by Shagufta Sharmeen Tania

This is part of the Walking Norwich series.

<< browse all walks

I was standing on the back of a tortoiseshell, a tortoise from Ibn Khaldun’s geography lessons (the scholar who believed that the world was a harsh place where man cannot thrive on his own), an imaginary tortoise that lay idly at the top of Rouen Road. Everything looked a bit elliptical from there – the tortoiseshell, the horizon, the sky, the yellowing fig trees that formed a bush, the abandoned green spaces, the desolate alleys, even the lacerating wind that set me reeling. Everything was shedding, dying and decomposing around me, a decaying canvas of November. Somehow it made me tearful, as though I might not be as terrestrial as I thought I was. I was shamelessly pining for the red double decker buses of London, the relentless sound of electric saws in the backyards on a bright day, the regulars in my back garden—the bickering doves, quiet robins, occasional hedgehogs… all the constant reminders of the fact that I was not alone in a harsh world, that my writing and I could float like a quiet nucleus in the matrix of city-life bustle.

However, I was not in London. I was almost 200 kilometres away from ‘the big smoke’, as an old woman from St Andrew’s Street referred to it. I was in Norwich, on a translator’s residency to work on the somewhat forgotten tales of Bimal Kar, one of our Bengali literary giants. The cottage had several skylights that kept the indoors cheerful with daylight; at night there was a pebble-smooth moon on watch, a monastic silence in the compound broken only by the drunken passers-by going through St Ann Lane. There was no school duty in the mornings, no worries about pending bills, yet my changed routine felt so clean of any chores that it was empty. Contrary to the delight and thrill I felt upon getting the translation residency, I felt a bit out of place.

On gloomy days, I would take the discreet alley to St. Julian’s and sit in her beautiful room in the south transept that was two steps sunken from the nave. The room with its candles and dark wood always glowed like the flaming, disoriented eyes of an influenza patient – it was not what the eyes saw, it was something beyond, and deep-seated. Julian of Norwich, possibly self-isolating from Black Death, wrote a book here; that book survived to be one of the earliest works in English, written by a woman of course. ‘…All manner of thing shall be well”, she said. I needed her radical optimism on grey days.

On days when the Norwich sky was gleaming blue, I needed no mystic. I meandered from Lady Julian Bridge, merrily walked the cobbled alleys of Elm Hill and touched the eloquently chiselled stone walls or found the roaring John the Baptist Cathedral on my way to the haunting Plantation Garden. Phrases like ‘Imaginative sympathy’ or ‘Authorial Omniscience’ felt lighter, a bit diluted by sunlight on those days. In the evenings I would sometimes go to the Kurdish eatery, Nergiz; only the Kurdish knew how to extract sunlight from the tomatoes and allow it seep into their daily stew called Kuzi.

Christmas lights adorned the Market Place; there was always a busker there who bellowed Sinatra’s ‘My Way’, but every time I went there, I lost my way. It was a place where everything whispered ‘Go on!’ to me, the king trumpet mushrooms that looked like delicate thighs—fair and feminine, the vintage rings with opals and emeralds, the hilariously funny old book of the sheep who followed Buddhism in the City Bookshop.

On self-indulgent evenings, I passed the decrepit house-fronts from medieval times and a winking tavern called The Mischief, crossed old Fye Bridge over the river Wensum, and arrived at Magdalen Street; a street full of charity shops and antique stores, a dangerous street for magpies. By the time I entered Aladdin’s Cave, I had forgotten that I felt akin to the dreary heads of Weeping Willows on the Quayside when I walked in. It was a world of glasses, ceramics, metals, tassels, books and prints. An animated world of Royal Doulton dolls, Torque pottery and art deco vases, galleries of jeering toby jugs. Those shops made me feel that I was in a timeless realm suspended between time zones, a Trishanku-like limbo maybe, and yes— a roaming territory of WG Sebald and Margaret Atwood.

I was a person who did not venture too far, like a weaver’s shuttle I carried my thread from the pedestrianised alleys of King Street and went in known directions to create my pattern. The wooden planks on the walls of Dragon Hall, seen from a distance, were my reassuring anchor. However, my kind woman from St Benedict’s Street told stories in her craft shop surrounded by strings of Javanese glass beads. Her father was one of the pioneers behind the restoration of the medieval merchant hall that we knew as Dragon Hall. She told me that there was a resident ghost in Dragon Hall, called ‘Humphrey’; he was the ghost of a monk from the nearby Austin Friars Priory — not an evil one.

On my last day in Norwich, I went to buy the blue chamber pot that the antique shop owner reassured me had not been used for at least half a century. That evening, like all evenings, the inside of the shop looked luminous, and they were playing “Mull of Kintyre”. The lyric touched me like never before, as if it was a dialogue between the city and I.

And then, without fanfare, I was back to the metallic intestine of the underground tunnels, to the salient urban poverty, to the din of houses on top of shops. Back where I had come from. Something from those walking evenings of Norwich lingered though, the way residual heat keeps cooking something long after it is off the hob.

In November, we welcomed Shagufta Sharmeen Tania to our writers’ cottage at Dragon Hall for a writing residency. Born in Bangladesh, Shagufta Sharmeen Tania Initially trained as an architect. Her fiction and non-fiction have been published in the Bengali-speaking areas of both Bangladesh and India. To date, she has authored two novels, a compilation of novellas and four short story collections. She also translated Susan Fletcher’s Whitbread award-winning novel Eve Green and Antonio Skarmeta’s Burning Patience, from English to Bengali. Her work has appeared in Wasafiri (‘This Gift of Silver’, Issue 84, 2015), Asia Literary Review (‘Notes from the Ward’, Issue 32, 2016), City Press (‘Letters to Her’, Issue 7, 2019) and Not Quite Right for Us (‘Bodies’, 2021 anthology by Speaking Volumes). Currently, she is working on a novel set during the initial years of war-torn Bangladesh, and a fictionalised biography of a celebrated musicologist of Tagore songs. Shagufta was the recipient of the 2018 Bangla Academy Syed Waliullah Award for her contribution to Bengali Literature and she is longlisted for the 2021 BBC Short Story Competition.

Stay up to date! Subscribe to receive the latest news, articles and offers from NCW.