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HOUSE WITH A HEAD

- The open privacy of the sky

Sometimes, when seen from a distance and from a certain angle, houses look like persons. Just opposite my workplace off the Central Avenue in Calcutta, there is a house — now covered by a new building in front of it — which would remind me of those tight-lipped, fish-eyed men in hats and suits encountered in the poems of T.S. Eliot. This one is a city gent, but with more than a touch of sleaze. What turned the house into a ‘character’ was the solitary room on the terrace. Its windows were like eyes, a nose and a mouth, and the parapet, jutting out symmetrically on either side, like a hat. The openness of the terrace and the closedness of the room together gave the house a mysterious quality — a mind of its own. It was a house with a head. Like many of the office-goers who commute on the Metro with me, it had its feet firmly planted on earth. But its head, I felt, was full of strange and sinister thoughts.

What the human body shares with anything that stands upright on the ground is verticality. So, any vertical presence, including a house, may take on a human quality, even when the shared axis is reduced to its most abstract form. It is this resemblance — like a visual rhyme — that imbues the verticality of a house with a set of felt and symbolic meanings. Gaston Bachelard called this system of meanings “the poetics of space” in the late Fifties. His book is perhaps the most suggestive, and eccentric, exploration of what it means for a house to have a cellar and an attic and everything else in-between. Cellar and attic not only mark the limits, feet and head, of its connection with earth and sky, but they also link the verticality of the house with that of the mind as laid out by the good doctor of Vienna — reaching down to the darkness of the subconscious and up to the light of reason.

But I am always struck by how European Bachelard’s house actually is, and how remote from my own waking and dreaming experiences of memorable Indian houses.What I miss most in Bachelard’s mapping of the levels of a house is a poetics of the terrace — that flat, inhabitable stretch of rooftop, which often comes with a little room, water-tank, clothes-line, TV antennae and satellite dishes. With its own limits and vistas, rope-beds and straw mattresses, it turns into a secret, yet shared, Valhalla for those living below. Life does not stop at the attic for many in the subcontinent, but pierces through the closed skull of the house into a peculiar zone of the open, or enclosed open, which Bachelard’s thinking stops short of.

Yet, for those of us born into crowded families in old houses, it was the terrace that took the lid off the experience of growing up, clearing spaces within our lives and heads that would take a great deal of nucleating modernity to cramp. To live on the ground floor and yet have access to an open terrace on the second or third floor is to form a certain relationship with the earth and street on the one hand, and with the sky, the tops of surrounding houses and the horizon, on the other. And between these two levels, lies the entire gamut of vertical being, from the rooted to the aerial, which gives to domesticity a fixing axis as well as vital extensions beyond itself. Structurally, symbolically and ecologically, the old house is a close kin of that other vertical presence on land, the old tree, which often merges with the house in a dangerously organic embrace, but also lends to the house the complex secrecy of its roots, the security of its trunk and the delicacy and lightness of its upper branches, leaves and flowers.

In this vision of connectedness, the terrace plays a unique role. When we stand on it and look out, or lie down on it and look up, elevation gives us the illusion of having transcended gravity, of having risen above everything that tries to pull us down. Yet our eye — and through the eye, our mind — remains connected not only to the sky, but also to the tops of trees, to birds and other flying things, to other houses and lives lived in other terraces and, beyond all this, to a horizon barely glimpsed or imagined. If one were a monkey, or growing up in Rajasthan (where the terraces are often connected or extremely close to one another), one could experience this connectedness quite literally, by doing a sort of high swing or saunter through an entire line of homes without ever touching the ground.

For human adults (or those getting there), the terrace brings the open, and peculiarly social, solitude and privacy of the skies, allowing moments of transcendence in the midst of domesticity, experienced as elevation and distance. This is not only a physical distance from the street, from other houses, people and objects, but also a distance within — a space of apartness inside the home that confounds inside and outside, open and closed, far and near. In it, we play out the stories, the secret histories, of our selves in relation to, as well as away from, the rest of the house. It is perhaps the only place at home — bathrooms are too familial, confining and full of mirrors — where we can pace about and talk loudly to ourselves. And even while this expansion of the self is indulged by the terrace, it is also put in place, as it were, by nothing less than the sky or stars. Yet, by providing unmediated access to the moon, the terrace often becomes the only possible setting for the private theatricals of the lunatic, the lover and the poet lurking in each of us.

It is inevitable, therefore, that the terrace becomes the most ancestral of spaces in India — in the largest, least dynastic, sense of ‘ancestral’. Terraces are haunted not only by history, by the many traditions of domesticity and feeling, of building, dwelling, thinking and looking, but also by the ghosts of their own images and fictions. They become the stuff of lore that is inescapably local, rooted in the vernacular of specific families, communities and regions. But, owing to their closeness to the sky, to the sky’s open, timeless rhythms and cycles, these figments and phantoms take on the enduring substance of literature and of myth. In the lives, memoirs, short stories, novels, poems and songs of the Tagores, for instance, terraces (and verandas) become crucial settings and parts of the dramatis personae, in which the invention of modernity — of an interior avant garde — is continually played out as private rituals, eccentricities and adventures, from the making of art to the unmaking of marriages.

Moving out of Bengal, towards other modernities and architectures, one has only to turn to the fiction of Premchand, Manto and, later, of Anita Desai to explore the continuing life of terraces testing and stretching the limits of Indian homes and families, what they manage to accommodate and what they must exile or elevate without banishing altogether. Hence, the peculiarly segregated and liminal character of the room on the terrace, occupied by servants and unusable furniture, the refuge of difficult, adolescent or studious members of the family — the realm of the misfit.

From writing, drawing and painting to photography and cinema, this is the role terraces play in the formation of memory. Just as gardens enclose ‘nature’, terraces enclose ‘the open’. So, like gardens, they are spaces that are always already imbued with nostalgia. Theirs is a spectral modernity that keeps receding into a history of the present through a corridor of time that runs past our childhoods (or ideas of childhood) towards a more collective, colonial or feudal, past. Is that why children’s literature, ghost stories and family photographs are terrace-haunted?

I remember a story by Leela Majumdar about the custom of fixing a high perch of bamboo on the terrace in the homes of Hindus every year in the month of Ashvin. A little oil-lamp — the akash-piddim or ‘sky-lamp’ — is lit on this pole. This is done to attract the attention of the gods and of the family’s dear departed, who transmit their benevolent powers down the pole into the house. So, all prayers made to the lamp are answered. Four children, says the story, are playing on the terrace in the dusk when they spot an ancient crone, clad in white from head to foot, calling out to them in a suspiciously nasal voice from the terrace next door. She briskly tells them that she was a spirit descended from the skies, but in her great hurry — for she was a very busy ghost — she had landed on the wrong terrace; so, could they please hurry up and make their wishes?

The children huddle together, think hard and come up with their list: two steel pencil-sharpeners and a special ball-point pen with six refills. Now, this makes the crone really angry. What a waste of her time to be asked for things that could easily be bought from the corner-shop! But she produces these things from the pouch around her waist and throws them disdainfully at the children. Then, as an after-thought, she turns to the youngest child, who had been silent all along, “Come on, little one, at least you make a proper wish, for heaven’s sake!” “Alright, I want the lamp of Aladdin!” blurts out the terrified child. Caught on the wrong foot, the crone is even more furious with the child, who immediately withdraws his wish. But this has now become a matter of prestige for the woman: “If the gods can grant such a wish, why do you think I can’t? Look under the pole!” And, just as an ancient lamp comes sliding down the pole and falls tinnily on the terrace, the crone vanishes.

The lamp lights up as the child picks it up and rubs it with his finger, and a dwarf appears out of nowhere and asks, “What do you want, Master?”“I want FOUR sharpeners that are much nicer than theirs, and TWO much more special ball-point pens with TWELVE refills!” The dwarf looks at him with contempt, “You can’t even make a proper wish! You don’t deserve this lamp.” In a moment, he is gone with the lamp. The terrace is dark now. The children put the booty in their pockets and creep down the stairs. They decide to keep mum about the whole thing.