A room on the roof

Notes from the last barsati ♦

BannerDelhi, early morning. The sun burns through the haze, like a lighthouse lamp growing brighter as the bustling port of waking life approaches, pulling the tides of thought out of the ocean of dreams and towards the shores of reality, where I find myself cast up, suddenly solid, embodied. My eyes open to a view of pirate-black plastic water tanks, glinting like crows’ nests, and beige and ochre rooftops like ships afloat in a sea of green leaves, hugged by low white mist. The clouds come down to lightly kiss the ground and dissolve into dew.

It’s a different world up here in this tree-house of a barsati – a magic faraway world. I moved in two years ago and for the first half of my stay, most mornings were like this – a view of light softly stealing over sleepy streets, pale green foliage, the neighbours standing and blinking in their balconies. Then, the house opposite this one came down, and in a matter of months, my picture windows looked out onto the grey prospect of a mountainous slab of concrete. Yet I always knew that those mornings sailing above the Delhi madness were moments snatched from the city’s onward, upward march. The dark mark had long been set above my little barsati as well, and finally, after half a century, its date with a wrecking ball too draws close.

The romance of the room on the roof is related to the trope of the artist in a garret or the musician in a garage – but it has its own special, archetypical place in the blueprint of urban Indian culture. In instances too numerous to recount here, literature and cinema use the barsati as shorthand for the lushness of new love, creativity in full spate, and independence from the stifling air of social propriety below decks. In the memory palaces of Delhi’s older generations, the barsati is a room crammed with nostalgic recollections of youth and of freedom without responsibility.

There have even been attempts at barsati tourism in the city, but of course I’m convinced, like the rest of us living the high life, that mine is the best, and the last. It has had everything a tenant could ever want – not just in terms of physical layout and dimensions. My dear landlord, overturning every stereotype related to his station, certainly never put a price on my soul, allowing me to pay quite possibly the kindest rent in the colony – fulfilling a social obligation more than generating an income. He used to live up here himself during the early days of his marriage and smiles fondly when recounting moving in on his wedding night.

The barsati exudes a pleasant sense of history too, shaded by a tall Ashoka tree, supposedly one of the city’s oldest specimens. Prabuddha Dasgupta had a darkroom here some years ago, and before that the room sheltered Afghani doctors who came to the city as refugees. As the house comes down, inevitably giving way to a more vertically oriented city to house its citizenry, another little edifice of local history will be consigned to dust.

It’s as if the house knows that its tryst with developer destiny is nigh and won’t go down without complaint. The ceiling fan, from the 1960s, whines and squeaks with insistent regularity. In the bathroom, a petulant tap drips all day, the toilet’s tank fills, then sometimes suddenly overflows, exhausting the supply of the Sintex tank above. The other day, a power surge knocked out every light bulb and fried the Internet router. Out on the terrace, the terracotta pots – thick with tomatoes and lettuce all winter – have dried up and gone to seed. The last rainfall brought down a deluge of plaster flakes in the stairwell. The geckos have left, but in the rolled-up chiks, two turtle doves carry on their romance, fluttering incessantly and shredding the tatting to build their own nest, hopefully at a safe distance.

Pretty soon, the house will be reduced to yet another heap of rubble surrounded by piles of grit and sand that cradle the colony’s yellow pye-dogs by night. In time the building will rise again – likely gleaming, probably partitioned into neat little boxes. But by then, I’ll be long gone.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, July 2013.