‘Yaa garmiyon ki raat jo purwaayiaan chale
Thandi safed chaadaron pe jaagen der tak
Taaron ko dekhte rahen chhat par pade huye
Dil dhoondhtaa, hai phir wahi fursat ke raat din’
There is something middle class semi urban and urban people who have always lived in apartments will never experience. And that is sleeping on the terrace. This lot doesn’t have a terrace and doesn’t know what it means to have a terrace. Many of them don’t even know a balcony, let alone a terrace.
There is another set of middle class people who would probably not know what it’s like to sleep on a terrace. This second lot is what I call the AC generation, people who have to switch on the AC even if they can just open the window and let the breeze in. If I could, I would take them all back into time. I would share the magic of the starlit terrace of my childhood home in my hometown.
The terrace of my home was on the second floor. From the front wall you could look down at Bhiwani Stand, the junction of many streets, melting into one. On the left was our neighbors’ terrace, with a wall low enough for all the kids in the neighborhood to climb and get together on one terrace for the evening games. The wall to the right was high enough to hide whatever went on the other side. On the back side was our store room where we kept all the junk we never used but kept nevertheless in the hope of using it someday.
The only things of any use in the room were – Charpais (a bed of ropes woven on a wooden frame, much smaller in width and height in comparison to normal beds), white sheets, pillows, an earthen pot, and two table fans.
Every summer, we took to sleeping on the terrace. For the uninitiated and unadorned, sleeping on the terrace is not as simple as it sounds. Nothing about the terrace is what it seems to be.
It might seem like the lifestyle choice of pre-80s generation but sleeping on the terrace is a study and application of both – physics and psychology. Now, when I look back, ma and dadi, that is my paternal grandma, they were experts at both of these. They knew fully well that they wouldn’t need to force any of us to take up a task that involved water in summers. They also knew that the task didn’t require much of a methodology whether we did it our way or theirs, it would be done. I am sure they secretly hoped we would do it our way so that they got to have fun later when they got a chance to scold us. And the task itself was derived from the law of thermodynamics.
If your sleeping time was 9 PM, you would go to the terrace at 7 PM with buckets of water, and throw some on yourself, some on your siblings, all under the pretext of the task of spraying it on the terrace. Ma would keep shouting from the 1st floor, “I know what you guys are up to.” And we knew what she knew but we also knew she would not climb the stairs just to stop us when she could have her fun in scolding when we went back, all wet from our games. So why spoil the fun in the moment?
By 8 PM, all the water on the terrace floor would evaporate because the terrace gets red hot in summers. The water spray was just to help it cool off. Now came the second round of sprays to keep it cool for the night. By this time you have already been scolded once, forced to change into your pajamas, and you do not want to be forced to eat anything as boring as pulses for dinner. So, it becomes almost a compulsion to play it by the rules. Yet, geniuses that we were, we would first spread a few buckets on terrace, fold our pajamas, and then jump on it to splash around.
Then we got the charpais from the room. Set up separate charpais for the whole family, lay white sheets over them along with the pillows. In the end we set the table fans at two opposite corners of the row of seven beds, so that even if the summer breeze didn’t blow at night, we would still not feel hot or become mosquitoes’ breeding ground.
While sleeping on the terrace, I always made sure my charpai was right next to Ma’s charpai. Every night when we lay down on the cool, white sheets, she would tell me a story. On the days when I would not stop at one story, we would both make shapes and patterns from stars. Much after she and everyone else would fall asleep, I would lay awake making shapes and faces in stars.
Did I mention sleeping on terrace shows you what it feels like to let things go and not run after them? How could I miss such a grandiose philosophy of life that can only begin from sleeping on a terrace?
While sleeping on the terrace, you learn to let everything whizz past. This includes everything from the stars, to the shining flying objects (which could be imaginary), to ma monkeys with baby monkeys hanging from their tums and insects who looked like grasshoppers without any grass being around. Not to mention shadows, who could be ghosts or thieves or your own stupid sibling who couldn’t wait till morning to get a glass of water and blocked the table fans in the process.
Still, if you slept on terrace and saw a shadow, you shut your eyes as tight as you could and let it pass by. This rule was especially applicable in the case of monkeys. If you saw a monkey swaying its hips on the wall that separated your terrace from the neighbor’s terrace, you didn’t scream, or jump on your mom. You just lay there still and shut eyes tight to fool the monkey that you were as asleep as sleep could be.
Not that those monkeys used to come and scan our faces or even bother looking at us from wherever they were. Still, to be on the safer side, it was best to keep eyes shut and check from the corner of your eyes, the exact location of the monkeys. And only when they crossed the terrace of your home to jump to some other unknown co-ordinate, did you open your eyes and start making constellations of stars again while imagining moon to be an old woman’s face.
In the morning, the house flies hovered over us exactly at day break to wake us up. A part of me believes that Dad bribed them to do that to us. He had always wanted us to wake up early. All that conspiracy was not effective though. We quietly went to down our bedrooms to sleep for a few more hours before we were kicked out of bed again.
One very early morning, as I was tossing and turning in bed while trying to boo away the flies with my waving arms, I saw a shadow walking around on our terrace. It was too thin to be any of my family so I shut my eyes tight, lay still, and in my mind ordered the flies to hover over my brother.
The flies didn’t go, instead I heard Dad shouting “kaun hai?” “Who is it?”.
By the time I opened my eyes, I saw Dad holding a scrawny, little, thin man by his arm. Dad caught a shadow! By the time I was fully awake, surprised at a shadow being caught, men and boys from the joint family living next door gathered too.
They were all shouting – Chor! Chor! Thief! Thief!
Oh! That’s what the shadow is called – Mr.Thief! So, this Mr. Thief had at least seven shadows of men and pre-men, around him, discussing what to do with him. Amongst the seven seemingly upset shadows, who were probably just irritated at losing their sleep than anything else, no one knew what to do.
“Let’s call police.”
“Why? What for? They will slap him and leave him.”
“Then what should we do?”
“Let’s bash him and throw him out.”
“No, what if something happens to him?”
“Are you scared?”
“Why are you after my life now? You are the one who can’t handle others in college.”
“And you are the one who always goes to mom crying.”
In the shouting and all the arguing, Dadi woke up. When she woke up, the world I knew kind of stopped to make way. What else could it do with a no-nonsense disciplinarian who followed a strong moral code of her own and was obsessed with anything concerning rules and abhorred the breaking of them?
She pushed through the mob of all these men. Her hands at her waist, she stood facing Mr. Thief. All of a sudden even as everyone continued discussing in raised voices, they knew he was going to get at least two slaps if not more.
Dadi’s voice silenced everyone, “Shutup everyone”, Dadi said without so much as raising her voice.
“Ask him why he came here” Dadi said, suppressing a yawn.
“He must have come to steal, what is there to ask?” My dad replied, a bit irritated, not knowing where this was going.
“I want to hear it from his mouth”, Dadi replied in the same no-nonsense tone she used with us when we did something to break her rules.
“Why did you come here?” Dad asked him, not wanting to reason with Dadi, he did as he was told.
“I am constructing my own house. I came to check how you have planned the electrical fittings around the house so that I could get the same thing done at my house.” Mr. Thief replied, suddenly having found his voice and with it his confidence.
“He doesn’t even know how to cook up an excuse, what could he have stolen? Let him go!” Dadi burst out laughing, a rarity if you would ask me.
Mr. Thief was escorted out of the home with zero damage to his body but I am sure his self-esteem hit an all-time low.
And after that day, we began to lock the stairs from the terrace end after we all climbed up to count the stars or sleep as adults called it.
So much for sleeping on the terrace where shadows became thieves and thieves turned out to be mere shadows of their own selves. The only thing that remained the same were the stars that lit the night but still kept it dark, the only way stars can, making a few harmless and a few kind shadows in the process.