The View from the Balcony

Every day after work, the husband and me sit sipping chai in our apartment balcony. It’s usually dusk, the sky is a brilliant cloudy orange, there’s the faint smell of the chemicals used for fumigating mosquitoes, there’s the sound of children making the kind of weird noises that they usually do, and there’s the sound of me greedily munching whatever bit of food that’s unlucky enough to inhabit my cabinets. It’s my favorite part of the day, one of those slices of time which is perfectly blended with silence and sound, when your senses feel totally alive, and yet there’s a peace in your heart, you don’t want to talk about, in case you jinx it.
And yet for the past few days, I have been feeling a tad uncomfortable. A tad.
We live in one of Bangalore’s new swanky apartments. It’s a fairly large campus with seven towers, each tower standing at 20 stories. I moved in here after marriage, and notwithstanding the romance of it, I love the place. I love the open spaces where I can go walking, love the landscaping with flowers, love the sound of kids playing in the grounds, love watching elderly aunties and uncles sitting on strategically placed benches. I love to drive back from office, and look at the neatly placed white buildings with their clean modern architectural lines, the lights gleaming in well-lit apartments, giving a sense of cheerful prosperity. And most of all, I love my home. It’s on the tenth floor, and our drawing room has one wall completely done in glass. It gives me a sense of space, of light, of openness, that for me is addictive. The drawing room opens to a balcony, which is where I spend most of my time ruminating over chai and meandering thoughts. I love being here.
Beyond the apartment, lies the city. The city in its glorious brilliant ugly lively existence. I would have liked a view with mountains and forests, and the hubby would have liked to get an ocean or a lake in his less ambitious dreams. What we have instead is – a vast expanse of tightly cluttered, lovingly clingy, sweeping and expansive set of houses. Houses in varying sizes, varying colors, varying shapes, with nothing common about them except a total absence of aesthetics. There are hardly any trees, the roads and alleys are cramped, the shops old fashioned and sincere in their intentions, the traffic chaotic to say the least. And yet there’s something really nice about the view.
As I looked over from my balcony the first time, all I could see was the terraces of block shaped buildings who stood short in their glorious obscurity. Bunched up, they huddled together; an expanse of fluorescent greens, tangy oranges, and hideous pinks, what surprised me is that they didn’t seem to cower in front of the perfectly white, proportionate aesthetics of the new buildings that were looking over them. I was pleasantly surprised. Far being an eyesore, I felt pleasantly comfortable. Condescendingly so.
Over the past 6 months, I have grown to love the view. No particular reason why. I liked to see the clotheslines on the verandas, the cycles casually propped up against untidy stairways, the freshly scrubbed look of courtyards, the occasional glimpse of squeezed in green, a tulsi or a lone coconut tree, the black sintex tanks lined up proudly on each terrace, curtains fluttering in the wind, slippers lined up against doors decorated for an elusive deity. As the day started with a cup of coffee, I would lean against the railings and enjoy the first stirring of life. Women sweeping the courtyards, kids scampering to school, not in school buses, but walking across the narrow alleys with freshly combed hair, cycles being wheeled away from the stairways by grumpy morose men (or so I imagined their expressions to be), the odd scooter being revved up with an entire family on it. In the evenings, I would watch the brilliance of the orange sky fade into comfortable darkness, would watch the darkness would get adorned by the small yellow lights in small cosy windows, watch the ugliness of each colored building getting assimilated within the darkness of the night. All that would be left were cosy cheerful patterns of lights across the cloak of darkness. As a voyeur I would watch those patterns, and make stories about the lives in those houses. I almost wrote “I imagined the lives of the people” and then backspaced it. I didn’t imagine, I observed and I made stories.
Condescendingly made stories. I thought I was imagining the lives of people in those cosy rooms. I wasn’t. I was making stories. Romanticizing something which was probably not mine. It was not a ‘what’ that resided in those pretty patterns at night. These were people whose only claim to existence was life, and a life which they were just living. A life which was not a story or a romantic pretention, but something that they breathed in every moment, something that they exhaled, something that was uniquely theirs. And it was far far away from the romantic illusions I was referring to. It was as far far away from my stories.
It’s a reality of which I can be a voyeur, but never really fathom. I live in a bubble. A bubble which is made up of my friends, my family, my foibles, my misadventures, my joys. It’s a blessed life by most standards. It’s one which I proudly proclaim as eventful and interesting. Even happy. It’s one which is very like the ones of many of my friends. And it’s the life that I have worked very hard for. I am the child of the post liberalization era. Born of middle class parents, I grew up to enjoy the fruits of economy policy which was called reforms. It was not just about the material benefits (though honestly, material things feel awesome). It was also about opportunities, opportunities to grow, travel, learn, opportunities to be the kind of person who you want to be. Money doesn’t buy experiences, it only buys material goods. True. But it’s a nice to have, or so I have always thought. Travelling around the world, good natured ventures, meeting people from various backgrounds, all that would have taken money right? And I can’t regret one bit of it, the good, the best, the worst. So if you don’t regret any of those experiences, how can you regret the source of it? And why do you have to feel apologetic for what you have justly earned? I am not. But I am uncomfortable.
The view from my balcony. It’s a world which is drastically different from mine, but which is just 500m away from me. While I talk about travel, art, architecture, literature, there are children right across the street who do not get basic education. I talk about their houses and romanticize their architecture; they use it as a shelter against the elements in the truest definition of a dwelling. I spoke of justice, independence, freedom as things that I take for granted; they live most days without one or all of these.
What’s worse is the realization is that I am not sure I want to know that world. I am sympathetic, but it doesn’t last beyond the million things I have to do for myself. I am armed with noble intentions, but I have nothing constructive to offer. I get shocked by the things they have to do without, but would I really let go for some of my comforts so that they can get some? Straightforward example. One of things I have enjoyed since moving in to this apartment is long hot showers. After coming from apartments where water was always a problem, a long hot shower is a definitely a luxury. But right across, you see women and children wait for a few hours for a few pots of water, fighting with the water tanker guys. Does it bother us, or do we look away conveniently? And even as I grapple with these questions, there’s a sound which belligerently says “so what if I enjoy these comforts. It’s what I have earned.” And that’s true. I have come from a world which was so middle class in its existence, you had enough of everything you needed, and of everything else you made do. You were told to be content with what you have, to have small dreams, to not wish for the impossible. I chose not to believe those words, and if I now get to live those big dreams, do I have to be uncomfortable about it?
I say I have earned whatever I now have. But how does that work? That subscribes to the view the poor are poor because they have not worked hard, because they have no enterprise, no attitude. Is that really true? And if that’s not true, if they work as hard as I do, then do I really get to sit on a balcony and gloat about my successes. If attitude is what matters, then can you blame them when you have told them for years that they belong on the ground and we in our ivory towers. Of course we have. We do that almost every day, at least I have done so. We do that when we say that we will only travel in Volvo buses because it has ‘an okay crowd’. We do that when we talk about auto drivers while we sit in their autos, as if they are deaf as stones.  Or comment about them as if they don’t exist within our periphery. (I have had a hate relationship with most auto drivers for the past 5 years, but even I cringe sometimes at our crassness. Would you like it if you got into a meeting with your clients, and the clients went on talking amongst themselves, discussing someone like you, but essentially tarnishing you with the same brush? Would you like to be invisible when you were discussed as ‘that lot’). We do that when we look for ‘good areas’ to live in, where people don’t speak the local language, where they are only well spoken articulate people, people who are like us. We go to movie halls where our maids will be never be able to go, and if they did, we would be probably embarrassed. As much as we hate to admit it, we live in a world of economic and cultural apartheid. And it’s as wrong as any other discrimination that we get worked up about – gender, racial, religious.
My bubble is nice and pretty, and like all bubbles, very comforting. And I am not a bad person, or at least I try not to be. And so are all the people who live in my apartment. They are people who are generally industrious, mostly kind, usually just in their interactions. They are not policy makers, they are people who go about attending to chores relevant to their lives, who live fairly decent upright lives, and who try to be as nice as they can be. They are not evil, far from it, they have countable crimes listed against their names, but would the biggest one be self-centeredness? And is that really a crime?
Can we be happy only when everyone around is happy? Should we get bothered when we know that there’s not much we can about it? Or is there anything we can about it, without disturbing the bubble that our life is? More important, are we okay to be the self-centered individuals without anything else bothering our existence. Is it a choice to be that person, or is it somebody who you are? Will I look from the balcony and continue to see the pretty lights? The questions are many, and unanswered. The view from the balcony remains….

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