20. A Street in Najirèh
The outer district of Najirèh (“Empress”) is so named in honour of the empress Aritokèh, during whose reign the area’s first streets were laid out. It is located on a raised plateau surrounded by rice fields to the north, south, and east, and by the Golu Canal (See n. 38) to the west. The unnamed avenue presented here is typical of streets in this part of the city, with their tall, regularly spaced trees and narrow wooden sidewalks. Typical, too, are the long rows of attached houses, with a ground level built of stuccoed masonry and an overhanging second story of wood. There is nothing particularly remarkable about the depicted scene, and it may at first be difficult to understand why the artist chose to include it in the series.
Upon reflection, however, one may well conclude that it is exactly in such generic spots that the true spirit of the city is to be found. Any tourists visiting Sensuka for the weekend can marvel at the monumental buildings in the city centre, stroll through the pleasure gardens of Rateliska, sample the street foods along the Terenfi Canal, or dance the night away in the Kadukilo during the Totamontra festival. If they know the right locals, they may also be shown the way to smoky, semilegal poetry dens, or to hole-in-the wall portside restaurants where the fishermen come to eat their own catch, and hand it over still flopping to the kitchen staff. But it is not these sights and experiences, however captivating or memorable, that make Sensuka Sensuka. What is really special about the city—what is truly worth marvelling at—are the vast number of nondescript neighbourhoods like the one depicted in this print, these rows upon rows of lives—of many generations of lives, which we will never know and we can never know. And all these lives, one way or another, revolve, or once revolved, around the same centrifugal force: Sensuka—not the physical city, but an energy, or an idea, or whatever dream it is that the city represents in the heart and mind of each individual.
For the outside visitor, however, such areas are destined to remain forever a mystery. Exceptionally curious tourists can make a visit out to these districts, of course, though there is absolutely nothing for them to do there except walk up and down the long, monotonous residential streets, or stop in for a moment for a drink at a corner general-store-and-bar, where the smattering of regulars will glance over at them with suspicion from the corner of their eyes. If one succeeds in striking up a conversation with these locals and engaging them on the subject of the neighbourhood, it will only be to hear some vague account of how this is a pleasant area to live in, or at any rate, no worse than any other, perhaps that it’s well-situated not too far from, or not too close to, the city centre, that it’s a good place to raise a family, or that one has to watch oneself at night. There may be praise for the abundant parks or the good fishing still to be had in a nearby creek. The more erudite among the patrons may mention a Mipri ruin behind the kani field or the fact that an emperor once spent the night here on his way to an important battle.
The truly significant attractions of the place will be passed over, however; it will not even occur to anyone to mention them. And so these visitors will never suspect that the large old tree at a certain street corner once marked the absolute limit of the distance that the young children on the adjoining block were allowed to wander from their houses, so that everything beyond it appeared as mysterious and potentially treacherous as the terra incognita on an explorer’s map; or that a certain window was once that of the bedroom of a legendary neighbourhood beauty, conceived of in the minds of many with the same sense of awe and wonder as a temple’s forbidden inner sanctum; or that the wooded slope behind the school is where successive generations of the area’s captive adolescents meet to commiserate about their present lot and fantasize about all that they will do once they have moved to the city centre, and how, at sundown, there is a palpable sadness that seems to linger with the half-light there, as though the spot were haunted by the memory of all those unrealized youthful dreams. Nor will these intrepid explorers of the suburbs ever know how the odour of smoke from the factory chimneys on the western edge of the district has a way of mixing with the humid morning air that awakens an inexplicable and always extremely fleeting feeling of wild hope in the hearts of the laundresses making their way to the municipal washhouse; or that the start of the treelined path leading off from the omnibus station is where, in the early evening, dawdling husbands on their walk home look up at the pinkening sky through the overhanging branches and vow to themselves—yet again—that this time really was the last time with the girl from work.
There are those who may protest that there is nothing objectively interesting about these things, that one finds them everywhere, that indeed there are neighbourhoods very much like this one, holding exactly analogous inhabitants and memories, in their own cities. But that is precisely what is so enthralling about all these places: just how similar they are to one another, all across the world—how many millions of lives they contain, contained, and will contain that are each so very much alike, and yet subtly, tantalizingly different.