Saturday, October 31, 2015

Carrying A Mirror Down Istanbul's Roads


This appeared in today's The Indian Express

In a scene from Orhan Pamuk’s 2008 novel, The Museum of Innocence, the narrator, in his Istanbul home on winter nights, hears a boza seller ringing his bell as he passes the door and is overcome by an urge for the vendor’s beverage, a fermented grain drink popular from the time of the Ottomans. In Pamuk’s new novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, it’s the boza seller who takes centrestage.

A Strangeness in My Mind – the title is from Wordsworth’s The Prelude -- is the saga of Mevlut Karatas, who accompanies his father to Istanbul from the provinces and spends the rest of his life there, coming to realise that his vocation lies in selling boza to the city’s thirsty and sometimes nostalgic residents. In this way, the book is yet another representation of Istanbul by Pamuk, this time describing not the privileged of the city, as with The Museum of Innocence, but its underclass, those who migrate in search of a better life and find work as itinerant pedlars, waiters, maids, cooks, mechanics and the like. The unemployed, the underskilled, and the poorly educated, as sociologist Elijah Anderson has described them.

Another way in which A Strangeness in My Mind complements The Museum of Innocence is that at the heart of both is a long-lived love story. Mevlut’s wooing of, and subsequent relationship with, his wife Rahiya  provide some of the book’s most touching as well as light-hearted moments, from the case of mistaken identity with which their wedlock commences to the deepening of ties over the years.

Pamuk has elsewhere written of his admiration for Stendhal, of the latter’s brand of psychological realism, and in this novel, that influence is in full flower. He carries a Stendhalian mirror down Istanbul’s roads, allowing it to reflect the milieu, morals and manners of Mevlut, his family and his friends. In keeping with the mischievous modernist manner of his other works, Pamuk also makes this novel polyphonic: the third person saga of Mevlut  is shot through with first-person voices from others in his ken. (One of these characters even alludes puckishly to the writer’s own predicament: “I could write a book about all the men I’ve known, and then I would also end up on trial for insulting Turkishness.”)

The somewhat na├»ve and always sincere Mevlut’s “strangeness” is referred to time and again.“Mevlut wasn’t sure whether the strangeness was in his mind or in the world,” we’re told at the beginning, and then again, referring to the perfect match between Mevlut and Istanbul: “In a city, you can be alone in a crowd, and in fact what makes the city a city is that it lets you hide the strangeness in our mind inside its teeming multitudes.”  For over four decades, from student to husband to father, and during various occupations, he finds satisfaction as a seller of the emblematic boza on Istanbul’s streets, with his cry “reminding us of centuries past, and the good old days that have come and gone”.

Overall, there’s an even-toned quality to the narration, in Ekin Oklap’s English translation. Personal triumphs and tragedies (births, deaths, employment, unemployment, friendships, fallings-out, reunions) are rendered in the same register as urban progress and setbacks (earthquakes, military coups, elections, slum razing, expansion), with the whole bracketed by an index of characters, chronology and family tree. In addition, because of the span of time covered, many sections inevitably contain more summary than incident. At times, all of this can flatten the novel’s landscape.

One of its considerable strengths, though, is the way it makes the universal aspects of rural-urban migration spring to life. One member of a family leaves home for a better life; others from his immediate family follow; shantytowns with informal, collaborative networks of people spring up on the outskirts, and, in time, integrate into the city’s fabric: to these bare bones, Pamuk adds flesh and blood, and heart. (Migrant workers, casual bribery, overcrowded footpaths, land grabs, electricity thefts, bloodshed over beliefs, packs of stray dogs, run-down movie theatres: change some details and locations, and Pamuk could well be writing about an Indian city.)

At one point years after he’s come to Istanbul, Mevlut reflects that “it was sad to see the old face of the city as he had come to know it disappear before his eyes, erased by new roads, demolitions, buildings, billboards, shops, tunnel and flyovers, but it was also gratifying to feel that someone out there was working to improve the city for his benefit.” These changes and more, and the reactions of those affected by them, are precisely and compendiously captured here, creating an affectionate, nostalgic portrait of inner-city Istanbul by one who knows it intimately.