I stood unsteady on the balcony of our 18th floor apartment and held the rails tight because of the mild vertigo I suffer from. My wife was baking an inventive dessert our guests that evening wouldn’t be able to pronounce. Having given up desserts just over four weeks ago, the thought of a violent clash of the cherries, chocolate and coffee was enough to drive me into paroxysms of desire. I desperately needed something between me and this dessert preparation.
The balcony looks out west into a vast green expanse – somewhat of a luxury in Mumbai – and down onto a man made lake created when developers emptied a quarry that existed there. All around me, I could see a glimpse of life in the other apartments. The foul, pungent stench of stagnant water, heat, acrid dust, open drains, sweat and shit -- human and animal -- was strong enough to overpower any smell, including the beautifully mutinous fragrance coming from within the house. The outside smells formed a perfect antidote to my craving, and was a ready example of the paradox that life in Mumbai represents.
Like the dust and smoke, there was nowhere for the smells to go. They hung around uninvited, creating a haze: a confused cohort awaiting instructions from an unknown someone. In less than two minutes, I was also sweating profusely and my t-shirt clung to me. The haze reminded me of the pub I used to frequent in South Kensington in
in the days when customers could still smoke in pubs; and it seemed everyone
smoked. The dense pall would represent a smoke-mixture: from the open
fireplace, cigarettes, cigars and pipes. It would lift to eye level, hang
around my face and sting it repeatedly.
If I looked around, all the balconies like mine offered to me the stories they contained, encouraging the casual voyeur in me, fueling my understanding of life and people around me.
The smell of cigarette smoke made me turn in the direction it wafted from. I looked to see a young couple smoking on their balcony. The young man wore dark-rimmed, thick glasses that rested uncomfortably on a very large, bulbous nose. The woman puffed on her cigarette lazily and appeared to relish her experience while the man appeared to be hurried. Soon the reason became obvious as the man lit another cigarette even though the present one was still only two-thirds complete. 'Isn't there enough in the air we breathe to additionally introduce tar into our lungs especially on a sweltering day like today,' I thought. I would have asked the same question of myself if I had been the one smoking. And when the couple were done, they turned inwards and without even looking back, casually flicked the stubs outward; the cigarette ends spiraled pitifully to the road below.
Elsewhere, a woman watered plants. Pointlessly. Wastefully. She must have just had a shower, for a thin towel covered her hair. Did she have curly hair? Straight? I did not know and the towel wouldn't let me in on those secrets. ‘Did she know the plants would retain as much water as a sieve in this afternoon heat?’ I wanted to ask.
There I could see a pot-bellied man in his vest. He stretched lazily. Perhaps he had just had his lunch. He had in his hands a small packet. His gold ring glimmered as the sun’s rays bounced off it. He tore open the packet and emptied its contents into his palm, briskly slapped his palms to his face and hurled its contents into his mouth. He then flung the empty packet out his balcony and rubbed his palms, satiated. The piece of plastic sailed lifelessly and rested on the pavement below. The man returned to the comfort of his air-conditioned living room, perhaps happy that it was still neat, well-accessorized and completely devoid of plastic wrappers.
Somewhere else, a maid hung out the washing with quiet care, picking up a piece of clothing from a clothes basket, untangling it, shaking it vigorously to straighten it, and finally straining to reach the clothes line. Sweat poured from her face. Occasionally, she would catch her back as she strained it. It was clear she had a sore back. Just as clear as the fact that these clothes were hung on a balcony that faced the road, for the world see. Yellowed, crinkled, sometimes bright white fabric stories forced into the vision of those who happened to look up. I was sure they had another option to this balcony and wondered why they didn't use it. This relentless sun would surely reach an inward-facing balcony too? The maid, though, was too focused on her immediate task to worry about and look at anything else other than the clothes basket below and the clothes line above.
As my arms got wetter with my sweat, I watch everyone disappear indoors, gradually. The heat my body gave out must have smelt of blood because a mosquito landed on my arm and I idly wonder how it got to the 18th floor. I admire its resilience and strength; instead of swatting it, as a reward, I offer the mosquito use of my hand for a full minute before blowing its drunken, swollen body away. The lack of wind may have helped its flight up 18 floors. Or perhaps the mosquito had arrived in one of the three lifts in our building, two of which may not be used by "workers and maids."
By now, I find myself begging for some air to cool the sweat off. One part of me is also playing a game, to see how long I can hold out in this quiet heat that is made oppressive with so many stories. Ahead, I see the green of the lake and think it would be lovely if it had a fountain in the middle; a fountain to circulate the water so it didn't stagnate. What I see, though, is still water that could be beautiful if only someone cared: If the maid that hung the clothes despite a sprain in her back stopped to stare. If the person who flicked that cigarette butts cared. If the person that watered plants on a hot day cared. If the man who flung the plastic wrapper onto the road cared.
And if I cared...
-- Mohan (@mohank)