The first observations one would have moving out of an Indian city into a stroll across Durham is the much thinner stream of people in the streets, less daunting traffic and fewer buildings that eat up the sky. But more than the eye, it’s the ear that finds itself in a lovely play of nostalgia and newness. I had never known the rustle of leaves fluttering in an air that suddenly grows into a roar across the winds. Nor had I experienced the lovely brushings of midnight winds across glass windows. Into my third week in Durham, I have managed to brush off my foreignness quite a bit with my walks across the town and my warm initiations into sausage rolls and poetry readings. Most importantly, it’s the people I call my new friends now who make me realize how much I have to look forward to from this wonderful university town.
My first meeting with my PhD supervisor took place after a walk in the rain that was the perfect recipe for depression. My Indian umbrella was visibly wanting in its first battles against the English rain. The spokes that spread the arch were no match against the winds that broke their too delicate hinges. The 15-minute walk down to Hallgarth Street from St. Aidan’s College didn’t exactly see me in the Gene Kelly mood in the rain. Luckily, my supervisor warmed to me instantly with the coffee and chat, very kindly overlooking my soggy shoes and coat sleeves that redefined embarrassment in my mind. Thanks chiefly to her niceness, I could re-gather the ideas about my prospective work despite the merciless mirror that showed my dishevelled self from across the room. The walk back to my college though was the longest and the coldest with my umbrella-less self moving beneath a drizzle that sometimes swirled into rain. The English rain, I felt, was very different from the rain in my city. It was colder and more spasmodic and driven by a wind that flows with a randomness that looks beautiful from the warmth of a room with a window view. In many ways, the Durham rain is very similar to the ones in the towns in the Himalayan foothills I’ve been to, in Northern India, with a coldness that smells of snow.
Luckily, the Durham sun, when it does appear, is as kind and warm as the people I’ve met beneath it. So when I walked for the Induction Programme for International Researchers the following day, there was more than one reason to feel cheery inside, with the mindscape and the landscape in a lovely harmony through the whistling trees. The wonderful presentations and welcome lectures re-instilled the honour of studying at Durham and the lovely sandwiches for lunch didn’t harm the feel-goodness either. But the highpoint of the day most definitely was the book sale off Collingwood College Library at the porch before the Science Site, where I managed to get a copy of Great Expectations in an attractive wooden cover for a mere 70 pence; good enough to make one guilty. It reminded me of my city’s second hand bookstores with their warm mushy smell of old books, in College Street, by my alma mater, the University of Calcutta. A similar feeling greeted me when I walked into the bookstore in Durham Indoor Market which housed a remarkable collection of bestsellers and classics alike. The Market itself is a beautiful space, a feast for the senses with the smell of freshly baked cakes spreading across the sight of a rack of Wordsworth Classics beside it. And like the Hogg’s Market in Kolkata and the Spice Market in Istanbul, this space too does not quite have the cut and dried look of a purely commercial zone where the big brands make themselves spectacularly ubiquitous. Instead one finds the warmth of a simplicity coupled with a charm that the slippery supermarket floors rarely contain.
One of my chief interests in Durham, one that I looked forward to in all earnestness, was the poetry culture around the university. So when I got a response from the Poetry Society stating I had a slot to read two of my poems at Fishtank, I was a perfect mixture of excitement and nervousness. And at the end of it, there was this lovely feeling that pruned all earlier misgivings, with me having read two of my poems and listened to some excellent poetry from poets of very disparate interests. That was just the initiation of course, and the Poetry Society with its very warm members and drawing room discussions fast became a point of interest that has grown bigger ever since. The seminars around the university too, are an excellent way to know the goings-on in the academic culture as well as making new friends. The Ustinov Seminars, with their mixture of informal warmth and excellent presentations have been the perfect recipes to kick-off the weekends with a stroll down from my St. Aidan’s abode. Purple Radio, with its engaging topics of interest and lovely hosts, tells one what’s going around Durham, its university and its people. To me, all these have become parts of an excellent dialogue I see myself engaging with more and more with time. The spaces, the people, the cultural idioms, all coalesce to form this beautiful bubble that promises never to break.
Admittedly, my PhD study itself has taken a bit of a backseat with so many legitimate reasons not to stay indoors. A rude wake-up call is close at hand, I’m sure. But with so much to do and engage in, I don’t mind waiting up for its shrill sirens when they do come. Till then, let me leaf through the lovely list of indulgences my new home offers me. It carries a beautiful intimacy that has never ceased to be enriching.