City City Bang Bang, Columns

The terrace- A mouthful of sky?

As the train hurtles past the interminable outskirts of Delhi, the geography falters and then fragments. Scale shrinks and life becomes a spray of composite humanity. Small plots, narrow houses, some without any plaster cladding, huddle together in animated proximity. People, shops, houses, rickshaws, cows, streets, garbage, electricity poles, and wires are a smudge of activity to the moving eye. Neighbourhoods here are a babble of space and a jumble of time. The only snatches of space that can be seen are the terraces that every house, no matter how small, seem to have. The ubiquity of the terrace sparks off memories going back to childhood.

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The terrace was a space that rose above our lives, pushing outwards into the sky. A site of retreat, a little hideaway from chores and the relentless embrace of middle-class families. A place to escape to, and steal a quick smoke. A place from which to look longingly at the latest object of one’s affections in the neighbourhood. A place you would find in a Ghulam Ali ghazal where assignations quivering with risk took place.

The terrace came alive particularly in the winters as we gravitated upwards. As long as the sun was out the terrace was crammed full of activity- people either lounging around, sitting on charpoys, eating ‘chikis’ and shelling peanuts, standing and gazing at the world, drying clothes and pickles, knitting sweaters absent-mindedly while gossiping over endless cups of tea, and when the time was right, flying kites.

One ran into terraces when the first rains of the season came, drawn irresistibly by the tentative patter of drops that soon became the insistent tattoo of real rain. In summers, the only time one ventured into the terrace in the day was to put clothes out to dry or to retrieve them, feet stinging on the burning floor as one hopped hurriedly to complete the chore. When the sun went down, the terrace became much more welcoming. Sleeping on the terrace was always a relief, however, hot the night might be. The early mornings were sweet as the heat abated enough for one to feel the need for a sheet till of course the sun had its way and we are all up, and then one floor down, back to earth to resume regular life.

Implicit in the idea of the terrace is a different understanding of space and time. Rooms have a purpose, they house things that are used. It has a grammar of use for things in it are arranged in a certain way for a reason. A chair sits here, and a sofa is placed symmetrically against another. The terrace is space left over, kept fallow for activities of a sundry kind to spill over into. Apart from being a place to dry clothes, it serves no specific fixed purpose, and its commodiousness allows for a variety of uses. Sometimes, the centre of activity, and on other occasions accessed only to check if the water tank was indeed empty, or if the television antenna needed a good twist till the picture downstairs improved. Time too takes on a different quality on the terrace, as it is more directly aligned with the natural rhythms of the day. The sun, the moon, the rain, and the wind- these are what determine how we use this space.

Of course, there was always an element of purpose in the terrace. In Delhi, for instance, the barsaati was a fixture in most ‘kothis’. While the name conjures up the wonderful idea that some room has been made for the rain to beat down on one’s home, it had a more practical side to it. So many young people- a gaggle of bachelors or tentative young couples beginning their journey towards real adulthood, have made their start in the one room that was perched on the terrace. The barsaati was the first step in the act of becoming a householder, a toehold in the urban sprawl. It gave the young their own space, and made up in sky what it stinted on land. Thodisi zameen, thoda aasman, as the Gulzar song goes.

There were other pauses of space that dotted the landscape. The aangan, the patio, the courtyard, the chowk, the balcony, the verandah, the dusty garden and the terrace. Little outbreaks of freedom, zones where the inside and the outside meet while preserving the integrity of both. Each served a slightly different purpose, but each was a way of leaving one’s life ajar for the outside world to come in for a bit. The private was always a little public, and nature was never a complete stranger.

The train approaches a city, and as the landscape becomes more upmarket, the houses become larger, signs of life rarer, and the terraces invisible. In the flat of today, the terrace is a right to be bought and used exotically. The terrace is a premium facility, one that could house, a bar, a garden or in the case of the really well off, a swimming pool. It is no longer an overflow of space, the remainder in a maths sum involving division, but purposeful real estate, to be accounted for in calculations.

As our new compulsions of space have taken over, the homes of today have no room for these lungs of our life. On the other hand, we do have social media which kind of play of a similar role. Twitter is the public square where all of humanity washes its dirty linen. Facebook is the patio of today’s times, as we hang out of our virtual balconies and gaze at our timeline going by. We are voyeurs all over again, nosy neighbours intensely involved in everything that everyone else does. In some ways, nothing changes. But the terrace was a place purposefully empty, waiting for us to fill it in with whatever else we wanted from our life. That kind of emptiness seems to be a luxury today.

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