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Why the streets of Amsterdam are so joyful

There is much street joy in Amsterdam, a phenomenon we do not see in India, the republic which is against fun

Amsterdam is a cyclist-friendly city, with over 400km of biking paths. Photo: Alamy
Amsterdam is a cyclist-friendly city, with over 400km of biking paths. Photo: Alamy

People having fun are like cattle; they almost never look up. But at times someone tries to drink the last drop from the glass and that makes them look up and it is then that they see me. A brown guy framed by a massive window in an ancient home staring down at them, and they are generally so happy they find this, too, amusing.

There has been no respite from happiness. At this very moment too, as I write these words, I can hear a roar of laughter. That is because I am in the heart of Amsterdam and it is evening. If you come to its famous cobbled square, Spui, you will see a row of red and brown homes that were built a few centuries ago, which lean a bit forward. In one of those buildings, on the third floor is the window where you will see me staring at you, and at the roaring, chattering crowds drinking below in the cafés. It is like this every evening. Different people every day but they remarkably sound the same and there will always be one guy with a deep valedictory guffaw, and one woman with a piercing incredulous scream. Maybe she is only pretending to enjoy some guy’s joke, who knows. From my window I can also see the entrance of a “Coffee Shop", which in Amsterdam means a place where you can buy cannabis. About 50m away, you can also buy magic mushrooms.

The fun on my street begins every day long before the daylight starts to fade, which is around 10pm, and the carnival goes on till 3am, less than 2 hours before the daylight returns, when the seagulls come to peck at the litter of the fun, with a loud squabbling screeches that make pigeons sound reasonable.

I am here on the invitation of the Dutch Foundation for Literature to lock myself up in a hermitage in a flat above Spui. When I arrived I was working on an argument that people find it hard to be happy, especially those with no real problems, because happiness is not a right as we have been told all these years. We make a mess of happiness because happiness is in reality a duty, a duty to enjoy our own simple good luck but it is hard to stay with this thought in Amsterdam where, at least on first glance, everyone appears to perform his duty to be happy.

In the city, a curious exhibition is underway. On display are human body parts, most of them genuine parts sourced from cadavers, of course. The theme of the exhibition is the popular but disputed view that happiness contributes to health. The exhibition shows what lifestyle does to some of our important organs. The moral of the show is that we should be happy. This is among the fringe shows in the city where there are spectacular events all through the year, and of course, the Van Gogh and Rembrandt House museums, and the Rijksmuseum, and the house where Anne Frank lived and wrote her diary.

As in many great European cities, there is much street joy in Amsterdam, a current of fun we do not see in India, the republic which is against fun. Generations of godmen have claimed that Indians have a monopoly over joy, a claim that has attracted millions of lost white people to us, but we know that our streets have somehow never belonged to the happy. Sitting by this very window in Amsterdam I read that Goa’s chief minister Manohar Parrikar, having returned from death, has announced that he will fine anyone caught drinking in public in his state. In Amsterdam, too, there are such laws but in practice people spill out of bars, into the sidewalks, on the roads.

It has been a good summer in Amsterdam. The long days are dry, and they are stunned by sunlight. I have bought a second-hand cycle. There are 400km of bike lanes in Amsterdam, but as an Indian, I don’t always stay on the lanes. Actually, by the standards of white people, the Dutch are not that orderly on the roads.

The deepest street joys in Amsterdam are not in its raucous evenings but in its silent mornings. In how the blue trams vanish down the bends. In the glorious women in short dresses cycling somewhere; lovers kissing for so long as though one of them is going to depart in a train forever, but then when they finally stop kissing, they continue to walk. Men sit in narrow lanes and look carefully at women and pass comments. In the red light district, women stand behind windows, some of them gorgeous beyond subjectivity, as great hordes pass them by. Men of all ages stare with incredulity at the certainty that, just for €50, they can sleep with a very beautiful woman, or at the certainty that they can escape so easily the casteism of love that favours the successful over the losers; just open a door, that is it. There is more joy though in the large parks of the city where people wallow in families and domesticated men cycle with two children, their hair flailing, in a cart attached to their cycles. In the many canals of the city, tourists go in boats gawking at the ancient buildings that flank the waterways. Hitler chose not to destroy Amsterdam probably because at the time it was not so important to destroy it. So most of its past, across centuries, still stands.

Is so much happiness, and richness, in plain sight vulgar? Especially for the unhappy and the unfortunate. To be a loser, or to be physically or socially defeated, in such places is more painful than being so in India, where the fallen have the companionship of the majority.

I tell a Dutch interviewer that from an Indian’s point of view, Amsterdam is so outwardly joyous that I feel I am inside the Facebook page of a whole town. As a native of Amsterdam, she is not so sure though that the Dutch are happy. Many locals tell me that. One fiction editor told me with a chuckle, “As you go north of Amsterdam, the suicide rate shoots up."

Once you tire of the city, the best thing to do is cycle to the rural areas, maybe to Twiske, which is a pastoral place by the woods. In the Netherlands you can walk alone in the wilderness confident that you are on the top of the food chain. That is what is, finally, Christian about the region. All animals are subordinate to the human, and so the great beasts have been long destroyed. And if you tire of the joys too, and want to see some domestic trauma, just keep a close watch on families on vacation—they never disappoint.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous. Read his previous columns at

He tweets @manujosephsan

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