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When Do You Fall In Love With a City?

In Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino writes: you take delight, not in a city's seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours. For some of us, the pandemic has locked us inside our homes. And for others, it has taken them back home — one away from a home they've carefully built in a different city. Yesterday, I was on a call with someone I freelance with, and he told me how badly he wants to get back to Hyderabad. "I vividly remember the last time I went to work. I moved back home in the first wave, and I cannot wait to come back," he said. 

"It's where I found freedom, you know? First job, first home away from home," he added, but it sounded more like he was talking to himself. After an awkward silence, he laughed away, saying, "Hyderabad obviously has the greatest food, too." Can anyone ever disagree on that?

I was in high school when I moved to Hyderabad. I couldn't make friends instantly — I couldn't foster good friendships till I started college. Hyderabad was different. Every street had a different character; the homes carried an unfamiliar scent, people's problems were not quite like mine, and the biggest problem of all? It took me years to get familiar with the city.

Words seem constrained when I describe this city now. For the uninitiated, I predominantly write about this city for a living. From barely knowing this city to discovering its hidden labyrinths and alleys, it grew on me. I wonder, though — when do you realise you've fallen in love with a city? What's the exact moment, and what's running in your head? Is it when you spot familiar faces around you? When you've fallen in love? Or that instant when you know there are countless streets in the city, and all of them can take you home? What makes a city complete for an individual? Is it when we seek comfort in a bar we go to when we're broke? Or when we're fully able to cry in the arms of a friend, at a shitty bar, just after two drinks? 

For a friend who moved to a different country to work, it's a different story. "I've moved back home after working there for a few years, but I think I left something behind. It was home for all intents and purposes. I was lonely, barely had friends, but that's where I evolved, yo," he once said while gulping beer at my office bar. How we find homes in cities or countries we leave behind is strange! 

Recently, I watched Flavors of Youth on Netflix. It's an anthology based out in different cities. In its first part, the protagonist moves to Beijing from his hometown, tucked somewhere in Hunan. The story starts with the protagonist commenting, "Hunger is eating at my soul — a rare downpour in Beijing. As if slurping a cold soup, the subway systematically gulps the people down. The harsh city makes the faces expressionless. I'm probably one of them." The whole story revolves around this guy's observations of the city and how he's struggling to get used to it. Nothing dramatic; he's like a fly on the wall, but if you've moved away from home, you'll relate.

His childhood memories begin with a noodle shop in Hunan, making Sanxiang noodles for almost 20 years. He often shared a bowl of steaming noodles with his grandmother. One day, they shut the shop and moved out of the town. Years later, he moves out of the town for college, and there, he stumbles upon a noodle shop that makes similar noodles. That shop shuts down, too. And when he finally moves to Beijing, he doesn't find such noodles. 

"The machine-made noodles were almost perfect," he says as he eats. Throughout the movie, he woefully comments about the city or longs for what he has left behind. A bowl of noodles, similar to the ones he had at home, may have offered him the comfort of home in a city. Food, indeed, has that power. But, even when he moves to a city for a better future, he cannot stop yearning for his town. When you have no heart, perhaps rebuilding a home is not a choice.

We love the familiarity. I'm still figuring it out. I don't know if I'll ever live in a different city, but for now, I love Hyderabad. I call it home.

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