The balmy breeze of the Bay of Bengal would swoop in around 3 in the afternoon, bringing some welcome relief from the oppressive heat of the day. And in Madras, the heat is almost always oppressive. After 5 pm, the terrace was the best place to be. Being so close to the beach, the sea breeze was strong and wonderfully refreshing, drying the sweat that had accumulated in those pre-AC days. The beach was a short walk away, not over fine golden sand, but through short grasses and dry scrub, coconut trees looming over the landscape until finally you clambered over a dune and saw the sea in its solitary majesty.
We were rarely allowed to go to the beach without a chaperone. The elders deemed it too lonely and unsafe. Later when I did make it on my own, I wondered why. It was lonelier than Elliotts Beach but I liked it all the more for the sparse scattering of people and the wheatgrass and aloe vera juice vendor doing brisk business with elderly health-conscious walkers.
The terrace was my haven and I viewed it as my territory. Often I would escape there after school, clutching my school bag and claiming that I needed some quiet to study. But the cool breeze ruffled my hair, and I would wander off into teenage daydreams and fantasies. Sometimes these technicolor journeys would be interrupted by prosaic householder problems, like when my grandfather would come up to examine the water tank, a cavernous rectangular entity of great importance in family life. This tank was powered by a motor that sat at the back of the house near the jasmine bushes. The workings of this contraption were a source of great mystery to me. An air of tension permeated the air if the motor refused to start, or if the water tank refused to fill with appropriate speed. Then I would be dispatched post-haste to the terrace, to slide over the heavy concrete top of the water tank and peer inside, while downstairs grandfather tinkered with the motor and shouted instructions to me. Of course, many a time the motor worked with such efficiency that the water tank overflowed, precious water surging over the terrace and splashing down to the ground, causing much abuse to be heaped on the hapless person who had switched on the motor and neglected to switch it off in time.
That Kottivakkam terrace is associated with such vivid memories. Our neighbour’s daughter was a young woman of great poise and modernity. If I had known the word in 1990, I would have said she was “cool”. She studied in Meenakshi college, spoke impeccable English, and was known to be a fierce debater in the college circuit. Although several years older than me, she invited me to attend a party she was throwing for her birthday, on her terrace. My first grown-up party invitation! Many boys and girls, all older and infinitely more sophisticated than I was, the twinkling fairy lights, cold glasses of Campa Cola and Fanta. I never met any of those people again but never forgot her kindness in inviting a raw 15-year-old to a college party.
Sitting there on that terrace, suspended in space between the indoors and outdoors, I felt suspended in time as well. I brooded on my yesterdays, contemplated the present, and dwelt on my tomorrows. From that vantage point, I could see future horizons, hazy and indistinct, always filled with equal parts hope and trepidation. I wrote poetry on that terrace, my innermost thoughts curling and looping over white pages; years later, I flipped through those pages, now slightly yellow, and felt a rush of tenderness for that young child who carried a cauldron of jumbled emotions.
My mind veers towards other memories of other terraces, other yards. The baking Barsaati in Delhi’s Green Park, which I only know because of photographs. Yards in Meerut, Lucknow and Patna and the only memories are of drowsy winter afternoons, luxuriating in the sunshine and snacking on red winter carrots, white radishes, and green guavas. I suppose we never sat there in the summers! Coming into the house after a couple of hours outside was disorienting, eyes having to adjust to the darkness after the bright sunlight outside and shivering inside the cold house. A rare birthday party (my 10th) on the terrace of our house in Padmanabha Nagar, Adayar. Playing musical chairs and some child giving me a pencil sharpener in the shape of a Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Bar. What a treasured possession that was, for many years!
I suppose these yesteryear echoes lie behind my love of outdoor spaces. I like nothing more than to install myself with laptop and a cup of tea in the garden or patio and while away the hours. Sometimes I work, sometimes I meditate, sometimes I ruminate.
Today I sit in a red wooden patio in suburban Virginia. Once I sprawled on a concrete floor; here there are comfortable chairs, a table, even an umbrella to shade from the sun. There are no coconut trees, but only alien oaks and beeches. Certainly no sea close by. No dull-looking pigeons and crows, but bright red cardinals and flashy blue jays. But the balmy breeze is the same. It swoops in and ruffles the trees and shakes the leaves to the ground. I close my eyes and I am transported back in time and place.
It took many years to travel from the Kottivakkam terrace to another continent, and that lonely teenager bears no ready resemblance to the woman I have become. Yet we all contain multitudes- our past present and future selves jostle for life and expression. The girl on that terrace worked hard to give me hope happiness and life; to her, I am forever grateful.