By Ananya Dasgupta
I seemed to have slowly blended into the crowd.
I sat near the bronze statues at the pier while I watched the sunset. I wondered whether I would imbibe the incredible sense of fashion from the Italian women as they walked by with the click clack of their stilettoes. I watched the group of boys playing football at the Piazza Unita D’Italia. The row of men sitting patiently with their fishing rods and cans of worms. The serious-looking man awkwardly slurping up his chocolate gelato as drops fell on his freshly-ironed crisp white shirt.
A long-haired man, in dazzlingly colourful clothes, paced up and down furiously typing on his cell phone. He was using the free wireless service, just as I had done over the last two weeks.
There was magic in the blue waves of the Adriatic Sea. And, for me, that magic crashed the loudest against the shores of the Italian city, Trieste. Every evening, groups of teenagers gathered at the pier. They had their skateboards, their smartphones, and their haircuts. There were young mothers with playful children. There were African men selling cheap books and old couples walking hand in hand.
But I caught no one’s eye.
I went to Trieste in search of James Joyce. At least that is what I told myself and my advisor. I was in the middle of writing my own interpretation of the Ulysses and it wasn’t really going anywhere. Also, it had been a couple of months since I received an e-mail from Cambridge, saying Harvard University was too much pressure and a long-distance relationship was impossible to carry on. I had been too proud to argue but that lump in my throat just refused to go. In a nutshell, my life had come to a standstill.
‘Go to Dublin if you want to discover the real Joyce,’ my advisor said.
‘I have always believed that Leopold Bloom had more Trieste in him than Dublin. After all Joyce did begin writing Ulysses there,’ I tried to sound convincing. ‘I really want to travel to the city where Joyce arrived in 1904 with the pregnant Nora Barnacle. Together they built a family there. Didn’t Joyce write to Nora that he had left his soul in Trieste?’
In the end, he even agreed to partly sponsor my trip. I wanted to understand Joyce but deep within I was perhaps hoping to rediscover something else.
It was in Trieste that I, as a fourteen-year old, spent one glorious summer with my family. My father was a scientist and was visiting the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, built in 1964 by the great Pakistani physicist, Abdus Salam. I had some vivid memories from those months. One of them was of the house that we lived in.
My father had rented the apartment from Dr. Giovanni Murello. A tall dashing man with flowing white hair. He was wearing a flashy orange sweater and black fitted denims when we met him for the first time. He was smiling at my mother as he came waltzing across the road.
‘Heylooo, signora!’ he said with a swagger.
‘Why are Italian men so handsome?’ my mother said under her breath. My father looked amused.
I imagined Dr. Murello as a spy from another world. He didn’t speak much English and every time his thoughts got stuck in the language barrier, he plunged into a loud rendition of a tuneless song. And his house could have been a secret hideout, where assassins discussed their next assignment.
My parents thought the house was charming. My brother and I thought it was exciting, in a murky way. It was on Via Luigi Cadorna, at the back of the same colossal 200-year-old building that housed the glamorous Hotel Savoia. There were spaces in between the apartments which seemed mysterious and forbidden. My brother and I spent many afternoons figuring out the architecture, perhaps looking for dead bodies or tied-up captives. But, sadly, at the end of our stay, we were exactly where we began.
There was a window in our bathroom that opened to nowhere. At times, when everything else was quiet, music drifted in from somewhere above that window. And the floors creaked loudly every time anyone walked, even on tip toes.
There was a massive wooden door at the entrance to the building. Getting it to open was a family activity. The newly installed elevator was noiseless and incredibly fast. If you chose to take the staircase, you passed one floor in complete darkness. There were no doors, only walls. My brother loved to hide in those corridors and scare anyone who happened to be climbing up or down. On most occasions, it was the gay couple who lived above us. They would squeal with mock fear and ruffle his hair lovingly. The boy, who visited his grandfather on the second floor every afternoon, was not as sporting though.
But my most vivid memory was of the young Afghan man, who worked at the kebab outlet downstairs.
We were frantically gesturing to place our order on the first day, when he startled all of us with his fluent Urdu. It sounded just like Hindi. It was from the schooling in Pakistan, he told us.
I was immediately taken in by the blue eyes and the shy smile. I remember thinking that they were the same colour as the Adriatic Sea. Every time we passed the tiny eatery, I looked in to catch a glimpse. He was usually busy making a kebab sandwich, or rolling out the pizza dough. Sometimes if I caught his eye he would smile and say ciao. I would somehow stumble away. At night I would lean out of the window to see if the lights were still on. And wait till they went off, around 11 pm. Soon I had figured out his timings and his off days. I wanted to see him every day. But I never spoke to him.
One day as my brother and I were returning from kicking the ball around at the Piazza, we met him at the corner. He smiled and said he was hurrying home because it was the month of Ramadan and the sun was about to set. I was trying my best not to look at him when he knelt down, opened his backpack and handed me a bottle of an orange fizzy drink.
‘For you,’ he said in Urdu. My limbs seemed to have frozen but I quietly accepted it.
‘I am sure he was going to break his fast with that drink,’ my brother told my mother later.
That night I got goosebumps, thinking about him. For the first time in my life.
Ten years later when I decided to visit Trieste for my thesis on Joyce, I knew exactly where I wanted to stay. Much to my relief, Dr. Murello was using the same email id. He had moved to Udine, but still owned his apartment on Via Cadorna. The rent was steep but I decided to go for it. After all, I told myself, Joyce had spent a few years in an apartment in the next street, on Via Armando Diaz. The James Joyce museum, which he shared with his friend Italo Svevo, was also just a two-minute walk away.
Dr. Murello agreed to come and meet me at the railway station with the keys. Apart from a slightly receding hairline, he looked exactly the same. This time he was wearing a white shirt with large multi-coloured floral patterns. As he drove me to the apartment in his Land Rover, I tried to remind him of my family.
‘Ah I remember! You are the ones who complained about the silly formiche [ants]!’‘Yes, yes,’ I said, a bit annoyed. After all, we must have been his best tenants ever. We had left the house so much cleaner than it had ever been.
The rest of the way I kept quiet. Dr. Murello asked many questions, answered most of them himself and broke into his tuneless hum five times.
Two little girls were excitedly peeping through the big telescopes at the pier. One of the goalkeepers had saved several goals. In frustration, the other team was arguing with the referee. The man with the cellphone was sitting and staring at the clock on top of the municipal building.
There was about an hour left for my train to Rome. I took out my phone and connected to the free wireless. It was probably the middle of the night, but I still dialed my brother’s number.
‘Why the hell are you calling at this hour?’ he said sleepily.
‘That eatery downstairs is gone. I have been to almost all kebab outlets in the city. But he is nowhere. I just couldn’t find him.’ I was almost in tears.
‘Who? Where? What eatery?’ he sounded thoroughly uninterested.
‘The Afghan man at the kebab shop in Trieste. Don’t you remember?’ I pleaded.
‘All I remember about Trieste are the pizzas, the chocolate gelatos, and the gigantic yellow python at the aquarium! And now, I really need to sleep.’
The first thing I noticed as Dr. Murello drove me into Via Cadorna was that the kebab outlet was no longer there. Outside the same tiny space hung Trieste special T-shirts and bags, a stand with fridge magnets stood in place of the red and white sign that had said, ‘Unita kebabs’.
Once upstairs Dr Murello handed me the keys and said, ‘Keep it clean.’ I must have snorted because he looked at me strangely and started humming.
‘Do you know what happened to the kebab outlet downstairs?’ I asked him.
‘What? No idea!’ Then he left.
The floors still creaked, the ornate coat hanger tucked away within a cane screen still stood. The unusually low blue sofa set, with a cardboard box acting as the coffee table, was no longer there. The enormous wooden lizard on the wall that had given me several sleepless nights was gone as well. In its place was a framed replica of Sunset in Venice by Claude Monet. The upright piano had also been moved.
I opened out the bedroom window and leaned outside. I could see the T-shirts in the shop downstairs, fluttering in the wind.
The next morning as I went out looking for breakfast, I peeped into the tourist shop. An old Italian woman sat inside, knitting what looked like a multi-coloured muffler. I tried to ask her if she knew anything about the previous tenants. She only shrugged.
I spent two weeks rediscovering Trieste through Joyce’s eyes. I convinced myself that I loved it as much as Joyce did. I visited every house that he had lived in, every tavern that he had visited. I walked up to his statue on the bridge on Via Roma and asked him several questions. I sat around at the Piazzas, walked along every street. And I understood him so much better that I had ever done before.
But my unhappiness lingered.
The cell phone man had started typing again. I slowly stood up from the bench on the pier and started walking towards the train station. Inside, I stared at the electronic board. It said Platform no. 5. I looked at the red and silver Frecciarossa train, slowly moving into the platform. There were ten minutes left.
Suddenly I noticed a small signboard I had not seen before, almost hidden by the D-Spar Express. It said ‘Kebabs and Pizzas’. I could see a little brown-haired girl running in and out, playing hide and seek with the man at the counter. He looked up as I walked in. With eyes as blue as the Adriatic Sea.
‘Can I have a bottle of the fizzy orange drink, please?’ I heard myself asking. In Hindi.
Ananya Dasgupta began her career with The Telegraph in Kolkata, India, and has extensive experience as a journalist. She worked as an editor with the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research Archives in Mumbai, where she was responsible for the TIFR Oral History Project. She has co-authored the book A Masterful Spirit: Homi Jehangir Bhabha 1909-1966 (Penguin Books, 2010).
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.