On March 22, as the clock struck five in the evening, neighbourhoods across the nation came out on their roofs and balconies, equipped with bells, conch shells and utensils, to express their gratitude to the medical professionals, and health and sanitation workers, who are leading the battle against the coronavirus from the frontline. While it became a collective rap racket in some places and a cacophonous procession in others, in some areas, people stood respectfully and sincerely, and clapped in unison to be in solidarity with the fighting squad.
Someone’s putting clothes out to dry or watering the plants or taking a break and gazing at the greenery. Then, our eyes meet; we wave, and ask after each other. It’s taken a virus for a neighbourhood to make connections.
The exercise was both hailed and met with derision. Whatever else it did or did not do, it brought people out on their balconies. Neighbours, who had barely seen each other in the elevator, (that is, if they stop looking at their phones to notice each other), or met on their way to or from work, not just clapped together but waved out, smiled and acknowledged each other. While I knew a few neighbours by both their faces and names, for the first time, I saw who lived where. Ever since I have been seeing my neighbours on their terraces and balconies quite often. It’s a new development. Someone’s putting clothes out to dry or watering the plants or taking a break and gazing at the greenery. Then, our eyes meet; we wave, and ask after each other. It’s taken a virus for a neighbourhood to make connections.
I grew up in a house that had three balconies. All the buildings in the neighbourhood had balconies too, some with iron railings and others with balustrades. The balconies served as study rooms, bed-sitters, viewing points, gardens, a gup-shup area, party space, or a store room, depending on your need, taste and interests. But, most of all, they were the connecting point for people living in the locality. The balconies were connected to rooms, and while the walls provided whatever privacy could be managed, the balconies and windows offered a through-and-through view of each other’s houses. In fact, your home was the extension of the one facing yours, and vice versa. You knew all the members of each other’s families, the relatives, the date of the neighbouring infant’s first polio shot, the prospective groom who had visited the neighbour’s home to ‘see’ the bride, the newspapers the neighbours read, and so on. Despite this very public involuntary display of the personal, you could still keep things private. It was a good balance.
Every morning, my grandmother called out to the South Indian Maami (aunty, in Tamil), ‘Bhuvanam, are you done with your cooking? What’s the menu?’ And Bhuvanam Maami, depending on what she had cooked on that particular day, replied, ‘Vendakka bhaaji, moru kolambu, pachadi,’ and so on. If grandmother noticed that Maami had a cold, she expressed her concern, ‘Aren’t you well? You must rest, Bhuvanam.’ Aunty would nod. There was often an exchange of recipes, steaming hot food, news about families and neighbours, and also a discussion on rising prices and politics, and effective strategies to cope. This was not just the equation with the immediate neighbours, but also with those living diagonally across, within your view. We were, literally, one large family—indoors when we did our own thing, and outdoors for breaks, chats and other interaction, including playing music for each other and listening to it together. The fact that the uncle who lived in the opposite house worked with HMV ensured that we could listen to the latest releases, apart from the legendary M S Subbulakshmi’s Suprabhatam, which was a daily morning ritual.
Most of us had our study tables in the balconies. We sat at our desks at different timings, depending on our schedules, but when exams arrived, and we studied late into the night, just knowing and seeing that we were all in it together, made it easier for us to give ourselves that extra push, and stay awake longer. There were times when we quarrelled. If someone played music loudly and disturbed the other’s focus, loud ‘Shhhs’ went around, and requests to lower the volume, failing which, we called out to the errant person’s parents, who then took the music aficionado to task, and silence prevailed. What I remember distinctly is my everyday confusion about the time. Our house had three clocks, all displaying different timings, each set according to the requirements of the elders in the house. Vijaya Akka, who lived opposite, was my go-to person for knowing the exact time. I called out to her during different times of the day and asked, ‘Vijaya Akka, what is the time?’ And she complied. Every single time. When I grew up, she gifted me a watch to commemorate our daily tryst with the clock.
As I go through my daily grind, it often gets claustrophobic and overwhelming. I need to come up for air. When I need a break, I walk to the window and breathe deeply. The azure sky offers me hope.
Vendors selling a variety of wares—from murmura to idlis to fruits to vegetables to kulfi and more—stood below the balconies and announced their arrival. We were familiar with their calls and timings. We missed them if they did not arrive, as expected. The chaku-dharwalas (literally, the sharpener of knives) and the kalaiwalas (the artisans who skilfully coat brass and copper utensils) set up their workstations under our balconies, as the women watched over them, waiting patiently for them to finish working on the knives and utensils, and go down to fetch the stuff back home. They chatted, as they watched. At night, the area’s regular beggars too called out to the womenfolk to request them for leftovers. Often, one neighbour would donate rice, the other, some sambar, and yet another, some leftover bhaaji, all collected by the beggars in one aluminium vessel. The beggars were known to everyone, and they, in turn, knew who was receptive and generous, and who would shoo them away.
After marriage, I stayed in a house that had large windows, but no balconies. I missed balconies a lot, but learnt to connect with the outside world through the window. From there, when I was a stay-at-home mother for some years, I learned everyday hacks from my neighbours, like fitting more shirts on a clothesline by hanging them by their collars. I watched the sun rise and set. I made small talk. I exchanged home remedies for the kids’ cold and cough. Seeing each other and waving, as we went about doing our chores, assured me that all was well with world; that we were a shout away, if the need arose.
Now, we are in the middle of a lockdown. We have to make the most of the space we have. Those of us who are fortunate to have large windows and balconies or terraces have a passage to the world outside. As I go through my daily grind, it often gets claustrophobic and overwhelming. I need to come up for air. When I need a break, I walk to the window and breathe deeply. The azure sky offers me hope. I go the terrace and allow the breeze to caress my face. I feel cared for. I hear the koel’s insane call, watch the swaying trees, a flock of birds heading north, and suddenly feel all together. Then, I spot my little bespectacled, six-year-old neighbour, Charu. Our eyes meet. I wave, she waves back. We laugh. It’s a moment stolen. Lived. Cherished.
So, what can you do in your balcony? Enjoy your morning cuppa while you watch the sun rise. Do some yoga. Gaze at the sun. Pray. Meditate. Write in your journal. Grow a garden. Be in gratitude. Just be. Both outdoors and indoors, at the same time. Make connections. Grow your community. Bond. We have been given a chance to get to know each other and ourselves better. I’m going to grab it with both hands.
Archana Pai Kulkarni is the Books Editor at SheThePeople.TV. The views expressed are the author’s own.