How long does a person have to live in a city to know it? Thanks to blogs and summary emails, we’ve all become travel writers. But while it’s obvious that travel writing in most cases isn’t a substitution for traditional fiction or non-fiction writing, it does a disservice to the locales we live in not to improve how we write about them. I’ve noticed in my own thinking about Kolkata lately that mere description of a new neighborhood visited or a particular day’s itinerary reveals very little about the city or the citizens.
In a career where 2-3 years is the maximum normal tenure in any one place, and where the job places you in a flexible bubble of security that requires reacting to demands from on high, the difficulty of “knowing” increases. The solution may be to interact rather than observe. By interacting you run headlong into immediate barriers — language, class, culture — and it becomes easy to retreat into your comfort zones. Watching little Kool – Q’ul discover the world around him is a lesson in how to do it — touch as many objects as possible, engage as many of the senses, and throw things to the floor to see how they break apart.