Friends had warned me that the sun never sets in Stockholm during the summer months. I was there in late June, and the sky was filled with clouds, and the boats in the blue harbour bobbed gaily in the wind. Sails fluttered, and even though the sun was not visible, it was bright and you needed sunglasses. The light was crystal clear.
It was nearly 7pm, and I was headed with my friends to a boat which would take us around the archipelago as we sipped chilled wine and looked at other pleasure boats, before returning to our waterfront hotel. The hours passed, but the light showed no sign of ebbing.
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The light penetrated through the layers of clouds, and its reflection on the water looked like someone had sprinkled liquid silver on its trembling surface. What passes for Stockholm’s skyline was now a sharp silhouette. The scene became sharper, reminding me of images deeply imprinted in my memory, of the starkness of light and dark shadows that Sven Nykvist would capture, like a painter behind Ingmar Bergman’s lens. It was calm, but deceptively so; as the light began to fade, the mood on our boat changed, conversations becoming softer. You could hear the sound of the engine, the clinking of the glasses, and not much else.
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I went back to my room; it was impossible to sleep, the light was so bright. There were thicker curtains, but they made my room plunge into darkness, like on a winter night. I stood by my window, seeing the odd cyclist riding by, and the Volvos silently driving back home, the traffic getting sparser. By 11pm, the road was quiet; the only sound you could hear was the cheerful banter of patrons at a bar.
By now, the clouds had parted. It was 2am, but there was still light in the sky, and I was still awake. I stepped out of my hotel and crossed the road. I walked towards the edge of the pier. There was no one around. The water was calm. The sky was now cloudless, and on the horizon, you could see a thin sliver of orange glow, the sun trying hard to stay afloat, raising its head over the horizon as if clinging to the edge by the fingertips, refusing to go to bed. And in that faint light, listening to the soft murmur of the water, I sat on that pier, and watched the sunlight finally fade away.
That was disorienting. I have seen happier sunsets, when cities come alive. The Swedish sunset underscored loneliness. I was part of a group of friends and yet, at the end of our cruise, everyone had parted to go their separate ways, and I was alone. The light was supposed to bring cheer and hope, but this sunset implied something had ended. In Bergman’s cinema, seasons and their changes, light and dark, time and its passage play such an important role that those phenomena become characters themselves. Think of the titles of his films: The Virgin Spring, Smiles on a Summer Night, Autumn Sonata and Winter Light. Summer was important for Bergman: He also made Summer with Monika and A Summer Interlude. A land which sees sunlight so rarely wants to celebrate what little it gets, and holds on to it; realizing that its rays cast a glow to these parts so sparingly, the sun refuses to go away, like that night. When it is supposed to get dark, you see light, you watch life around you, and in a land where many people feel unhappy enough to end their lives, the light becomes a constant reminder of the freshness of the leaves, the warmth of the homes, and the sparkle of its clear water.
The other time I was in this city, it was winter. I was in Gamla Stan, or Stockholm’s old town. I walked with my boots deep in snow, each step an effort. The snow was fresh and light, and flurries hit our faces as we entered a Palestinian café for some shawarma and pita. It was warm. The snow was lighter than dust, and it fell silently as we came out. Icicles formed on the roofs of shop windows, gleaming, revealing the golden colour of street lights.
Earlier that week, I had gone walking in a forest encircling a lake. I was with my sons and some close friends. It was a desolate landscape. The trees were bare, looking like skeletons. The sky was a dull grey, and it was bleak. It was impossible to think of colours, everything was dark, or white. We walked along the slushy periphery of the lake, its surface flat and frozen. There was a primeval feel; the absence of conversation and the contemplative nature of the afternoon—when it was already getting dark—made me feel as though we were characters giving meaning to the name of another Bergman film, The Silence.
And there, I saw that yellow leaf, emerging from a tree’s bark, as if from nowhere, clinging to it, looking cheerful. It was bright like sunshine, and it fluttered lightly. It was shaped like a heart, inspiring hope, putting a smile on our faces. The summer sunshine had seemed false that night. But even in winter, the shape of that leaf revealed light, and felt so real and true.
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