This weekend, reading Subashini’s masterful return-post, I started thinking about what it means to disrespect a blog. It struck me, for the first time, that perhaps it isn’t bogey who refused me, but that I spurned her when I began questioning the value of the work we did together. Then the Doniger thing happened, and while I’m not quite ready to return to the Big Blog yet, this is my peace-offering. Of sorts.
In my time in the North East (gods I have grown to hate that imperial shorthand) only two memories became wholly, privately mine. One is the perfect day spent scrambling through Sohra. The other is the afternoon described below in what I called “a critical fairytale” in class.
It is, of course, nothing of the kind.
Once upon a time, in a faraway country, a woman went walking in a sacred forest. It was forbidden to tame the forest or to leave with anything—memories made here belong to the forest. Not a leaf nor a twig could be disturbed, on pain of enduring a dreary, loveless life chased by the sceptres of dread and lost things. In this country, love was not sought, like a river or a mountain, it was an ent within a vast wood. It would find you, if you left the paths of the civilised and ventured, bold and steadfast, into the heart of the forest. If you entered, and agreed to leave transformed and empty. As she ambled, the woman thought about all the things solitary people contemplate when they escape society: the approaching death of her ancient, wise dog; the three-hour drive through hillside that had been destroyed for coal and limestone; the fairytales and myths that this small patch of wild wood had inspired, the fairytale, indeed, of love itself. But mostly she thought about Harlem, to which she would return in a few weeks. Harlem, where she would have to find another refuge, because love, which had found her so lately, had abandoned her again.
Harlem is where Manhattan grows crooked. Some might argue Manhattan is born that way, the maze that is the city creeping out of the ocean like a splayed cephalopod, twisting this way and that, but the insular villages of the south make sense, if only to themselves. They inhabit their own logic: Chelsea is glitzy; Chinatown is kitschy; Alphabet City is schmaltzy. Harlem is a forest, trackless and depthless, a forest embroiled in a perennial argument with itself. So contested is the idea of Harlem that even its boundaries aren’t defined, in a borough otherwise devoted to borders. Is Spanish Harlem truly Harlem? Is Manhattanville? Harlem’s avenues sprout and tangle and disappear—St Nicholas Avenue, for instance, starts at Lennox Avenue, on 111h Street and swerves hesitantly west, until it finally blends into Broadway at 169h Street. Unlike the measured and predictable tread of New York’s more famous diagonal, St Nicholas rambles.
At 135th Street, in the heart of Harlem’s Renaissance district, St Nicholas stretches along a park. To the west of this steep, ridged park is the City College of New York, the oldest public university in the United States. To the east is Strivers’ Row, where the woman was hoping to find a temporary home, away from the hostile memories of Sugar Hill. Finding your bearings in the neighbourhood around Strivers’ Row can be like orienting yourself in a gothic spaceship—a doughty dilapidated worlds-spanning vessel that witnessed a million generations of humanity, until a nostalgic fairy fond of bizarre buildings lost herself within it. It is a brooding, hulking space made light by pixie-dust.
Yes, the woman wheezed as she climbed the steep cliffs of Mawphlang grove in Meghalaya, that was where a home might be found. There she might walk again, and, beneath the filigree arches across minuscule Convent Avenue, she would find her rhythm, her eye, and herself. In that place, which has always welcomed people who arrive with nothing but the little money they’ve saved, a little money they trade for a dream: a dream of belonging, or security, or, in this case, a dream of renewal.