways it’s grown if they don’t fit the story you tell about your life.

This was reassuring in a distant, vague manner. Because yet again, I was being told that the city did not make me. The city, if anything, was what I made of it. And this solved the scale problem to a large extent. What I thought of New Delhi for instance, having shunned its familiarity for other, nobler pursuits, could not expect to compare with what another person, who had lived in the city for far longer than myself, thought of it. This person, who had adopted Delhi as his home for a considerable slice of his narrative, would recognize it as a larger city, with far more nooks and crannies than I could have ever hoped to visit. He would deal with the city’s machinations with an intimacy that would be conspicuously absent in my own maneuvers. He would be privy to the generous, magical underbelly of the city which I could never hope to recognize, even if it came and hit me on the head. The more you made a city your own, the more it let you in. In that sense, cities, or any place for that matter, can never hope to be absolute impressions, unless its people suddenly, strangely, homogenize. The power of places will remain in their undulating, constantly changing notions of what its people make of it. In the end, if you have conceived of a place in a special way, it will change you in exactly that manner. In the end, a place can only change you as much as you want it to.