The likeness of beings


Great literature transcends the barriers of language, geography, and even time. Nikhil Katara reviews some of Orhan Pamuk’s stories and characters, mostly set in Istanbul, but could work well for Mumbai too. Whether the writer intended it or not, the readers’ own experiences and the universality of the stories make it happen.

Orhan Pamuk, is a weaver of words. But while going about his business, he also transcends being a writer, and opens doors into places, which were in another time. So does that make him, and thus us, a time traveler too? The world Pamuk takes his fellow travelers to, is set usually in Istanbul. But in a way it could be Mumbai too. What is beautiful about Pamuk’s oeuvre is that it is not too far away from home, for us Indians, especially the ones born and brought up in Mumbai. For if you sit in Pamuk’s time machine and travel into the past of Istanbul, you will see small glimpses of the Mumbai that was, and as you travel in his time machine into the future, you might just see your own story unfold.

In the essay, The death of the author, French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes had argued against incorporating the intentions of the author in the interpretation of the text. So, in such a situation, it is only the reader, his intelligence, that makes the text come alive. Even though Pamuk’s works are in so many ways intended to be in the world of Istanbul and its many inhabitants, when it is read by an Indian, their intelligence transforms the space of Istanbul and relates it to their life story. That the streets of Istanbul, the vendors on its roads, and the culture of its people is so similar for an Indian back home, finding the necessary connections isn’t that difficult.

A pleasurable journey
Mevlut from ‘A strangeness in my mind’ is one such character. Mevlut sells Bosa on the streets of Istanbul. He carries it and screams out aloud the call of ‘BOSA’ for people to hear him. His life has been a long journey, where he has to travel from one place to the other with only street dogs to give him company. The transformation of Istanbul through its high rises, along with the many changes make Mevlut, a representative of the past that was. The Raki drinking rich-folk take interest in him because he reminds them of their history, he walks the streets and is a representative of the Istanbul that was. Mumbai itself has seen such a transformation, where the town has transformed, and their own Bosa sellers are slowly disappearing, if one were to hear a street vendor calling out to sell their goods, it would ring a bell somewhere in the corners of the mind, because there was once a time when these calls were a commonality in the streets.

Whenever Mevlut finds himself at the doorstep of one of his many clients, he finds it confusing whether or not to remove his slippers outside. For the old timers, it is an unwritten rule. But for the ones living in the new world of Istanbul, the tradition of removing the slippers is an unnecessary formality. Mevlut finds it a predicament to make that decision every time he is outside a door. The tradition of removing shoes and slippers outside a home, was a cultural etiquette for Indians as well. Many times these days, Indians find themselves in similar confusions. How often is it that you enter a home and involuntarily remove your slippers and shoes at the doorstep only to find out that this culture is passé, and in the new times the people wear their shoes at all times. But every so often, you find yourself in a home where there is a nice little collection of shoes outside, and you remove your shoes too to respect the old unwritten rule.

CemÇelik in ‘Red haired woman’ is another one of the characters from Pamuk’s books that lives in Istanbul, but often is seen in the streets of Mumbai. He is a successful businessman and has built an empire out of nothingness. Something haunts him in his past that occurred many years ago, while digging a well with his master Mahmut. Celik’s character is continuously influenced by two stories. One is Oedipus rex, and the other is ‘Shahnameh’, both being tragedies. An episode in Çelik’s life makes him research the Shahnameh continuously, and eventually he even names his empire Sohrab (who is the murdered son in Shahnameh). In the background looms the city, where old times change to new, old streets find new names, and towns like Öngören are completely lost. Çelik and his wife themselves transition, becoming the new Istanbul, literally constructing a lot of it in the process. Mumbai’s own grounds have seen the rise of the tall skyscrapers in the decade past, a quick revolution that coloured the city with malls and large structures. It was not too long ago when the first mall had risen, but now they are a common sight. The people themselves have acquired the tastes of all this change and are somewhere hybrids between the old and the new. Many Çelik’s live and breathe in Mumbai too, making it what it was, while holding on to what they had.

As Istanbul is recreated with Pamuk’s words, the time travellers visit their own past, they go through a journey, which reveals a certain world that they themselves inhabited. It could be Istanbul, or it could be Mumbai. But because the stories that Pamuk has created have a specific ring to them reminiscent of the world that the East once inhabited, it works as a canvas, reflecting the images that belong in the memories of these time travellers. The beauty of it brings it closer home, reminding us who we were, what we are, and where we live.

Nikhil Katara

Nikhil Katara initiated his journey as a writer with his own production titled The Unveiling, a science fiction drama in the year 2011. To strengthen critical learning he initiated an MA programme in ‘Philosophy’ at the Mumbai university with optionals in Kant, Greek Hellinistic Philosophy, Feminism, Logic and Existentialism. His play Yatagarasu opened at Prithvi Theatre in 2016. He is a consultant facilitator at J’s paradigm (a novel performance arts institute) and writes book reviews for the Free Press Journal.