For a boy growing up in the tropics, certain that the sun would set punctually around 7 each evening, the twilight hour seemed almost like a miracle, when the sun glowed, giving light, not heat. And yet, there I was, in a vast field, the sun looking pink, the sky cloudless and blue, and my watch oddly telling me it was 9 at night. It was my first trip across the ocean, and I had heard of jet lag, where your body clock fails to keep pace with the local time. But here, my watch seemed to be racing ahead, indicating a time that did not coincide with the colours of the sky.
Such was my introduction to the flawless hues of Edinburgh’s sky. The year was 1979; department stores played songs of ABBA, and Bjorn Borg strode like Jesus Christ on the centre court at Wimbledon, holding aloft the trophy nonchalantly, vanquishing all rivals with the kind of methodical precision Scottish Presbyterians would approve of.
Highland: A Scott’s Monument watches over a city of cobbled streets. Udayan
I was in Edinburgh as a student on an exchange programme. I looked at the city like the gawky teenager I was. Along the way, I had seen rivers and mountains that I’d have called streams and hills, but politeness had prevented me from saying so, and miles of patchwork-quilt country had passed by, looking pristine. When we emerged from Waverley Station at Edinburgh—perhaps the only railway station named after a novel—the imposing sight of the castle was striking.
We were tourists; those who lived here saw it differently: Renton, the narrator in Irvin Welsh’s novel Trainspotting, was never amused by what he saw, but even he was moved to admit: “But when ye come back oot ay Waverley Station eftir bein away fir a bit, ye think: Hi, this isnae bad.”
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We kept putting off going to the top, to the castle, because it was always there, visible from many parts of the city, its massive silhouette overlooking the city, rising as if it was carved out of the black basalt, giving the city dour solidity. Hardy stone seemed like a recurring leitmotif of Edinburgh.
I recall our cab bumping along the cobblestoned street, making an ordinary ride seem as adventurous as a journey in an armoured tank. As we walked on the footpath another evening, the clippety-clop of the horse-carriage took us further back in time, and the unseasonal mist surrounding the street lamps made the landscape appear menacing, making us feel more important than we were, as though we were characters in a mystery novel.
From the top of the hill, the view the city offered was staggering. You could see as far as the port of Leith at one end, where once you could find the poet Robert Burns, to Salisbury Crags on the other, the city finding its way into Muriel Spark’s fiction.
It was Stevenson who insisted that the best view of Edinburgh was to be had from Calton Hill. From here, on one side, you could see the Georgian New Town. On the other side lay the Old Town, with its buildings tall for their time. There, the tower of St Giles Cathedral; over here, the spires of St John’s; and then the Royal Mile, stretched as far as the eye could see before streets merged and the landscape ceased being a photograph. The American writer Washington Irving felt so enchanted, he reflected, “I don’t wonder that anyone residing in Edinburgh should write poetically.”
Before leaving Edinburgh that year, we went towards the estuary of the river Forth, as it makes its way to the North Sea, between Fife and Edinburgh. The cantilever railway bridge was an engineering marvel, sturdy and solid, often disappearing in the mist.
It was after two decades that I came to Edinburgh again. We were on our way north, to the town of Pitlochry, nestled in the southern highlands. The streams gurgled here, and the people were friendly, looking with wry amusement at a bunch of Indians walking through slush in search of a distillery called Edradour, Scotland’s smallest. Three men work there, and the single malt they produce is light and sweet.
That night at our hotel, as we opened a bottle, I could see its thick liquid gleam like molten gold, reminding me of the twilight I had first seen decades ago. Then, I had learnt to distinguish between heat and light: All that glows and shines brightly need not burn you.
The glow I experienced that night was different, though. We had, in our hands, what Robert Burns called “a cup o’ kindness”. My loved ones were by my side; the light around me glowed as the fire crackled, filling warmth within us. Auld Lang Syne.
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