How I Remember my Balcony: Charpoys, Coolers and Anti-Sikh Riots
By Sangeeta Murthi Sahgal
From the late 70s to the late 80s, the Murthi household (two adults, four 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 six charpoys, three in a row.
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 fourth 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.
Afternoons of Reading and Nights of Childish Picnics
My younger sister and I were assigned the chore of cleaning — and then filling the balcony each evening — when 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! Anna tried to stop us many times, saying that we would hurt ourselves — but when has that stopped a child from playing?
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 Asterixcomics 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 for permission to have a picnic. Once she agreed, Anna would be told to come home early. Not that he had a lot to 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.
The Horrific Sight of the 1984 Anti-Sikh Riots
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 neighbours’ children — could go out to see smoke rising from homes across South Delhi.
Anna had a special pass and went to office everyday — except for the first day of curfew. (Although 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 theirbalconies — all in a sign language unknown to adults. There were long conversations in mime and 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 is where we went when we wanted a quiet place to cry.
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 the sights and sounds of my childhood.
(After working in corporate India for over 29 years, Sangeeta has taken time off to look after her father, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2008. Sangeeta hopes that these authentic stories will help patients and caregivers understand and appreciate the impact of Parkinson’s Disease. You can follow Sangeeta’s blog here.)
Related Links in the Series
How my Father, the Parkinson’s Patient, Aced the Spoken Word
From a Real Life Piku: Looking After an Elderly ‘Child’
Dealing with Dependence: A Daughter’s Tale of her Father
My Dad Hallucinates — and Even the Happy Ones are Painful
As if in Solidarity With Chennai, My Anna is Having Rain Delusions
My Anna Holds on to his Bata Sandals, Even as He Loses his Memory
Who Knew That Nutella Would Convince My Old Dad to Take his Pills?
Before Vidya Balan, an Original South Indian Dirty Picture Ruled
(This story was first published on The Quint.com.)