Rosalyn D'mello: Surrendering for a new beginning

May 18, 2018, 07:06 IST | Rosalyn D'mello

Though my body was tired from the endless travelling witnessing the beauty of Italy, I had to come to Rome to solve a mystery

The Roman Forum in the center of Rome. Pic Courtesy/Rosalyn D'mello
The Roman Forum in the center of Rome. Pic Courtesy/Rosalyn D'mello

Rosalyn D'melloI did not account for what now seems like the inevitable consequence of so much travel: the blurring of existential categories that define my raison d'etre as I continue my Italian sojourn. What am I first, writer, tourist, traveller or pilgrim? To which of these vocations do I owe my primary allegiance?

Starting out in the northern region of Bolzano, within which I somehow managed to ensconce myself, thanks to my residency at Eau&Gaz, within exactly 30 days I have found myself in the deep south - the autonomous Mediterranean island of Sicily; a lived repository of continuous histories dating two millennia. I accessed the regions of Tuscany, Veneto, Neapolitan and Lazio through my explorations of Firenze, Venezia, Napoli and Roma, before taking a flight to Palermo, from where I am transcribing this dispatch. By the time you will have read this, I will already have returned to Roma where I will spend another night before I make my way to Ortona and Assisi, thereby initiating the more pilgrim end of my travel. I am deeply aware that I now have less than two weeks left in Italy, and I am struggling (really, really struggling) to make sense of everything I have encountered through my witness. How to distil the vast everything-ness of my recent realities into bottled significance; something that is easier to swallow, digest, imbibe, share?

I was grateful to land in Palermo; grateful to have found a cheap flight that got me here from Rome in under an hour, grateful to avoid what would otherwise have been a 14-hour journey. But, mostly, I discovered I was grateful to be in a city that felt like the opposite of Rome; un-pretentious, unabashed about its past, non-ostentatious and aesthetically more austere. Here I felt I could allow my body to recover from the sensual assault of the spectacle that is that city of grand beauty, magnificence, un-mindful excess. No guide I'd perused had prepared me for my sensory dyslexia, particularly on the perceptual front, like the difficulty I would experience in simply focussing my gaze.

As a sightseeing tourist, one is mentally prepared to encounter a monument; a spectacle; a historic site. In Rome, however, you are condemned to stumble upon multiple. You walk into a street and your eyes rest first on a fountain, then naturally zoom out to witness the larger frame, except you spot, next door, an opulent church façade, and across from it another, but perhaps from another century altogether, and for a moment you feel like you're experiencing a glitch in a time-travelling machine. You walk later at night to catch your bus back to your Airbnb and come upon a vast excavation site bearing just a two-paragraph description and you empathise with the historians and archaeologists who seem themselves to be struggling with this excess; this dense populace of relic, debris, pagan vestige and Catholic worship sites.

Each night my feet, exhausted and overwhelmed from walking, cried themselves to sleep as my mind, unable to still my still-restless body, tried to make sense of what I'd seen, thought, remembered, and referenced: the Sistine Chapel, the wonders of Bernini, the cinematic odes by Fellini, Rosselini, Passolini and Sorrentino; and the more obscure works of writers like Malcolm Lowry. I had to re-read one of his protagonist's visit to the Keats and Shelley Memorial Museum next to the Spanish Steps as I sat by the side of The Pantheon, after having been to that museum, and in preparation for the next day's visit to the Non-Catholic cemetery containing both poets' tombs. Had I not had the sense of mind to seek solace in relatively more obscure churches and smaller chapels, both to escape the madding crowd of tourists and to offer my body an indulgent moment of pause, I'm sure I would have been defeated by that city.

It was the only reason why, despite being drained of all energy, I could make one final schlep towards the Coliseum and also convince Mona to meet me there. After a very leisurely stroll at what felt like perfect timing, when the final rays of the sun hit the millennia-old façade, we found a corner to park ourselves for a while. I couldn't help, but show her a clip from Sorrentino's The Great Beauty; of Sister Maria on the balcony of the protagonist's home in front of the Coliseum, gathering the flamingos in the thick of night, then blowing into the air to gesture at them to fly away. I felt as though I'd finally 'got' Sorrentino's film, despite having seen it a while ago. I had to come to Rome to solve its mystery.

I cannot shake off this lingering feeling that something beyond my own free will is designing my itinerary, is customising each imprint my feet make. Whether I am either or interchangeably a writer, tourist, traveller or pilgrim has become inconsequential. All that matters now is that I willingly surrender in order to be remade.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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