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Neon Comforts

There is something (read: many things, scattered and one) to be said about the act of walking through the city at night. Who gets to do it and how and what it reveals — of the city, of fear and mulch, of the Politics of Being in a Certain body at a Certain time in a Certain city. Many things may be (and have been) said in much more dignified ways. But this piece of writing is not about things that matter. This is an entirely self-indulgent work. This is for myself and others like me, who like their odes silly and colourful and romantically inclined towards films of a director with a more legendary crush on Tony Leung than you or I could manage. This is a cheer to friends: in places big and small, hanging out at bus stops because there was no place to sit except on its entirely-too-thin seats. The nearest McDonald’s, like the closest full-stop at any point in this writing, is a little too far to make for one (1) sprained ankle of unknown origins. This is a meditative guide to zoning out at stop signals —

Step 1. Sit and stare, red, red, red. These are not mutually exclusive actions.

Step 2. Oh shit it’s green when was it yellow what the f-

Step 3. Paragraph transition. Because all this, written meandering through the veins of a city, is at an end. Shocking! Sharpen a pencil we will get to –

— the point. I am writing an ode to the city at night. This is an insufferable boombox and a Valentine song to sharing space, in acts of meandering and stopping. To finding time with friends. And, in the process, finding excerpts in the text of the city that make up the most lost and the most familiar parts of who you are. This is to verbalise the patchwork You, made of insignificant strolls and tumbles through neon comforts. See also: Chungking Express (1994), dir. Wong Kar-wai. Because how could one ever embark upon a project about being lost in fluorescence without it?

To begin with, meandering. To meander has never been simply equivalent to following directions to get somewhere for a straightforward journey back — that would be a toilet trip. To meander is to move through space that has accumulated meaning in the time within which a city has existed for you. The most successful gedi is one where you lose yourself in rap no one else likes and conversations no one outside the bubble of that one car could understand. It is pointedly not a loss of direction (or, necessarily, the seeking of one). A meander, then, is laden with intent from two sources — the subject(s), and the city. And so we move into the life and liminality of Chungking Express to make sense of this intent.

Detective 663 and Faye’s meanderings through a market district in the film provide a vivid example of the subjective history one makes with a city, and how this colours one’s intent in wandering it. Faye likes 663, she desires companionship with him; and so, in the process of paying electricity bills and running chores that do not exist, she lies to 663, the people-serving policeman, to help her through these chores. She does this through the longest routes the marketplace has to offer. Such an attempt at lengthening known space, for Faye, is proportional to the intensification of affect between her and 663. 

The city, thus imagined to hold meaning expansively for and through the histories of people that have meandered it, becomes a medium of sharing meaning, through an intentional sharing of the space within it. And so, I find myself most full of love when most full of momos at an extremely shady stall that my two best friends — subject to more gutters of profanity than the mouth of every sewer we have walked over in 8 years together — found as children. Wandering, a little too precariously. Moth-like, away from home, and into the orange of many (many) tired office-men’s lit cigarettes. 

But meandering is not an activity built for endlessness. The intent of it all, perhaps, is best relished with pause. This pause comes with knowing how the spaces your body carves in the city are yours alone. Share them as you please, of course; the city doesn’t care. It will run and make run as it must, despite you. But to share space in the body of the city is to inevitably share in making meaning out of that space, and also have no idea of what it could possibly mean in its entirety. 

A whole world in a shady momo stall where you and your loved ones take pause, entirely unbeknownst to every other momo-eater in the stall. Perhaps they don’t even view the place as shady. All this worldbuilding is for naught to anyone besides you — your text of love and shared space is a niche publication, a flop, to be very honest. Are you chagrined by this? To not know of the meanings of others is to acknowledge that space shared is time bookmarked in entirely different texts.

 What I mean is – 

Everyone walks the same earth, but lives their own time. This is not meant to be wise. To know that every path you wander, every space you make a place is entirely yours, is a lonely thought. But to acknowledge the stack of stories that time has heaped upon yours, that every space/place you step foot into is crammed chock-full of it all, is also rather comforting. Chungking Express is a film made of stories stacked, colliding only once, rather gently. In a snack shop, no less. When Qiwu with his pineapple loneliness bumps against Faye of the California dreams, an April fool’s heart crashes with one that has a 3-digit number printed neatly across it. 

They do not know each other. They probably never will. They are both profoundly lonely. Their times follow different streams. And yet, through the medium of film, we, the viewers, know them both from the same story and locate them in the same space. We know that the ways that both of them, albeit separately, have made Place out of the space of the snack shop is secret to each — but both feel less lonely now, even if through the eyes of those they do not know are looking at their stories emerge. 

Maybe my shady momo stall’s stocky owner has seen enough love and exhausted pause pass by her singular, 4000-watt, too-bright stall bulb to have made pastiche out of at least some stories she is witness to. I hope my love has made it there. To the film she plays in her mind, made out of her days/months/years of being a landmark of rest and schezwan chutney organising my time.

Perhaps you will seize time by the throat and run past smoking uncles, their gossip spilling juicier than that of their wives. Or perhaps you will fall on your ass, all sidewalk-splattered because of the treacherous monsoon algae. Someone will help and you will not remember them. In this rendition of the city, you make time by the space you move in. Make a mess of known roads in your next gedi. You translate the city now, taking routes your friends have walked with you countless times. In silence (midday grocery runs, flies, and too much sweat for words to form in the backdrop of lazy bus stations), and in raucousness (expletives reserved for dating app discourse, salty-sweet, poured into “gannajoos” by juice shop bhaiyyas who are a little too intent on the details of your misadventures.)

Time need not be a guide when you are, if only momentarily: in wandering the city, subject to yourself. Take the moment and bookmark. Or don’t, if it is not pretty enough. Everything is accelerated anyway. Dip your hands often enough in the stream of all that colour and you will come away with something that you like. 

It is all always there, and you cannot get enough.

So, you sharpen a pencil during the red light, impatient for the point. 

Oh shit it’s green already when was it yellow what the f—

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