December 14, 2011

Hitler Didi: Stories of Rooftops

Rati Pandey playing Hitler Didi
First off, the title of this post:- yes, Hitler Didi, indeed. When I first heard the name of this newly begun show on Zee TV, I was immediately skeptical and dismissive. The fact is that post Ekta Kapoor's arrival in the world of Hindi television, Hindi TV soaps have become an identical blur of over-cooked, regressive plotlines, faux havelis, women dressed up to the nines in bling-central, draconian mother-in-laws, conniving /long-suffering,  beatific expression-wearing daughter-in-laws, and the concept of nuance, subtlety, and elegance having entirely disappeared altogether in the clamor of background music and decibel-defying melodrama and dress-sense (phew! rant over:) I honestly cannot distinguish between the large majority of Hindi soaps nowadays and have no particular desire to do so either. Yet...once upon a time when I was a teenager, Hindi soaps were slices of life, with ordinary bungalows and drawing rooms and conversations  about life and feelings were conducted in cars and garden coffee-shops and the characters wore the same clothes and shoes over the course of episodes and in general, were familiar and identifiable entities. (90s  Hindi TV soap aficionados: remember Sailaab or Hip Hip Hurray or Daraar?)

So yes, the name, Hitler Didi did not exactly warm the cockles of my heart; however, after tuning into a couple of episodes, I was pleasantly surprised to see an engaging depiction of a fiercely independent young woman, Indira, who runs her home and family in Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi, with martial discipline (hence the moniker bestowed upon her, Hitler Didi) in lieu of her absent father, who has re-married and lives elsewhere. To be perfectly honest, apart from an eccentric, whimsical cast of characters and personalities and a storyline that has not descended into saas-bahu [mother-in-law-daughter in-law] kitchen politics as of yet (well, except for current track in which Indira travels to Venetian Macau of all places to chase up  her errant younger sister, Mandira, who has run away from home!) I have to admit that I am greatly enjoying the fact that the show is shot in a quaint court-yarded, multi-leveled house in and streets of Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi. I especially like how the roof offers much space of drama and interaction. In a recent episode, a neighbor, an elderly woman, who is perpetually to be found sitting on her roof, provides a revealing commentary to Indira about Mandira's antics in her quest to rebuff a suitor, upon their roof, which Indira otherwise would not have been privy to. It made me recall my own rooftop experiences.

In this post, I mention my fondness for my ancestral home or haveli and one of my chief amusements was to stand upon on the haveli roof during the evenings and literally be witness to the individual dramas occurring on the various roofs surrounding us. Admittedly, the elevation of the haveli protected us from being watched while we in turn could look down upon the little stories being played about on each of the roofs, admittedly eavesdropping upon their personal universes. In this country of roofs, truly, no one is invisible and everyone is simultaneously a performer and audience member.

Old Jodhpur city roofs

It proved to be the inspiration for this fictional short story of mine, Nothing At All, which was published in the Word Masala 2011 Vol 1 anthology this January:


Every evening, at precisely five pm, Dadi would finish drinking her tea and ask Munni to take her to the peepal-tree temple across the house. In the beginning of my stay, I accompanied Dadi once or twice but afterwards, I preferred to spend the twilight up on the roof instead.

After few days, I started to recognize the occupants of the roofs around me: it was hard not to, considering the proximity that we lived in. There was the woman, who washed and painstakingly combed out the knots from her waist length hair every evening, the pair of giggling school-girls, sisters presumably, they resembled each other so, and a silent triad of teenage boys who half-heartedly coaxed a kite into the air while discreetly glancing at the girls. 

Sometimes, when Dadi settled down to gossip with relatives or acquaintances at the temple, she would send Munni ahead to start preparing dinner. Munni, in turn, would steal up to the roof, ostensibly to cut the vegetables whilst happy to bask in the last few warm rays of the sun before it disappeared. 

Munni was a repository of all the neighborhood gossip and took it upon as her duty to educate me about our neighbors. “That lady, with the long hair,” she said, sitting cross-legged and shelling peas. “She’s a school-teacher but everyone says she should have been a lawyer.  The way she argues! Even her mother in law’s scared of her.” She knew the girls too, having played with them when she was a child and her mother used to make rotis at their house. “But they stopped saying hello to me many years ago,” she remarked matter of factly. 

If Munni was present, I would become so involved in her gossip that I barely even noticed the neighbors; by the time the sun set, they had all retreated downstairs and Munni and I too left, prepared to receive a fresh batch of neighborhood gossip from Dadi herself.  

One evening, I climbed up to the roof only to notice that most of the roofs were empty; the school-teacher was not drying her hair and the giggling sisters too had not appeared today. The boys briefly came up but did not linger long, perhaps disappointed that the sisters were not around. That evening, surrounded by empty squares of roofs, I felt unaccountably alone, bereft even. Over the time, my neighbors had come to accept my presence as I had theirs. They had undoubtedly heard of me through the grapevine themselves; yet, we had found ourselves befriending each other by gaze, if not words, raising our hands in greeting before returning to our respective worlds.  

I picked up my cup of tea and sipped it but it had already become cold. I debated whether to return downstairs and make myself another cup. Yet, I felt stifled in the house at this time of the day and I remained on the roof, staring up into the sky as it turned sapphire in anticipation of the night. The air was a soup of sounds. I could hear the azaan being called out for the evening prayers; in five minutes or so, the aarti bells would begin ringing at the peepal-tree temple. Someone nearby had just switched on their radio, unshackling a cupboard of tunes. 

As I absently surveyed the roofs around me, I noticed one that I had not seen before. One corner of the roof was filled with a variegated collection of potted plants while the other was occupied by a couple: a long-haired young man sitting on a charpoy while the woman in a sari and cardigan leaned against the balustrade, looking up into the sky. I remained there watching them until night fell and Munni came up to fetch me; all that time, they had sat in silence, the man watching the woman, who never pried her eyes away from the sky. 

Afterwards, I saw them every evening, the same scene unspooling with unfailing regularity: the man, on the charpoy, the woman looking out towards the vanishing sun, both of them never conversing, not even looking at each other.  

Munni visited me on the roof several evenings later with a fresh cauliflower in tow.  I had previously never resented Munni’s presence yet I had lately become accustomed to being by myself on the roof, as much in my own, inviolate space as my neighbors were in theirs on their respective roofs.  And yet, did I also dread Munni’s arrival because she would surely tell me about the couple?  

Munni did not immediately notice them, in fact. She had had an altercation with her brother’s wife in the morning and unburdened herself about that first. “I only eat breakfast at my house and even then, that witch cannot make two rotis for me. It’s not as if I am putting an entire tin of ghee on them,” she said, viciously tearing florets off the cauliflower head. 

I saw that the couple was talking today for the first time, although it was the man who mostly spoke; the woman merely appeared to respond, not even deigning to look back at him. 

“Didi? What are you looking at?” Munni asked, peering above my shoulder before disgustedly turning her face away.  “Please, Didi, don’t even look in that direction.” 

“Why?” I asked brusquely.

“Arre, that boy – his name is Angad. What a goonda he is. Used to spend all his time chasing girls of the mohalla and passing cheap remarks. He once even said something to me and if my brother had not been there with me, I would have slapped him,” she spat out. “And a good thing that I listened to my brother.  You see, that girl, his wife? She slapped him when he tried to misbehave with her – and he was so angry that he got her engagement broken and instead married her himself to take revenge.”

“How do you know these things, Munni?” 

“My cousin sister’s brother in law works at Angad’s house – he was the one who told us,” Munni said, holding up a floret to check that no green caterpillars lurked within the branches. “And his wife, Didi, she was such a beautiful, decent girl. But this Angad ruined her reputation and she had no choice but to marry him.”

My eyes strayed towards the couple again: they had lapsed into their perpetual silence, the woman’s eyes as always impaled on to the sky. The man continued to watch the woman, as if in hope of catching her eye; yet, she did not look at him, not even once.  

The following evening, though, I noticed that the couple was not there. I waved to the sisters, the boys, and the school-teacher. I finished my tea, completed my daily ritual of staring up into the sky and losing myself in its blueness, and then, looked out towards the couple’s roof again; I only saw the pots of plants huddled together. I wondered who grew the plants: the woman did, perhaps. 

My time on the roof became increasingly truncated as the evenings turned colder; sometimes, all I could manage was to drink my tea before being compelled to retreat downwards. The couple remained absent from the roof although I occasionally saw the man sitting on the charpoy.  Even though I yearned to ask Munni if she had had heard anything, I did not.

I had just reached upstairs one evening when I heard an argument being bitterly hurled into the air. It was not the first time that I had had been privy to fragments of conversations while up on the roof; they had swirled around in the air, along with the many other sounds of the neighborhood, eventually becoming unheard and unnoticed. Yet, there was something so acid about this argument that I could not ignore it. I glanced around only to see the couple on the roof again: the woman was smashing the plant pots, one by one, earth and plants briefly clouding the air, while the man beseeched her to stop. After a while, he ceased to say anything, merely watching her as he had done all those days. Around them, the other roof occupants too watched them, too transfixed to move and unwilling to stop being participants in the drama themselves. 

After the last pot had been smashed, the woman collapsed on to the charpoy, sobbing; the man sat by her and put his arm around her shoulder. When she didn’t push it away, I finally found myself turning, feeling horribly disoriented, as if I had eaten too much and yet, still felt hunger gnawing my stomach. I noticed that my neighbors were also dispersing and made my way downstairs only to encounter Munni.

“Didi! You must have seen everything – the girl breaking the pots! I heard that they had had a fight-“

“Munni,” I said. “I don’t want to know.”

“But, Didi…”

I pushed past her, scrambling down the steps; when I reached downstairs, I heard Dadi calling out to me. 

“Have you come back?” she asked. “What do you find so interesting up there, Garima?”

I leaned back against the wall. “Nothing, Dadi. Nothing at all.”


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