I remember a friend sending me excerpts of this book. I read it while I was at Doolally – a taproom in Bombay. I was waiting for friends to show up for the Wednesday night quiz and then something happened which I hadn’t expected to – I wept by the time I had finished reading the long excerpt. I cried. I think I even bawled. I strongly also believe that when an art form does that to you – when it creeps up on you like that and almost shatters your world – you’re in for a rollercoaster ride. That happened to me as I was reading “Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me” by Bill Hayes, from which the excerpt was.
Relationships are fragile, they are also very strong. At the same time, what do you do when it ends all of a sudden? When it ends not because you want it to, but because death comes suddenly knocking on your partner’s door and there is nothing you can do about it. Then what? Hayes’s partner died after sixteen years of togetherness. He then moved to New York from San Francisco in search of a new start (as most of us do). He found himself in a city that was surprising, random, and at the same time made him see the humanity that exists. Slowly and steadily, he fell in love with New York and found love in the form of the late, great neurologist and writer, Dr. Oliver Sacks.
This book “Insomniac City” as the title suggests is about New York, Oliver Sacks and Bill Hayes. It is also about life – majorly so, and how it changes constantly whether we would like it or not. It is about New York – of how brutal and gentle she can be at the same time, of how to surrender to the city is to love her completely and without any prejudice. The book ultimately is about great love that transcends all barriers, challenges, doubts and the throes of darkness. There are also the author’s stunning photographs – capturing his love for the city and Oliver.
Let me not forget the portrait of Oliver Sacks that Bill Hayes paints so vividly and beautifully – a genius who did not own a computer – who always preferred to communicate via letters and longhand, who didn’t know how a champagne bottle was opened and used goggles when he first opened them for the fear of the cork hitting his eye, who called pot “cannabis” and who believed in living life as it came – day by day. Hayes met Oliver after Oliver wrote him a letter praising his book “The Anatomist” and this is how they met and love blossomed. The book is about that love, about how Oliver met Hayes after three decades of being alone and celibate. “Insomniac City” will surprise you in ways more than one.
“Insomniac City” is about the love between Oliver and Hayes and what they shared in Oliver’s final years. The writing is so personal and out there that you cannot help but be overwhelmed. Their love for things common, their roads to discovering something they did not know, and what it is to live daily – for the bond to strengthen and one fine day to see that love slip away. The book teaches you about grief, about people coming together quite randomly on a bus or a train and makes you more aware and conscious of what it is to be human. I cannot recommend this book enough. Do yourself a favour: Order it, read it and weep. You need a good cry, now and then.