In the mid-1990s I lived in Baltimore as a graduate student at a rich university whose campus was, by a historical accident, stuck in a decrepit and crime-ridden neighbourhood. We were told to keep some money on us at all times. If someone showed us a gun or knife we could hand over the money and they would leave us alone, we were told. Break-ins and carjacking were frequent.
The panhandler at the corner who asked me for money whenever I passed didn’t want to spend the night at the city’s shelters. “Guys have knives there,” he told me. The poor white people lived in the poor white neighbourhoods and the book black people lived in the poor black neighbourhoods. Life was hard for everyone except those who went to the famous university I attended.
I lived in Baltimore for six years and I loved it dearly. I loved it because I had lived there. And like my other home, Delhi, only those who live there can love it. Everyone else is ranged against it, a phenomenon that continues to this day, as we recently saw in President Donald Trump’s ill-considered and insensitive remarks.
The one thing I could give back to Baltimore for all I got from it was a novel that I set there, This Place. Even though it has been seventeen years since I left Baltimore, if I hear someone speak ill of it I still feel the urge to defend it.
Sunita came to the table and started clearing the dishes.
“The kheer was good,” said Jeevan, hesitantly. “Shabbir bhai, will you have some?”
“Of course he will,” said Sunita. “Do you think I made it only for you?”
“This girl is sharp as a knife, Jeevan bhai,” he said. “Make sure you don’t get cut.” Then, when Sunita had stepped away, he lowered his voice, pointed over his shoulder with his thumb, and said: “So, how are things at home?”
“Any progress?” Shabbir asked, his eyebrows bouncing suggestively.
“I’ll go now, Shabbir bhai,” said Jeevan. “Let me start getting the papers ready.”
“Get them ready tomorrow, yaar,” said Shabbir. He winked at Jeevan. “Have a good night’s sleep first.”
Jeevan had already pushed his chair back and was walking to the door.
“Thank you, Bhabhi,” he said. “The curry was very tasty.”
“What about the beans?” Rashida asked, smiling.
“Good, good,” he said, opening the door.
“Arre, Jeevan, listen,” she called after him. “Kamran had called. He’s coming next week.”
Evening on Druid Hill and the light is softening over the reservoir.
The basketball court catches its breath after the last game of the day, still quivering from the memory of twists and turns, of balls thrown in looping arcs. A four-by-four drives by, filling the air with a deep throbbing bass line.
Down the hill are train tracks, an abandoned old railway station, a shining new facility for Light Rail wagons, an old stone bridge married – perhaps against its will – into a family of lean concrete on-ramps and off-ramps ruled by a stern and powerful freeway. Hidden from view is a river. It once carved a valley through mountains, a path that men traveled, a passage they laid rail tracks and built roads along. This river’s course is now set in stone, its channel narrowed by unmoving embankments.
The white stone Moorish tower stands squat at the top of the hill. Floodlights flick on, making it gleam like a polished, broken tusk. From the foot of the tower is seen a broad vista of the city of Baltimore. Lights have begun to come on: from the modest homes of Hampden in the north to the ambitious buildings of downtown and the Harbor in the south. In another time, smoke must have risen from the dwellings that cover this undulating land, greying the sky above them. Today they are illuminated by an electric glow that catches the dust and stains it orange.
Somewhere, the stucco of a rectangular railway station is fading away in the gathering darkness.
Not far from it, near North Avenue, seven lit windows on the side of a church tower form a cross. From here no people are seen. But they are there, behind their walls of brick and mortar: talking, eating, breathing, watching TV.
A swathe runs through the city, a narrow strip of houses, bars, body shops, pizza delivery places, convenience stores, churches, offices, pharmacies and Chinese restaurants with five-dollar lunch specials. The plumbing doesn’t work. The boilers are defective. The flooring is uneven, the carpeting musty. The walls have bullet holes. No one fixes these buildings, no one comes to their rescue. Those who can, don’t care, those who care, can’t. And so this land rots and festers and stinks.
What do we do with this place? How do we prevent its poison from seeping into our drinking water? Cleaning it up will cost too much and, besides, we don’t know how to do it. Perhaps the best way is to start from scratch. Demolish them, each last one of them. Pulverise them. We need to start afresh. A clean slate. We won’t make the same mistakes this time.