‘the sky above and the ground beneath’

by Mridula

Painting

Painting by our neighbors, Lara and Naomi, age 8 and 3

My sister and I lived in boarding schools all our student life. Our longest stay at our parent’s house was during the eagerly awaited two-month summer vacation from school. Thus, the idea of home, and our intense and constant longing for it leached very early into our identity of our self. My memories of playing as a young child involved making cozy nooks in hidden corners with a colorful blanket and cushions, finding ways to store ‘food’ and sticking up paintings of my own on the walls. I remember my aunt’s house where we would go for the short holidays from school. It had a very grand garden maintained by a proper gardener.  At one end of the garden, near the boundary wall, the gardener experimented with cutting bushes into various shapes. He hollowed out one large bush for us, away from prying eyes. I can still feel what I felt then, as a 7 year old: the joy of a personal space.

Yet another such space was in the library of the old house. The hidden spaces between the large book-filled cupboards which had seemingly stood there from the beginning of time were cool and dark, and we escaped there during hot summer afternoons. One time, we begged the cook who worked at our house to string up flowers for us. Instead, he filled up fused light bulbs with coloured water, and hung them up where they caught the sunlight. On another occasion we made a small shrine for our ‘home’, with an interesting shaped stone as a deity, covered with a colourful cloth strung up on sticks, and decorated with flowers, leaves and small pebbles.

When my sister got married, her house became my home where I was always welcome and loved. In many ways, my decision to get married early in life was subconsciously influenced by my need to have my own home, be rooted somewhere and have a sense of belonging.  We rented a house just before the wedding, quite large for a newlywed couple but ideal for my husband’s love of music and parties; almost the entire space taken up by musical instruments, amplifiers and speakers. I remember coming back home from work one day, shocked to find that my mother in law, who was visiting us, had hung gaudy floral curtains on every single window in the house. Needless to say, it stayed with us until we left that house. We had our TV on a packing crate and our bed on the floor in front of it. I remember that the kitchen had no storage space and we fixed a piece of wood with hooks on it, to hang one kadai and one non-stick pan, the important pieces from our kitchen collection at that time.

Amongst all the couples who were our friends, my husband and I were the first ones who invested in our own house, right before our daughter was born. Our motto was that even if it is a really small space, the sky above and the ground beneath would be ours. On a small piece of land we built a vertical house, from the basement where we had the music studio, to the top floor where we had our bedroom. We had a cozy window seat from where we would feed the crows every morning with leftover rice. We laid the floors with yellow sandstone and painted the stair rises with traditional motifs. The palm tree we had planted when we moved in grew so tall that it provided a natural canopy in the balcony in my daughter’s room. The yellow bamboo grew so wild and was so difficult to cut back, but our room looked like it was up in the treetops.

Three years back, my husband passed away suddenly, and the life that we had created, disappeared in a poof.  I resisted all well meaning advice to move from our house to an apartment for the convenience it provided. For a little more than a year, I clung on to our old life in the house. Whereas earlier I was afraid to stay alone in the house, uneasy, on hearing strange sounds and stray dogs barking out on the street at night, I now felt safest when I was inside the house.  Whereas the house had always had a young and sassy personality, in my mind it took on a wiser and equanimous quality, holding the rocking boat, and being the anchor which held me to the ground.  I felt like it was watching over us lovingly, helping us cope with tough times, and protecting us in the darkness of grief.

Soon we had to move to the rented apartment that we stay in now, and in keeping with my mood at the time; it seemed like an old, cramped and dreary space, bereft of colour, and badly in need of remodeling.

We have been here for more than a year and it is now that I see it for what it is – bright and sun-filled. While I carry my sense of loss like a heavy placard around my neck affecting everything I do, I get a burst of hope and happiness when I enter the apartment, my study table facing the wrap-around balcony, one side of which is cool and windy, and perfect in summers, and the other which is bright and sunny, ideal when the rains come. My fingers itch to make unalterable changes, like building a tall bookshelf fixed to the wall, going wild with paint colours, changing the bathroom tiles from dark blue to lighter and brighter tiles, and painting my kitchen cupboards turquoise.

In the meantime, I make do with adding comfort and colour through rugs and throws, handmade plant hangers which my mom made from an old sari, a handmade quilt, and tall chairs for my parents when they visit. In the process, after experimenting with minimalism and simple lines, and admiring black and white rooms from afar, I discovered my own style of decorating, eclectic and bohemian. Bit by bit, I am purging stuff, and filling the space with art, ours, and that of others. The idea is to be surrounded by colour, and beautiful, simple, handmade objects which have a meaning or purpose.

I keep my door open when I get back from work and my neighbours’ little children come and paint with us. I have slowly started inviting guests, lighting up candles in the balcony and stringing up fairy lights. As I write this, there is a squirrel on the balcony railing and I get a close up shot. Although we live in a bustling part of the city, there are bird calls to wake up to in the morning. I get to see a large piece of sky unobstructed. On cloudy days, the sunsets are beautiful. On certain nights, the moon looks like it’s almost at our doorstep. In the distance, I see the sparkle of the lake which swells up during the rains, and is reduced to a thin sliver at other times.

I am saving up to buy this place from the landlord and if all goes well, I will do that by the end of the year. Regardless of that, it is already a ‘home’ for my daughter and me.

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