Answers from travel
How one half-day spent alone halfway across the world has changed this author’s relationship to the city in which she grew up
Words and images: Rituparna Sengupta
I have always been a micro-planner. Give me twenty-four hours and I will plan it down to the twenty-fifth. I am all for experimenting and being spontaneous, but not when it involves venturing out into unfamiliar terrain — i.e., outside of books and films. Also, things are solitary enough with all the reading and writing and watching that I do when left to my own devices, so when I grace the world with my physical presence, I demand audience. Thus, I have never understood how people actually choose to go on solo trips, that too spontaneous ones.
In July 2017, I was winding down in Cottbus, a university town in Germany, where I was staying with my cousin, her husband, and their adorable little daughter. I had extended a conference trip to Oxford — my first trip abroad — where I had co-presented a paper with a friend. Enjoying the gracious hospitality and cheery company of several relatives in different parts of Europe, I had journeyed across England, Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany — all in accordance with a tightly-packed, pre-decided itinerary. After a whirlwind tour of museums, galleries, churches, etc., I was glad for a day to unwind before my return home. The comfort-seeker in me was pleased. Until…
My most vivid memory of my cousin — an older sister — is from my childhood, when she had snapped at a man who had touched her inappropriately in a busy marketplace in Calcutta. I had gawked; until that moment, I had had no idea that this was a legitimate reaction.
It was this very fiercely independent cousin whom I was as awed by as wary of, who was now suggesting that I do a short solo trip to Dresden. A city by the river Elbe, Dresden is famous for its cultural and artistic splendour.
“You haven’t really experienced Europe if you haven’t been out there on your own”, she said, simply and firmly.
This, even after I had lost my way in the few kilometres of mostly straight road that I had to take to reach her university to meet her for lunch, the previous day. She had drawn me a map. In the end, her husband had to come collect and deposit me. I forgot to mention another big reason I don’t do solo trips is that I suck at directions.
I hemmed and hawed. I let on that I was tired and needed recouping before the return journey home. But she wouldn’t withdraw an inch.
And thus, it was that I found myself saddled with a round-trip ticket to Dresden, print-outs of its major attractions and another hand-drawn map, this time more detailed. It wasn’t a big city, and I was assured that it was impossible to get lost there. All I had to ensure was that I took the right change of trains, and boarded the last train back in time.
At first I thought I would cheat a bit and sign up for a guided walk tour, but the timings were cruelly incompatible. So I devised this brilliant strategy: to follow my nose till I bumped into something that looked like I wanted to walk into it. Map be damned.
So what did I do there?
I gaped at Baroque paintings in the Old Masters’ Picture Gallery in the Zwinger Palace Museum.
I marvelled at the impressive exterior of the Semperoper opera house.
I lit a candle at the Frauenkirche church, which had been destroyed in bombing during World War II and rebuilt much later after the unification of Germany.
I strolled along the Bruhl terrace, trying my best to not look lost. I bumbled my way into Altmarket and had a bagel and coffee for lunch.
I did still manage to lose my way around for a short while, but followed the sound of violin into a charming little souvenir shop where I bought some very unnecessary trinkets.
I took in the sight of some gentlemen on horses cast in bronze along the way, and admired the many flowers that lined the streets.
And realised I had about fifteen minutes to get my butt to the last train. I think I ran, or at least jogged, and made it in time. And was so happy when my cousins received me at the other end and took me home.
Honestly, I don’t remember the trip for the city’s architectural wonders or quaint charm. For someone who spends a lot of time in her own head and rarely approaches strangers, the experience of navigating her own way in an unfamiliar place where people spoke a different language, relying on her own resources and planning on the go, was unsettling.
But, I realise now, how that one half-day spent halfway across the world has changed my relationship to this city I inhabit and have grown up in.
My past two years have seen several firsts.
I have gone shopping on my own, though am yet to take myself out for dinner. I have watched a film on my own, in a room full of paired up audience.
I have signed up for heritage walks around town and wandered off on my own in previously unexplored places like Tughlaqabad and Mehrauli.
Last year in March, I could finally shed my inhibitions and go for my first protest march—and have been to two more since.
These have been slow, incremental changes, but have just as slowly and surely transformed the way I look at the world and my place in it. I realise, startled, that I am becoming that impossible urban figure: the flaneuse. I am even beginning to loiter!
I am no longer as afraid of getting lost, no longer dependent on the company or convenience of others. My body language has altered. This city that I grew up in but always felt to be at an arm’s distance from — I am learning to claim as my own.
I will admit here that I still balk at the idea of planning a full-blown outstation trip on my own, and I wonder at those who can just pick up their bags and let their feet take them along to new destinations. But one has one’s little triumphs, all one’s own. Never, in all my wanderings, have I wondered since, ‘Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?’ And that is quite enough, for now.
Rituparna Sengupta is pushing her PhD thesis in Literature towards its last throes of labour. She loves stormy rain and summer fruit and startling poetry. She is exploring and falling rapidly in love with Delhi, where she reads, writes, and goes for long walks. Her rambling reviews of books and films can be read here.