The nostalgia of the rooftop

Published : May 16, 2024 11:00 IST - 5 MINS READ

In the Bengali imagination, the rooftop is a magical place, the perfect locale for addas and cricket matches, picnics and romantic trysts.

Bengalis have a special space in their hearts for the terrace, or the chhad. Perhaps it has evolved from the time when Kolkata was characterised by old, sprawling houses with terraces the size of football grounds. The chhad can be the place for games, leisure, sleeping, or romance. Touching the open sky, the rooftop carries a whiff of adventure while also being connected to the warmth and safety of the indoors. Bengali fiction, movies, and songs celebrate the chhad. A romantic song by the 1970s’ Bengali band Mohiner Ghoraguli has the lover imagining the faraway house of his beloved: there, a brown cat sleeps on the roof of the garret, weaving dreams out of nothing.

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Satyajit Ray fans will remember the scene in Joybaba Felunath (The Elephant God) where the little boy who calls himself “Captain Spark” walks blithely on the parapet of his palatial home. His balancing act suggests the freedom of childhood while also hinting at something darker, parental neglect.

A still from Joybaba Felunath showing Captain Spark in his garret

A still from Joybaba Felunath showing Captain Spark in his garret | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

These days, with stand-alone houses being exchanged for apartments, the chhad has been added to the long list of items nostalgia-loving Bengalis mourn for. On a visit to Kolkata, I pondered this while enjoying the dregs of winter on the terrace of our old family home, which had once been huge but is now greatly reduced, with half of it converted into apartments by my cousins. I spent the best days of my life on this chhad in its original form, where my sister, cousins, and I used to play, picnic, study, and sleep during summer holidays. It is also a part of family lore, with several tales set on it.

My grandmother Maya, who was famous for her beauty and often mistaken for a mem, was fond of narrating a story in which she featured as a princess waving at her knight from the turret. The incident is from the early 1940s, when what was then Calcutta was being bombed by the Japanese, and soldiers from the Allied Forces were camping in the city to protect it.

Incredible Maya

After a successful mission, a convoy full of soldiers, or “Tommies”, as they were called, marched down our road, with onlookers cheering them on. Maya, probably in her 20s at that time, joined in the revelry from the terrace, pointedly wearing a firoza (turquoise)-coloured sari, which must have complimented her complexion greatly. Catching her eye, one of the soldiers reportedly waved back and scandalously threw a flying kiss. Grandmother blushed crimson and a legend was created, with which she regaled generations of her family.

Surprisingly, my grandfather nodded appreciatively each time Maya told the story, as if the credit for her beauty somehow belonged to him. Probably grandfather was overmuch in love with Maya, as one suspects from the following anecdote. Maya had a routine on Sundays of boiling grandfather’s white dhotis and kurtas in a huge cauldron of boiling water to whiten them. She would add generous pinches of indigo powder to the pot, pretending deafness to the loud protests from my mother. The washed clothes would invariably have ugly patches of blue. Grandfather never objected to the desecration: he bravely wore the spoilt clothes until my father bought him a fresh white batch. When his friends expressed surprise at the ghastly shade of his garments, he would say resignedly: “There’s no stopping Maya.”

Ghost on the roof

Grandfather’s blue dhotis also had a connection with the chhad. Strung neatly on the clothesline on the terrace, the starched dhotis fluttering in the breeze smelt of the bright summer, grandfather’s snuff, and childhood’s unstained joys. I played ghost with the hanging dhotis, standing between the folds and spinning round and round till they became twisted ropes. Maya, with her general indifference to what was happening around her, often looked on, unperturbed by my mischief.

The chhad was the site of other criminal activities undertaken by me and my two male cousins. A thrilling game involved walking on the ledge of the roof in single file, much like Captain Spark, when the road below became deserted on summer afternoons. We were spotted, of course, and father gave me a hiding I would remember. Maya made light of the incident, saying: “The ledge is wide and the children are thin: they wouldn’t have fallen.”

It is actually father who fell several times, not from the roof but on it. Every monsoon, water would stagnate on the terrace and seep through, creating damp patches on the ceilings of the rooms below. This would make father venture on to the terrace in pouring rain, broom and rake in hand, to clear the moss and unclog the drains. My sister and I would wait below for the invariable thud suggesting that father had slipped and fallen. It was usually a gleeful event for us since it meant that we could get soaked in the rain while trying to “rescue” him.

The staircase leading up to our rooftop.

The staircase leading up to our rooftop. | Photo Credit: Anusua Mukherjee

The chhad also served as the family gym, with my cousin doing his secret nunchaku workouts there when he was a teenager, and my father and grandfather diligently walking up and down its length, evening and morning, for much of their lives, by way of exercise. Once a visitor, startled by grandfather’s long, meditative walks on the terrace, asked him why he kept doing it at his age. He replied solemnly: “Walking is life.”

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Though the chhad is much smaller now, my sister continues the glorious tradition: every day, at the crack of dawn, she can be seen marching on the rooftop: ears plugged with music, a slab of brick in each hand for added endurance, every step matched by that of her excited trainers, the cats.

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