Contrary to what indie bollywood stories or male suburban hindi poets from the early 90s will tell you, your neighbor’s terrace is not a breeding ground for romance. The terrace is, in fact, a no woman’s land, especially in a conventional small town. It is an empty space longingly ogled in the evenings by fresh carriers of juvenile masculinity. It is a bland area despite the spiciest chillies getting smothered by scorching sun in their absolute nudity. It is as arid as the clothes that have been left there to dry for a couple hours too long.
The mother is aware of the neighbour's son’s roof timings. She subtextually denies the innocence of his intentions when she furiously denies her daughter access to that space while the young one tries to carry her evening tea and a Mahadevi Verma book beyond the ground floor.
The father notices it too but will not communicate about it with the neighbour because he is to attend the luncheon following a Ramayan recital at the neighbour’s place next weekend and communal awkwardness is ideally towards the bottom of a middle class man’s list of quotidian troubles.
The terrace is not a breeding ground for romance, although it has all the romantic potential to be. It, instead, is a reiteration of our young female protagonist’s spatial limitations. The lack of walls and a ceiling is no more a poetic metaphor, it becomes a realistic longing. Again, not for romance but to enjoy a beverage while the sun splatters orange hue or to read a prose while listening to birds noisily scurry back to their own localities. This is the part of the politics that the neighbouring residences and parental surveillance is unaware of.
My childhood has seen many chhats. The ones with cracked walls and broken tiles, the ones where you could sit during cold winter mornings, watching the sun rise. The ones during the unforgiving summers where you would lay down an old cloth, fastened by four stones in preparation for the year's vadaam (paapad's cousin who spent a lot of time in the South) supply.
Another person that I can place with me during these isolated memories is my grandmother. My earliest memory is one which now lives in me only through a reconstruction of the tales told by my family. It was during the winters in Jammu, when I was just a few months old. My daily spot for sun bathing would be on the terrace with Paati putting out clothes for the day. She would talk to me, like an equal, like someone who understood the world and understood her. She would tell me about her day, the squabble between her and grandfather, the errands she had to run before dinner. And not surprisingly, I would reply in the most cohesive babble I could come up with. It was a relationship that traversed language.
Through the years, the chhats changed their shapes and forms, but the memories remain; in old, black and white photographs and reminiscent chuckles of my childhood.
Well, that's decided then. Tomorrow, we scrub our mottamaadi squeaky clean. My toddler brother would be in-charge of exponentially making our tasks difficult, and I, of ordering him around. Appa, of course, will be washing the terrace as per tradition and Amma will be catching up on all the family drama over a long-overdue phonecall with Paati, sans her eager children piping in to provide their own two cents.
I pick a grape skirt for the occasion; I concluded the purple would go well with the white of the terrace walls (but in hindsight, not so much with the brown of my skin). And in an attempt to mimic Sunita Aunty, our maid, I hitch up my knee-length skirt with a sense of faux-authority and climb up the stairs.
Now, the scrubbing process is a four-part affair. First, we notify the resident insects of the short-term operation. We do so by gently caressing the corners and the edges of the terrace with erstwhile bandhani dupattas which will later be the reason why Complan is vindictively poured down my throat as opposed to PediaSure. Second, we scour each inch of the wall armed with dusters (for my dad), shoebrushes (for yours truly), and old toothbrushes (for my brother). The terrace is now blackhead free. Next, we splash each other with soap water which eventually finds its way onto the floor. Finally, we wash off the soap with clean water, which, also, finds its way onto the floor after much slipping and scrambling at the sight of Amma in her admonishing glory- arms akimbo and everything.
On the terrace, the same evening.
Terrace parties and the idea of chilling on the chhat were ideas unfamiliar to my household of many people.
All until COVID-19 locked us up inside our home.
With no other place to go to, we wandered to the chhat and from there our thoughts departed to the clouds.
Our chhat had been a neglected space, used only when the need arose: to dry paapads, occasionally and when someone in the house needed privacy, to breath in the open within one's own space.
The chhat during the lockdown replaced the living room in doing it's task. We'd all meet by chance or appointment on the chhat and play langdi or roli-poli. Listen to music, heave with sadness, watch the sky, the neighbours and their whereabouts, and a variety of birds we only discovered during the lockdown.
Now, our family was leaving the house and the locality.
So we decided to give the chhat as well as each other a farewell. We hosted a birthday party for my mother and my cousin. Every member of the house was sent a formal invite.
Fairy lights and the usual picnic. Music and an evening sky.
"Chalo, chhat pe chalte hai," we said that day at home, for the last time.