A day before I turned thirty-four, I wrote here, ‘Behind Door No. 33, there was a room with a view. When I opened the windows each afternoon, I recalled what Edith Wharton wrote: “Set wide the window. Let me drink the day.” Each time I opened the window, the world waited to say hello. Clouds incessantly paraded, a young crow who aged along with me, a sparrow, an orange butterfly, a bunch of restless pigeons, a cursory glance of my neighbours living their lives… On some difficult days, I called all of it The Pandemic View. When I caught myself complaining about the spectacle that was exclusively staged for me every day, I wondered if I would have lived a different life if the pandemic didn’t exist. I didn’t need to answer. The Pandemic View would again morph into A Room With A View.’
I moved into this room — six feet wide and nine feet long — eleven years ago. It, then, had to house a double bed, a stationary bike that was only used to dry towels, two wardrobes, a TV, and two humans. Four years later, the room was relieved of the weight it carried without complaining — a human left, the stationary bike was sold, one wardrobe was emptied, a little bookshelf was bought, and a puppy with a sassy attitude moved in with me. She is the best roommate I could have ever asked for. It was 2015. Until 2020, it was just a room where Anu Boo and I lived, existed, and rested, but when the pandemic fell upon us, and I had to start working from home, that’s when I recognised that it was a room with a view.
The view is not a grand vista. At any given point in time, my field of vision would hold my neighbour’s terrace and stacks of balconies. The colours are dull, too: grey, beige, yellow that’s lost its warmth to the rain, and blue that’s lost its cheerfulness to the sun; green is in a corner, a strange juxtaposition in this concrete tableau. The sounds are quotidian as well: cookers whistling with impatience, an old neighbour’s dayakattai that stops ringing only when she leaves to visit her son once in a while, the clang of cylinders roughing up each other on the delivery vehicle, a chatty Labrador, and the peppy numbers of A.R. Rahman which my young neighbour loves. These sounds are only punctuations on the long conversations exchanged by my avian friends and the songs they break into to announce the arrival of the heartbreaking but intensely alive crepuscular light every evening. The smells are limited — my neighbour fries fish every Sunday and sautés onions every morning for breakfast and lunch. I love both the aromas and quietly wish they would offer me a bowl of rava upma and meen kozhambu sometime. Above this microcosm is the expansive sky, the road that the cotton travellers take years after years, sporadically pierced by the planes — huggable and blue on most days, and uninvitingly ash on other days. This is all that enters my room, my life, via that window, to caress and assault my senses. As these smells and sounds and colours swirl around me, I sit at my desk, writing more than a thousand messages on Slack, responding to e-mails, answering calls on Google Meet and MS Teams, and trying hard to ignore the constant uneasiness in my stomach, the discomfort of being mentally removed from my immediate world while still physically inhabiting it.
In between calls or while being on them, and while taking a break from scrolling or reading during the weekends, I sit by the window, leaning toward the light, like a plant eager to hog all the nutrients, and watch people, the producers of the colours and smells and sounds. What they produced went through no major changes between 2020 and this day, but the producers came, stayed, and left. The not-too-old man, whose mere appearance in his balcony calmed me even on stormy days, died. Without knowing that he had passed away, I sat by the window in the hope that he was out of town and waited for his return. A few weeks after his death, the news crossed two streets and a terrace to reach me. The siblings, frequenting the balcony above his, left the city. The sister talked fast, walked fast, and even chewed fast. Looking at her was like watching a reel made in 2X speed on Instagram. The brother, on the other hand, stood in the balcony, holding the railing, his gaze fixed on something beyond everything all of us could see from here. After they left the city, their house was occupied by an infant and her parents. The baby wailed, smiled, babbled, and now she stands up holding the same railing. She has got a village to look after her and to help her learn the ways of this world. I feel safe seeing the way her grandparents dote on her. One of my young neighbours got married. I don’t get to see his wife from my window, but I hear her talk to his family every day. In Tamil, she goes, ‘Athai, maamaa, yenga… era ready!’ It’s not the words, but the way she pronounces them, the indescribable intimacy that her voice carries, as though she was born knowing them or knowing the truth that she would marry that guy. My mother promptly shared the information that it was an arranged marriage, and that fact baffles me more when I try to understand the familiarity the girl exhibits and how she is seemingly effortless at embracing or even celebrating her new relationships. Another neighbour, a girl who lived with three inside cats, left the building. The rumour is that she left the cats behind — a ginger, a tuxedo-clad, and a white. The inside cats now walk on our compound walls; maybe, it’s the bravado that’s unique to felines but they don’t look like they are abandoned. They walk on the walls, one sure step after the other, and when I pspsps at them, they don’t flinch. They wait for me to stop being a nuisance, and they continue their travels.
People, outside my window, as expected, have been in a state of flux. Two years and nine months is a lot of time for people’s life to change in unrecognisable ways. Despite the time and changes, the old man, who lives two streets away from mine, continues to visit his terrace more than three times a day to smoke his beedi. The number of beedis he smokes a day makes me worry about his health because he is all I have got at the moment to remind me that even when everything is in a state of flux, some things stay the way they are. On days when I am overwhelmed by the changes taking place outside my window, I find comfort in this old man, his shining bald head, his skin that’s seen the harshest sun, his arguably spotless white banian and veshti, and the slow drags he takes on his beedi. Cyclone Mandous lashed at our windows, but he was there on the terrace, holding a rainbow-coloured umbrella, relishing his beedi. Everything is changing, and there are still a few things quietly resisting the tidal wave of time. Like him, like me, and perhaps not entirely.
On the other side of the window, I have been changing. For an observer from outside — maybe, if someone from one of those balconies looked at me for two years, they would have noticed the twenty kilos my body recreated — I would appear like the person who sits glued to her desk twelve to fourteen hours a day. But changes lined up for me: I bought a massive bookshelf and four-hundred books to fill it; my reading evolved; I was promoted and got better jobs; I started going to therapy; I began meditating; I fell in love with astronomy and astrophysics; I have been surviving a woman’s stalking and abuse; I learned to understand my parents’ lives and stories; I helped some of my loved ones endure COVID-19 and suicidal thoughts; I had difficult conversations with my partner who continues to expand my empathy and imagination; I broke down several nights thinking about how awfully unequipped I was to stop time from slipping away. Like the main character (a foetus?) in Felicia Chiao’s artwork, I imagined looking at myself from the top, from the ceiling, and the image of myself lying on the single bed in the room, Anu Boo curled up like a croissant in a corner, my messy work station and books strewn across the room, stirred something deep, primal, ancient in my heart, something like love, disgust, and longing. By sitting in that room, by being sprawled on that bed, by depositing myself in the work chair even during rest days, I learned, admitted defeat, bawled, burst into laughter, fought, and changed. The room incarcerated me on some days and freed me on other days, but it held me gently, safe from all the elements and the enemies and friends within. The walls heard and saw, threatened to inch closer toward me, receded, and stood there when I needed to lean on them.
When the sense of feeling cooped up became more intense, I wished that I had a bigger room, a bed that’s wider and more comfortable, and more space for my books. The thought, even if it appeared real at that moment, has been like the clouds which pass by my window. Now, eleven years after I moved into this room, two years and nine months after I began receiving what this room has been generously offering, I am ambushed by the time to leave this room. I wordlessly signed a pact with the beedi-lover that both of us would be at our respective posts for a while even everyone around us were in a hurry to exit the moving image framed by my window. I didn’t expect that I would be the first one to break the pact. Will the beedi-lover recognise my unopened windows, my disappearance?
I am writing this essay because I am afraid that the next room I get to live in will be better than this room, the view would be beautiful and nourishing, and I would forget how I felt about my room with a view; and I am afraid that the next room would be a windowless cube, and I would need some literature to remind me the transient, but unparalleled joy that the room with a view gave me. Either ways, I don’t want to forget the room, the view, all the people who came and left, the birds fighting over the feeder at my window, and the quiet moments when Anu Boo and I sat by the window to watch Klaus — our neighbour’s dog — jump and revel in the pool of rainwater gathered on his terrace. He thought he had no witness to his happiness. We were there. We were watching.