Friday, January 29, 2016

Reminiscencing a Balcony

From the late 70s to the late 80s, the Murthi household (2 adults, 4 children, and often a grandmother) lived at Multi-Storey Flats, R K Puram, New Delhi. MS Flats, as they were called, were made for central government officers and their families. They were spacious flats - the crowning glory of which was a large balcony that could fit 6 charpoys, three in a row.

Our Charpoys Looked Like This...
In Delhi's intense summer, we didn't use air conditioners partly because we couldn't afford them, and partly because electricity supply was unreliable. We didn't even use a water-based desert cooler. We slept in this mammoth balcony on the 4th floor.  Anna, taught us how to block the water drainage pipes at the edge of the balcony, so that we could fill it with 3 inches of water. We then placed our charpoys in this massive water-tray balcony, switched on the solitary ceiling fan and slept with cool breeze enveloping us. Anna taught us about the efficiency of large surface area water cooling with that balcony. 

My younger sister and I, were assigned the chore of cleaning and then filling the balcony each evening when the fresh water supply was piped to our homes. This we did with glee.  We also invented a game of water slide which consisted of running from the end of one room, jumping over the small cement doorway hump to land butt-first into 3 inches of water that let us slide to the balcony railings. We could do this for hours.  Anna tried to stop us many times, saying that we would hurt ourselves, but when has that stopped a child from playing and that too in water. So he let us be.

Then there are the countless afternoons and evenings we spent, four kids and father, sprawled on charpoys in the balcony reading the few Tintin and Asterix comics we had. All would be quiet till someone read something and laughed out loud. Amma thought we sounded demented when we did this, for there would be minutes of utter silence broken by laughter then dead silence interspersed with the whisper of pages being turned.

This balcony also experienced picnics on full moon nights. We'd ask our mother permission to have a picnic. Once she agreed, Anna would be told to come home early. Not that he had a lot to prepare and do between his bedroom and the balcony! Our picnics had no cold drinks, juices, chips or sandwiches. Picnic food, in our family in those days was lemon / tamarind peanut rice, curd rice, pickle, papad, and fried dried green chilies. 

From this balcony overlooking the Ring Road, we watched Delhi burn in 1984.   

We watched as mobs stopped buses and pulled people out. We looked on helplessly as they ran into one of the buildings, pursued by their countrymen. We never saw the violence play out, for Amma herded us into our rooms, drew the curtains, and told us not to go out. She told us of the horror she witnessed as a young girl in 1947 when she was in Delhi. During those days of curfew, she would define when we, and many times our neighbors' children, could go out to see smoke rising from homes across South Delhi. Anna had a special pass and went to office other than on the 1st day for curfew. Tho' Delhi was in shut-down mode, the Planning Commission seemed to continue to work.

This is the balcony from which we had long conversations with our friends in their balconies. In a sign language unknown to adults. Long conversations in mime.  Dumb charades dialogues.  Anna often said that we looked like we all suffered from a strange form of epilepsy! We ignored this insult, for he said the same thing when we danced to Rock n Roll !

The balcony was second to our dining table, around which the most critical conversations happened in our family.  It was the place where real sharing and dialogue happened. This was the place where ideas were born and fights resolved. This is where we went when we wanted a quiet place to cry. 

And where I learned to dance in the rain! 

Now when I pass by MS Flats, I feel sad when I see all the covered balconies. What used to be their crowning glory is now just an additional room without the fullness and views of my childhood.

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