<%-- Page Title--%> A Roman Column <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 136 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

January 2, 2004

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Neeman A Sobhan

For today's column to be ready for the New Year, I wrote it during the sunset days of last year. In fact, even as I write this 'New Year' piece, it is still December 2003 in Rome, and around me the countdown to Christmas and the 'Capo d'anno' ('start of the year') has just begun. I won’t be here to see either Natale or the New Year being celebrated in the Italian idiom because I'll be in Dhaka.

Actually, even as the countdown to the end of the calendar year has started here and everywhere, I have already begun my new year, privately! Yes, I decided not to wait for January the first. Today, I awoke to a brilliant Roman winter's morning, crisp and fresh, like notes of newly minted money. I decided to splurge it and get myself an early New Year's Day feeling. As I stepped into the bracing air and onto the sidewalks strewn with the gold of falling leaves, I felt the curling fingers of the newly born day reaching out to me, awaiting my embrace. I decided to adopt it. "You are my morning of eternal joy, hope and creativity. I name you my New Day, the first day of the beginning of my life's ever unfolding newness," I whispered into its ears, and my year started from that moment onwards.

To celebrate my private new year within the old year, I decided to go into town and walk somewhere I had never walked before and discover some secret place in Rome's ancient heart, which would denote for me, newness within the old. It occurred to me that in these last twenty-five years of living in Rome and showing visitors around it, I had never actually walked inside and around the elliptical chariot tracks of the Circo Massimo, always showing it from a distance.

I parked my car on the road close-by and walked down some steps into the mammoth grassy valley with the dirt-tracks where in some remote time, real charioteers less fictitious and heroic than Ben Hur might have hurled their horses towards victory, cheered by the audience. I joined the scattering of present day walkers and strollers; the joggers with their earphones; the dog owners exercising their pets; the young father playing ball with his three-year-old son; and the middle aged woman tying a scarf around her aged mother leaning on her walking stick. As I completed my brisk second round, I sensed a cheer rise from the audience. I looked up to find nothing but the horizon with the ruins of the Palatines etched against the blue sky, and saw only the noisy flight of birds amidst the pines. Or maybe it was the voice of spectators from the past.

Warmed up now, I unzipped my jacket and decided to walk further down, away from the Circo Massimo and towards the Tiber, then making a detour, to explore on foot a cobbled street that wound around some residential alleys facing the backside of the Roman Forum. This was the other, less frequented side. Here the Forum looked like an abandoned quarry or a dumping ground of broken pillars and masonry. I passed an open gate that I had never noticed before whenever I drove by in my car. I walked into what looked like a shady, cobbled driveway. Unheralded, the piny path sloped down directly into a secluded and anonymous corner within the Forum. Here some benches, and boulders that were part of some magnificent but eroded building, lay under pine shadows. The noise of the traffic came from very far, as did the trickling sunlight, while the silence accumulated like drops of rainwater. There was not another soul here except one student of history who stood by, lost to the present, poring over his guidebook and studying the three extant columns of a ruined temple in the distance, where a group of tourists could barely be seen.

I looked around me. This was the ideal place to bring a book, a sandwich and a flask of tea and lose oneself in a familiar city. This was the perfect secret heart of the past within the present, the undying pulse of time. This was my newfound nook to tryst with my New Year's Day; my moment to reflect on my future year in the lap of the fading one. I sat quietly, absorbing the green moment, knowing that on the official New Year morning I would be in another environment, another winter's morning, in Dhaka. I would celebrate the calendar day then with the others, but today, I would rejoice in my own calendar's beginning, now, in a special corner of my Rome.

From my seat on the broken stones, as of a shattered cathedral, muffled by the green-gold speckled silence, I remembered imperfectly a passage that had once struck me in one of my favourite books, John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman, describing a walk in the woods:

"It seemed strangely distinct, this undefiled dawn sun. It had almost a smell, as of warm stone….On the slopes above his path the trunks of the ashes and sycamores, a honey gold in the oblique sunlight, erected their dewy green vaults of young leaves; there was something mysteriously religious about them, but of a religion before religion; a druid balm, a green sweetness over all…."

And this green sweetness I wish for all my readers, praying that they find within themselves just such a fresh start this year. If it coincides with the first calendar day of the year-- with January first-- fine, otherwise the truth is that each day is a brand New Year in itself, an undefiled dawn, our chance to create ourselves afresh, to renew, rethink and re-live life.

For each of you, may 2004 be the year when every single day is a newly minted gold coin waiting to be spent towards the secret treasures that you have inside you. So, a happy New Year, and a happy New Day, everyday!


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