Nostalgia is not what it used to be

When I first left the town that I still think of as home, I would sometimes be overcome by nostalgia about the unlikeliest of things: a little corner shop which would take ages to serve samosas, impassable traffic on roads which would even force bicyclists to take alternative routes, a bunch of quarreling labourers who would spend an hour before dinner drinking and playing cards in a little alley, a shop which would stock all the treasures of a school kid’s life (scented erasers, fidget toys, Phantom comics). Walking along the roads of Nanjing I found the streets familiar in a strange way: if I’d grown up here I could miss it horribly. A simple dumpling soup? Of course I could become nostalgic about it.

The streets were not as crowded as those of my childhood, but China has managed its infrastructure to expand with its growth. There are still traffic jams in the large cities, but the traffic does flow. The one parallel with the ancient imperial city I grew up in was the inability of different kinds of traffic to stay away from each other. The lady in the scooter jacket was talking to her very young daughter, who was riding pillion. As I took this photo the child turned and was hidden completely. I realized at that moment that the pillion rider does not need a jacket.

I took a photo of this shop window in passing. Sometimes when I’m chasing the light, as I was doing on this walk, I don’t have the time to stop and examine things which look interesting, so I keep taking photos with my phone. I’d tried, unsuccessfully, to describe to The Family the atmosphere of streets in Paris and Geneva when I was an impecunious young man. Nowadays, photos serve better. When I showed her this photo I realized that it was an artists’ shop: the bowls hold paint and the kites are painted. I would love to go back, it looks like a magic shop of my youth.

These two young men on the sidewalk trying to figure out some card game could well be the kind of unlikely thing that sticks in one’s memory. I’ve tried to develop a method of stealth shooting with my phone. It needs some work. Sometimes I get a good shot when you take an unobtrusive photo on your phone as you walk past a group of people, but the composition is totally unpredictable.

Back in India the next weekend, I was having dinner with a colleague and a good friend, who turned out to have gone to school in Nanjing. The Family and I encouraged his nostalgia (we are incorrigible tourists) and I was happy to find parallels to my memories of growing up in a smaller town. Discovering a common humanity is part of the fun about travelling: in two culturally disparate countries, divided by the wall of Himalayas, our personal experiences ran parallel.

High culture: the Shanghai museum

A Song dynasty jade carving depicts a cow gazing at the moon
A Song dynasty jade carving depicts a cow gazing at the moon

When we came out of the Shanghai Museum, we were happy that we didn’t skip it. The Shanghai that we had seen before was the modern China, the city of engineering marvels. This gave us a glimpse of the other China: the old civilization that developed across the Himalayas from us.

The museum is located in People’s Square, and entry is free. It is worthwhile to take an audio guide for RMB 40. The museum classifies its collection by form: furniture, bronze, jade, calligraphy, painting, and so on. Calligraphy is an art form that is hard to appreciate if you cannot read the script. There are also other sections of the museum that we were not culturally prepared for. What we could appreciate was really well selected. I spent a lot of time in the porcelain, jade and painting galleries. The galleries contain a lot; it would be easy to spend half a day in each. We simply did not have the time.

Detail from an enormous celadon vase; apparently one of the first large celadon ware
Detail from an enormous celadon vase; apparently one of the first large celadon ware
There are exquisite pieces of jade. The photo at the top shows a lovely piece whose cultural significance I do not appreciate. The only connection I know between the moon and a cow is through a nursery rhyme, or the song in Lord of the Rings. The porcelain is astonishing. I had not realized how much technology is required to execute porcelain; the development of celadon work required precise high-temperature kilns. I understood later when talking to a modern pottery artist that the state of the art is not very much further advanced. Celadon kilns work at a little over 1200 Celcius. Modern kilns can achieve around 1350 Celcius, but the success rate of firing pottery in these can be as low as 20%.

The art form from China that is perhaps most familiar to all of us is painting. We saw wonderful examples in the Shanghai museum. In addition to the individual pieces, walking through these galleries gave me a first understanding of how the aesthetics of China developed in a direction so different from either the Western or the Indian.

We arrived in the museum early in the morning, when there was absolutely no queue to enter. When we left at 1 PM we saw enormous queues, and realized how lucky we had been with the timing of our visit.