Saturday, August 25, 2018

Summer on our Rooftops

(published on the Edit Page of the New Indian Express 24-7-2018)

Rooftops during summers were lively places before the high-rises, air-conditioners, television and, a general sense of insecurity did them in. Lying on the cots, gazing at the stars, deciphering their patterns, wondering what lay beyond, it felt ethereal as the light breeze fanned one to sleep. Though it was all (to borrow from Wordsworth) ‘quiet as a Nun, breathless with adoration’, one was encompassed by sounds – sounds which can be heard only when all is still. The chirping of crickets, a cuckoo calling her mate, the waft of an old film song or the crackle of some transistor tuned to Radio Ceylon or the B.B.C News and, the soft voices of a conversing couple or, someone narrating stories to kids, slowly faded away, as the gentle summer breeze, with a whiff of the sweet mild smell of a mango tree in bloom, lulled all to sleep.

Preparations for the nightly slumber began when the Sun went down after its harsh day’s labour. The rooftop floor was drenched with water to cool it down. The  string cots would then be brought out in the open from the shade and, bed sheets  spread on them early enough to make them cool by the time one would lie on them after a couple of hours or so.

As evening set in, the rooftops became a frenzy of activity. The young rendered the evening sky a riot of colours as their kites swirled with excitement or swam with elegance. Released from their day-long confinement, the kids hit the outdoors with a vengeance. Hide and Seek, Vish-Amrit, Chor-Sipahi, Chibbadi or Hopscotch were some of those games for which terraces were ideally suited.

Mango pickles owed themselves to sunny terraces. Whether it were their marinating with salt and turmeric at the beginning, or seasoning them with spices and mustard oil before they finally got ready to eat and also store for a long period, they had to be laid down in the summer Sun.

Those were times of early to bed and early to rise. Fracas and farce, euphemistically called the T.V. News hadn’t taken our fancy then. Families conversed and kids had stories to hear as they went to sleep. Twitter of birds, mooing of a cow somewhere, and the morning Sun’s soft rays woke them up. Our towns hadn’t turned into megalopolises and, the houses did not resemble cells of a honeycomb. Yes, it’s so different today. Closeted with four walls all the day long, we have to wrench ourselves from the communication gadgets to go to sleep amidst the monotonous whirr of the air-conditioners. The word ‘complex’ in the compound word ‘residential complex’ seems so apt. In this context, two great thinkers- Ruskin and Tagore- come to mind. While Ruskin believed that our architecture is an expression of our life and character, Tagore abhorred walls. He wrote- ‘…walls leave their mark deep in the minds of men. They set up a habit of securing all our conquests by fortifying them and separating them from one another…. It breeds in us a strong suspicion of whatever is beyond the barriers we have built, and everything has to fight hard for its entrance into our recognition’.

Some decades back, the roofs of the houses were lively, open and, welcoming as the then life, unlike today, when huge water tanks and dish T.V. antennas are their only adornments. Hasn’t similarly, our then openness and genuine warmth seems to have been replaced by canned emotions and digital expressions?