On the Gracht

Aan de Amsterdamse grachten

On the gracht

If February thinks its job is to test my relationship with my beloved city, summer confirms our courtship. Short, but sweet enough.

The other day I was in a chat room with some people who I have never met. I typed, ‘its sunny and warm in Amsterdam’. Someone replied immediately, ‘ Oh so you are in the great city’. I asked, ‘and where are you?’ ‘Calcutta’, showed up on my screen. ‘Also a great city’, I typed. ‘Yes and similar’, is what appeared in a jiffy. Then we had to get down to the business of the day. So I never got around to asking him what he meant by ‘similar’.

It’s about street life, I tell myself later.  And it’s about majesty – the feeling you get when you look around you in Tuchinsky theatre. In Calcutta majesty may look black or crumbling, but its there. In both places, buildings are not so tall, though many are large and roomy. ‘Colonial’ we say in Cal. And just look at the streets in Amsterdam – half of them are reserved for pedestrians and bicycles. The rest is for everything on more than two wheels or two feet. Even in the bitter cold months and when winds threaten to blow us away, we meet the eyes of people as we sit on our bicycles- our chief mode of transport. On such days, for a few minutes everyday, we are exposed to nature, open to the elements, if much better equipped to deal with them than the folks on the streets of Calcutta. ‘Now stop forcing the connection’, I tell myself, ‘just because you were born in Calcutta, and presently live in Amsterdam’.

But look, in both places, there is much detail to be engaged with at eye level or just a little higher. The pavements of Calcutta are filled with people’s homes, with or without roofs. Here the front windows of many homes at street level are transparent walls that one is invited to look through as families dine or watch TV. And then there are the grachts – the canals, with their own version of ‘street life’.

On a map, the canals at the heart of the city look like a necklace of four strings. This summer, I am invited by friends to attend the ‘Prinsengracht music concert’ on the outermost canal of the lovely necklace. We will float on boats to live classical music and then a soprano will thrill us with her songs. This is one of the many ways by which my city woos me when the days are long.

It is bright sunny and seven thirty. People are seated on pavements on both sides of the canal. Folks higher up are looking out from the windows and balconies above and sipping wine. On the street, negotiating my way over blankets, wine and food seems tricky. It is difficult to find a spot to park my bicycle. I cannot reach the bicycle stand so I stop and lock my bicycle but not to anything. My bicycle stands free but locked. I find my friends’ boat tied to the wall of the canal and lower my heavy backpack containing a glass dish of freshly cooked pulao made from basmati rice and vegetables. Stepping into the boat I feel it rock a little. We are surrounded on all sides by boats with people in them. Every few minutes, someone jumps into the boat we’re in and onto another and then another. Each time that happens, the mild swaying of the ground beneath our feet is the only sign of water in this sea of humanity.

Seas of humanity – yes I’ve been in those in Calcutta. Oceans of humanity.

On one boat, wine is chilling in an ice bucket and professional catering is on offer. On another, four teenage girls have arranged their bedding on the deck and snuggle together. I hear that my friends have been on their boat at ten in the morning. Hundreds of other people have likewise been on theirs to reserve a place near the platform that has been constructed on the canal. They all had to wait at a sort of ‘start line’ with the cops patrolling to make sure no one broke through. They read newspapers and strung beads to pass the time. When the imagined ‘gates opened’ to go further, there was a mad rush and all was not fair play. People who had been friendly and warm to each other across boats suddenly turned into competitors to get close to the performance platform. One boat with two pushy young men barged ahead and so a man jumped from his boat to theirs and punched one of them.  The one who was doing the actual navigation and forging ahead was spared the violence because the aggressor couldn’t be bothered with getting the right man. A street fight in Calcutta; a boat fight in Amsterdam. It happens.

The music begins but it is quite difficult to hear from where we are. I settle back into my seat and sip my wine. I begin to lose focus and my thoughts wander away to my bicycle. Only the night before, the buckfiets of my friends has been stolen from right outside their door. It was also not locked to anything. A buckfiets that is locked with its heavy wooden box to transport kids is difficult to steal. It takes two or more strong men to lift and transport it in a van or truck. In comparison, bicycles are a dream to make off with. Mine is an expensive one and new. Many people choose not to have good or new bicycles. The more run down they look, the greater the possibility that they will not attract the eye of a bicycle thief. Of all the many different ways we could define our street life here, the least inviting is the memory of having to go searching for a spot to lock our bicycles to a post or a railing when the bicycle stands are full. And they are often full.

Sitting on that boat on a magnificent evening, I worry and forget I am there for a concert.

I shoot out of my thoughts when a splendid voice comes over to us. I find myself jumping out of the boat onto the edge of the canal. I stand there on my toes amidst bottles and glasses, feet and fingers, in an attempt to catch sight of her. But all I see is the fluttering of her blue clothes; a butterfly in the darkening sky. I feel like all sound has been waiting for that moment. In the twilight, people sway. She ends the evening with a song of Amsterdam – Aan de Amsterdamse grachten’.  She sings in Dutch,  ‘with my whole heart, I pledge myself forever to the canals of Amsterdam. I cherish Amsterdam as the most beautiful city in this land. Late in the evenings, all the people with the little lights on the squares of Amsterdam. You couldn’t wish for anything more than to be an Amsterdammer’. Before me are thousand little lanterns waving – the fireflies in answer to a butterfly. There is an ebb and flow of many voices with the diva’s soaring high above. Old, young and children hold each other and sway.

‘There is a house by the canals in old Amsterdam, where I came as a lad on visits to my grandmother. Now there’s a strange gentleman who sits in the front room. Even the majestic attic serves as an office. Only the trees still dream – high above the traffic……’

Before me, a man who has taken his shirt off dances, rocking his little boat and ours with it. I look towards the magnificent butterfly that sings, never seeing her face, but feeling deep within me, the flutter she creates.

Then soon after that, I am jostling in the crowd to get to the spot where I left my shiny new bicycle – so vulnerable in the great city. I wonder if I will ever see it again. I pass several windows and notice there is nobody to look at in the living rooms through the glass. What I see is order, with everything in place. Here on the streets, thousands of people are moving in apparent disorder. Boats further up begin to leave the concert space. I use my elbows and try to jog; then I stop. What do I see before me? Is it real? It is my bicycle standing there where I had left it.

If the long winters are the test of my relationship with my beloved city then the summer must be the time of our courtship.

Nandini Bedi

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