Thursday, December 10, 2009

first rains - 3

A word: Thank you for reading the earlier bits. I like to kid myself that I write for myself alone but your words matter a lot. They always have.
i am posting these as I write them with little editing.

Continued from Part I and Part II.

I rise from the bed and gulp some water from the bottle. I pull in my slippers and slip in a jacket and grab the cigarettes pack. A slight shiver runs across me as I open the door to the balcony. The rain has stopped. I lean over the railing steel, with a jacket padded elbow – the icy wetness of the short shower quickly eats through it. The cigarette burns quickly to a stub. (Sudda inspects the stub in his hand and asks me in white vapory words, ‘Why do cigarettes finish faster in the winters, yaar? You ever noticed that? Oxygen?’ I ruminate, ‘Nyah, I think they burn at the same rate. It’s only you want them to last longer in the winters.’) I smoke another one. Halfway through, I turn to rest the other elbow on the railing and hold my head in my hands, and knead it. I don’t want to remember. A door long closed, its key lost, opened a crack and a heap of images rush out: chachi breaks from a conversation and rushes to the kitchen filling with the stench of burnt milk, Abhay pulls the legs out of a grasshopper with Bua’s tweezers, Ba catches me draining the milk in the commode and I wither under her cold silent stare, Badi ma sits still at the puja after her bath smelling like the first rains, the sunlight from the window falling in rhomboid patterns over her white sari, I race behind Preeti and we rush into a visitor defecating behind a bush who brings down his dhoti at the last minute, the dark cool inside of the fireplace, the chipped end of the takhat in the courtyard leading to the kitchen which always caught my shorts, the strong fermenting smell of pickles in the larder, the termites like dark brown tear-stains on the dank walls, the corners behind the curtains and sofas where we hid in our games, the edge of the clouds I peeped over – fascinated by the doll-house world beneath but purblind to the uncoiling serpent of its dark intents: the hush-hush of conspiracies, the tense tussle of power, and the game of gnawing attrition.

Slowly, the desert receded from my consciousness. Every afternoon while the house slept, I tiptoed around, learning to slowly push the old doors without making them creak, and explored its secret corners. I climbed the tin trunks in the store-room and discovered a row of stone slabs built into the wall behind where I could sneak in and never be discovered in all the hide-and-seek games. I climbed over the window mesh to explore a cylindrical hole below the sky window and discovered an abandoned nest. I discovered behind the big clay pot in the drawing room the cool dark alcove under the chimney of the fireplace where one could stand and raise his eyes to catch a chink of daylight in the distance and hear the warbled echoes of the winds. I climbed over the rails of the closed doors and peeped over their lites to discover roomfuls of furniture covered in dusty blankets. I discovered colonies of ants in the cracks of the stone steps of the verandas and secreted sugar crystals from the kitchen to watch them discover the cache, hurriedly send for reinforcements and then lug them away. I discovered the books of my grandfather, inside storage cupboards over the built-in almirahs, wrapped in thin diaphanous cloths smelling of the naphthalene balls which had been dropped inside. But all these discoveries were nothing till I mastered the skies. The silent world of skylights that dotted the walls of each room, dropping a feet below the high ceilings, and with their open shutters, half-rotated on their hinges, looking like the eyes of Ents keeping a silent vigilance over the bustling intrigues of the small humans, with bored sardonic eyes.

The house was a single storied bungalow with high ceilings and painted a cream yellow outside every Diwali only to turn a mysterious green by the time the summers came. The roof was reached by a makeshift bamboo ladder which wobbled madly on the mornings, twice in a year, when Madhav would climb it to put on the tricolour on the flagstaff standing over the portico, and in the evening to take them off. Sometimes, after the rains, he would be sent up to clear the water-clogging. But no one else was permitted to climb up, least of all us children – the only time we secretly tried, managing to prop the ladder against the roof after several tries, the gaps between its rungs were too much for us, and we fled after it came crashing down. After that, Badi ma had the ladder kept chained to one of the pipes.

We even tried climbing up the pipes but they were too slippery under our fingers. After that we gave up trying to find a breach to the roof. Or rather, they gave up. I persisted alone, in these hours of family siesta, and one day discovered a purchase in a deep crack on the wall of the guest room opening to the courtyard, the chabootra, overlooking the back garden where an English couple had once sat; it had been the room from where I had watched my first rain and usually remained unoccupied at that hour. I climbed the jaali of the window which ran through the entire length of the room ending in a door on the other side, biting my lips the first few times when the splayed fingers of my foot pinched against the metal mesh, and, with a hand slipped inside the crack, swung my other leg to a brick protruding at the edge where the wall of the room met the low wall dropping down the stairs and partitioning the garden from the inner courtyard, and clambering up to the top of this wall, heaved myself the two feet up to the roof over the guest room. I sat tired and proud on the parapet, turning my head slowly and taking in everything – the kitchen, the courtyard with the old wooden takhat, the passage boxed between the drain and Badi Ma’s bathroom, the door opening to the back garden, and from there to the farthest tree at the edge of the wall – in a single sweep. The door to the far side, leading to the servants’ quarters, opened and I ducked out of sight.

The flat tar and gravel roof, I discovered, was built in three ascending layers of roughly four-feet height. At the brink, stood the smaller outer rooms, the guest room I had just climbed over being one of them. These hemmed in the middle rooms: the four large bedrooms, and the cavernous dining room with the elongated eight-seating dining table in the middle (how often I would be reminded of it in the early days at the boarding-school when I would see the burnishing patches of sunlight on the long tables in the refectory) and the heavy sideboard pushed against the wall separating it from the drawing room; the wall broken by a heavily-curtained door at each end. Thrust in the middle of these rooms, and rising over the layered planes like a pulpit, was the flat hexagon of the drawing room – two of the bigger bedrooms on its either sides, the dining room abutting the back and the front dropping steeply to the low roof over the portico. It was the room where the chain of the heavy chandelier and the downrods of the fans dropped several feet below resting about fifteen feet over the sofas; it was almost a custom with the guests from the village to hesitate at the doorsteps of the tall front door and then enter with a humility and awe reserved for the great cathedrals, their eyes slowly taking in the vastness of the room – the maize-coloured terrazzo dominating the floor despite the two sets of sofas over thick carpets thrown against the walls, the mantelpiece facing the door half-hidden behind a giant pedestal holding the plaster bust of grandfather’s father, the tall portraits of the Nehrus and the Gandhis dominating each face of the walls – and then slowly rise to the ceiling, and invariably fixing open-mouthed on the Raj-era crystal chandelier that filled the view, unmindful of the dark shadows under the skylights beyond from where we watched them.

The skylights were on each face of the walls where the middle rooms met the outer rooms and the drawing room met the middle rooms. Flat rectangles about a feet high and three across, the frames rotating a quarter on hinges, opened and shut by cords passing through a metal loop and dropping in the room to be secured and twined around a hook; outside: an awning of falling cement between two brackets to check the rains and the mid-day sun. From below, we hardly noticed them despite the chinks of light that sneaked between the awning and the slat and, leaving debris of dancing-dust on its trail, lit warm patches on the floor. Even if one would lift the eyes towards them, one would have to squint and shade them with a palm, for the sunlight was white and near-blinding, and the rest dark in the shadows of the awning. From the above though, one did not have to squint. Once, squatting, the head had been pushed under the awning and over the horizontal slat, and after one had pulled away the cobwebs from the face and held the sneeze, the rooms below opened like tableaux; and one could suck leisurely into the lives bustling below– silently, unseen, undetected.

Sitting on the front seat of the double decker, we watch the bus part through the flooded lanes like a ship strayed into the heart of a city along with the high tide. ‘I have always understood the world from here. Hovering a little above it, watching its machinations and thus slowly understanding them. Below, with them, I feel – overwhelmed.’

Understand me, Shaz. I was not born in the chaos like you. I had been suddenly thrust into the Manor. Even, the reception party waiting for us at the platform had numbered at least thirty-three, if the photograph – papa standing in the middle, his face hidden behind three thick garlands, one hand over Preeti’s left shoulder, who stares at the camera confused yet defiant, Badi Ma’s hand on her head, swathes of aunts cousins uncles kids in a wide semi-circle around, and the train still steaming behind – did not miss out too many of them. (I am that bundled form across Ba’s right shoulder; fatigued: the pink doctor’s first diagnosis.) Even after they scattered, the house remained too close to my face for me to pick out its features. I looked up the ceilings till my neck hurt but instead of reverence, I was filled with dread at its enormity. I would find myself in a strange room and run around frantic for a familiar face, pushing doors at random, but each door would bring me to a similar room with another four doors leading away from it. Slowly, I adjusted – the strangers assimilated into a familiarity. I learnt to find my way through the rooms. And yet my understanding came with the exhaustion of a non-native speaker listening and translating in his head.

Once in a coffee-house in Chicago I had heard a noise, a thud. Everyone else had known that sound well enough to be not bothered by it and had, without a pause, continued with their books, conversations and thoughts; only I had raised my eyes and was looking around uncomprehending. In that moment, I had understood what being an alien meant. My fascination with the house, the discovery of its secrets one by one, never quelled my anxiety of still not having understood it; of my still being a tourist – an outsider with no claim.

The skylights were like a mesh of surveillance screens and the house, suddenly bared, a doll house with its roof carefully plucked away, finally revealed its true shape and geometry to me. They opened in all the main rooms of the main wing, except for the outer ones, which included the box rooms, and the dressing rooms and the bathrooms – the canny Englishman had realised and pre-empted their threat in these private rooms. The bustle and activity became the games of Lilliputian people, held in giant invisible hands – my hands – and accoutred from a choice of stuff – what I chose – scuttling across floors, acknowledging each other when they came across by stopping and exchanging platitudes (‘Sarla ko dekha?’ ‘Nahin, puja ke kamre mein to nahi hai?’ ‘ Haan, wahaan dekhtee hun’ – figures part in different directions), and then pushing the door to some another room, with I rushing above them to the window to the room being entered, and continuing with their same silly game.

I do not remember how long that phase of initial excitement lasted. The Manor at last sunk beneath my consciousness and then disappeared. The games inside became quotidian and boring. I turned away from the windows and walked to the edge of the parapets and looked at the world beyond. It was a world more accessible, a foreshortened panorama, not the distant sweeps of sand dunes that I had seen from our fourteenth storied flat. The back garden, the front lawn, the wall running like a track and dividing them, the wild orchard filling the back garden, the trimmed and hedged front lawn, and beyond, over the wall, the might red walls of the governor’s residence; a stray cyclist, rickshaw, sometimes a car, drifting along the road separating the two high walls. The flatness of this world, its enoughness was strangely comforting. I climbed up one day and instead of the skywindows just walked along the parapet to the middle of the room, and sat down. The chabootra a few feet of drop below me, a parrot pecking at a guava in a tree, the air still. I brought my knees together and hugged them. At that moment, the Manor and I were one.

And then Preeti heaved herself up the edge of the roof I had just climbed over.


Faiz said...

bhery bhery good gullu b .. very evocative, ruskin bond-ish piece which very suspiciously looks like an excerpt :) ..

what I particularly liked is the the peace and the fondness as opposed to the anger and the angst ..

ramya sriram said...

eiii i want to see this house now.

Pankaj said...

ruskin bondish indeed! the house sounds fascinating. So much to explore!

Tangled up in blue... said...

This reminds me less of ruskin bond and more of Orhan Pamuk..he describes Istanbul with similar affectionate attentiveness :)

日月神教-任我行 said...