Theorems on red-tiled terraces

I grew up in small houses.

On the Air Force bases we lived in, the accommodations (or airmens’ quarters, as they were called) were bare, two-roomed boxes. If you were lucky, you were allotted one with a balcony. We were on the ground floor in Jamnagar, so we had a yard. But there was still little space, especially for a family with two growing kids.

In Pondicherry, we moved around for 3 or 4 years before my father built our own house. These houses were even smaller, and when for the first time we moved into a slightly larger one (meaning separate rooms for me and my sister), it turned out to be horribly ventilated, becoming a furnace in the southern summer. You could have baked bread in one of those dark, air-deprived rooms, and we moved out of there pretty quickly.

Stifled and starved for space, I used the red-tiled terraces to study, walking up and down in the mornings and evenings, memorising theorems and formulas. Even in my terrible engineering college, whose only redemptive feature was that it was next to the sea, I still did not study in the library: I used the massive terrace, enjoying the strong winds and the view of the horizon.

I didn’t realise it, but as I grew up, I carried this around in my head. I asked for, and took up, less space. I never knew how to occupy and inhabit places, friendships, and relationships, and this extended to the offices I worked in. I was, and remain, boisterous and loud, but that’s a response. I don’t feel like I belong, so I do something to lay claim to places and people. It’s not natural, and consequently has hurt me and the people I loved.

This is just one of the things not growing up with money leaves you with, but it’s also a reflection of how working class India thinks about space. It’s utility, not indulgence. It’s to keep things, not live and love in, or to fall in love with.

And this keeping of things is relevant too; hoarding comes from a place of self-doubt, a fear of not having. And a house with too much stuff offers less to the people who actually live there.

After I started working and making my own money, this was one thing I consciously worked towards: having my own space, for me and for the things I loved and cherished. So I don’t feel small. So my dreams don’t feel cramped. This translated to - and I noticed this only when my younger cousin pointed it out - a string of rented apartments in Pune and Madras with one common overbearing feature: large, glass-fronted French windows.

It was as if I was still reaching for the outdoors, for light and for air.

This last week, I gave up a bunch of my books to a used books shop. I didn’t want money, I just wanted to be rid of them. I had started hoarding too, and I wanted to be free of that insecurity, the fear of losing things that is borne of owning them in the first place. I told the polite Ismaili who owned and ran the shop that I don’t want anything in return, but he insisted I take a few books. We had tea together, and I chose from his fairly good collection of mostly crime fiction.

Returning in an auto, I looked at the 4 books I was bringing back, in exchange for about 40. I started the first of those that very evening, on the terrace.

Written in January 2021.