offtrack
Looking anew at yesterday’s favourite
Trans World Features | @twfindia | 18 Apr 2020
Looking anew at yesterday’s favourite
As the Coronavirus pandemic ravages the world and people are locked down in houses, they are looking anew at places in houses and buildings long dismissed as being ‘just there’, Ranjita Biswas writes

Sometime ago a radio jockey was talking about how the romance of the terrace has disappeared in today’s urban Kolkata , earlier Calcutta, because of the appearance of the washing machine. To elaborate, people of the older generation would remember how the terrace played a cupid’s role in numerous Bengali romantic novels and popular films. The young man would know exactly when the girl next door would appear on the terrace, and vice versa, to spread the washings on the clothes line.

 

If the terraces of the respective houses were near enough  there was scope for even throwing balls of love letters surreptitiously- away from the eagle eyes of the elders in those conservative times. Mobile phones, WhatsApp, etc. and not to forget, the washing machine with quick- dry options, have taken away the need to go to the terrace for romantic interludes.

 

But wait a moment, do things move in a cycle? In the current Coronavirus lockdown scenario all over the world, people  have rediscovered the terrace, at least those who have the privilege to have one for different purposes- if not for exchanging love letters. To take the mandatory walk, or do exercise , to converse with neighbours across the next terrace, children for playing hopscotch, to name a few, something hardly indulged earlier.

 

 

The other great rediscovery in the time during the lockdown is the ‘balcony’. Most modern apartments in the West, and elsewhere too,  do not have the balcony added in the floor plan. Yet, beautiful buildings in Europe always had balconies in older times. Now they have suddenly come to life again. To share music, to converse with each other, to enjoy a leisurely cup of coffee with members of the family  or a quick bite. As one old timer observed, cable TV, streaming devices and mobile use drove people indoors- and into cocoons. But then even too much can be too much, as people are discovering now.

 

In Indian cities even today the balcony is a great place to observe the world go by for the elderly now that they are  beyond the hectic pace of work and taking care of family. Now it is the turn of the younger generation to rediscover balconies.

 

In Kolkata, old houses especially in north Kolkata built in the British colonial days show off lovely balconies. In fact, many architects on visit from Britain say they are some of the best  seen from that era when the British empire spread  across the world. Alas, many of them are in disrepair now.

 

 

Going back, think how many love songs have been composed to woo the lady love who, like Juliet,  hopefully would appear on the balcony to respond, as she did to Romeo’s call. And also scenes in  many  Hollywood or Bollywood movies. In Verona in Italy when tourists like us tried to reconstruct Shakespeare’s eternal romance standing in front of the building where Juliet supposedly lived ( sceptics say it’s just a made-up story for the benefit of tourism promotion, but who cares!) the romance of the famous balcony mesmerises you nonetheless.

 

In northern Portugal, Porto is where the Douro river flows into the Atlantic Ocean. On its waterfront near the Praça da Ribeira square, heritage buildings proudly show off their filigreed balconies. From there the washings flapping in the wind create a chiaroscuro of colours which reminded me of our dhobi ghaat in Mumbai. The area  is part of the Historic Site classified as a National Monument by Unesco

 

In Buenos Aires the houses skirting the avenues, some of the widest in the world, have beautiful balconies. Under lockdown, many locals recently used the balconies to stand in solidarity with those who disappeared  during the  bloody coup in 1976 that led to military dictatorship.

 

 

Every March 24 on the National Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice people in Argentina take out  processions and participate in public events in memory of those  ‘unaccounted 30,000’. This year it was not to be, but undaunted, people put out flags and messages from the balconies.

 

In another area of the city, balconies painted in mindboggling colours welcome you in La Boca. At one time this ‘tourist must visit’ area in Buenos Aires was where the poor and the new immigrants arrived in ships; they painted the ramshackle houses with whatever paint available  in the ship and hence a riot of colours appeared on the facades. Later, the authorities, while reinventing the area full of boutiques, eateries and reverberating with Tango music, took the cue from them.

 

In Ronda in Spain you will be shown a famous house in the central square where  the members of the noble families sat on the balcony  to enjoy performances in the courtyard below where the hoi polloi congregated.

 

 

In Wimbledon after the win the champion comes to the ivy covered centre court balcony to wave  to  the adulatory fans. In London members of the British royalty appear  at the Buckingham Palace balcony to show solidarity or a newly-wed  couple. In the Vatican  the Pope appears on the balcony (San Pietro) of St. Peter’s Cathedral to bless the followers. It is also from where announcement of a new pope is made.

 

The balcony has always been there to witness momentous occasions and to serve as  a place to relax, get fresh air, communicate with neighbours. Something that was mostly pushed to the corner, literally,  to keep the bits and odds, or perhaps to put a rack for drying clothes. 

 

Now suddenly it has come to life again though admittedly during a perilous time- to wave or clap in support of the frontline health workers, to sing a song to admiring listeners, or even enact a ballet episode.

 

There is a certain irony that we rediscover things  that are always there, but forgotten, only to find them again in times of need and stress.