Come back safe! A colleague said to me, when he heard we were traveling to Istanbul. Apparently a few German journalists had been arrested recently in Turkey, and the German government had advised citizens not to visit the country. We still carry Indian passports, I said to my colleague, before reassuring him that all will be well.
Our visit revealed the disconnect between local reality and media-induced paranoia. Life in the city appeared normal. If there was any repression, it could perhaps be inferred in the absence of street protests and troops of riot policemen waiting nearby. Both were a frequent presence during our visit four years ago. But such signs — I found myself looking for them — could be misleading. Turkish flags were everywhere, and I wondered if this had something to do with the coup and the purge that followed. But a carpet seller in Grand Bazaar corrected my hasty impression: the flags had come out for display on recent national holiday.
This time we stayed on the other side of Istiklal Caddesi, in an aparthotel built three years ago in the middle of an old quarter, surrounded by a dense cluster of tenements. From the terrace, sticking its neck out among irregular rooftops, you could see the Galata tower. At dusk bursts of camera flashes from the tower dotted the darkening sky.
In the city to meet my sister, who was holidaying in Turkey, we spent most of the weekend revisiting places we had seen on our previous visit. Cukurcuma, Istiklal, Taksim, the bazaar quarter, the mosques. A excursion to Eyup, a town on the Golden Horn, did not work as planned: the ferry company had cancelled this stop. We took the Bosphorus tour instead, hopping off at unfamiliar places — Emirgan, Beylerbeyi — and walking about, catching glimpses of life in these parts. The waterfront was busy with brides and grooms posing for photos, hobbyist and serious fishermen displaying patience and generosity (some threw fish they caught back into the water), and men selling kite-shaped kites.
Tourists were fewer. On the Bosphorus tour the ferries were occupied not with European faces we’d seen last time, but Turkish families on a holiday, or perhaps Istanbulites enjoying a weekend outing. I could see myself sitting all day on these sparsely-filled boats, reading and writing and watching the riverside mansions and ships and barges float past.
Cats still roamed all over the city, people still smoked as if they drew life from those puffs, locals were warm and curious about ‘Hindistan’ as before, the ritual of drinking Turkish tea brought the familiar feeling I belonged here, and the skyline with mosques and minarets left me once again with a heartache. All this is sentimental, but it is also true, and perhaps the only other place that triggers in me such emotions is Calvino’s Venice. Istanbul, a city I’ve visited briefly only twice, fills me with longing.