Vignettes from life: Balcony Vistas

By Revathi Ganeshsundaram

My brother and I grew up on the campus of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore as my father was an academic there from the mid-1960s until his retirement in the late 1980s. Those were undoubtedly the happiest years of my life, not the least because of the quiet and semi-wild surroundings of the house in which we lived.

The quarters provided to us was a large stone building that had originally been a single bungalow, but which had, some years prior to our occupation, been divided into separate accommodations on the ground and first floors, each being assigned to a professor and his family.

Our portion on the first floor had a large covered balcony in one back corner of the house, which was for all practical purposes open to the elements (as well as potential burglars). For, apart from a white-painted, diamond-patterned metal mesh supported by green wooden railings that ran between walls and stone pillars, the balcony had no other enclosure.

It was connected to the large family bedroom by a flimsy double-doored entrance with nothing but a pair of latches to keep intruders out. The campus was very safe in those days, however, and the only intruders we needed to worry about were of the arboreal kind, but more on that later.

This area was used mainly to hang out our washing to dry, although my mother – the only person in the family with an interest in gardening – also grew some plants there, in a row of pots.

As a family we did not spend much time here together, mainly because being open, the place was dusty and often littered with twigs and bird droppings from the nests that mynahs regularly built in the rafters. Bats too hung upside down from the eaves and added to the mess with half-eaten berries as well as their guano.

But as a youngster, I loved coming out here to read, sketch, and in later years, to study. (A couple of my crayon sketches show views from the balcony, with the second focusing more on one of my mother’s potted plants – hence the seemingly leafless tree!)

Copyright (C) Revathi Ganeshsundaram

I would also spend hours gazing at the garden below. This vast expanse of trees and shrubs was split between the occupants of the first floor (our family) and those living downstairs, and the portion that was visible from the balcony technically belonged to our ground-floor neighbours. However, I do believe that we spent more time in their garden – not by physical intrusion, but as remote observers from above.

We rarely, if ever, saw a human cross this semi-wilderness, but were sometimes rewarded for our patience by the sudden sighting of a hare or a mongoose. It required curiosity and a child’s keen eye to distinguish these forms, camouflaged as they were in the dry grass.

I do believe that we spent more time in their garden – not by physical intrusion, but as remote observers from above.

As we were a family of bibliophiles, we had many books of various genres at home, and one of these was a book on Indian birds that my brother had received as a prize or a gift. From this, he used to point out to me the various winged beauties that we could see. Crows, sparrows, mynahs, parrots, and owls were among the more common of these. But we were also lucky to catch regular glimpses of hoopoes, orioles, woodpeckers, cuckoos, crow pheasants, kingfishers, drongos, magpies, and babblers (also known as ‘the Seven Sisters‘ because they can always be found in groups of seven).

In summer, when cuckoos called incessantly, interspersed with the trilling of various other birds, my heart soared, because it meant vacations were fast approaching, with the promise of many delightful hours of reading. Squirrels scampered over the tiles of the ground floor’s roof that abutted the balcony (see first photograph – bottom right) and added to the general medley with their shrill squeaks.

I often used to take a small table and a reclining chair out to the enclosure – sometimes with a light snack and maybe some lemon juice – and engage in my hobbies. My parents were quite indulgent about these childish eccentricities, and were both wise and loving in their understanding that the happiness of their children was far more important than a house with undisturbed furniture, and never attempted to tease or scold us into growing up “normal” (which I realise now would have meant being unimaginative). 

Beside our building grew raintrees covered with wispy pink-and-white inflorescence that the wind often wafted onto the balcony.  Also visible were the brilliant Flame-of-the-Forest which seemed to spread across the canopy exactly like a jungle fire, although symbolising life rather than destruction.

I do not remember much about the other seasons, because during both monsoon and winter, the balcony door was rarely opened (and clothes were dried indoors). But during summer, on days when the family was at home, we would often keep both doors open to air the house, thereby letting in the distinctive songs that Nature sang during this season, and the rich scents that she generously spread all around. 

All the while, however, we kept a watchful eye out for those tree-inhabitants with whom we shared a common ancestry, as they often swung by and were tempted to think that the invitingly-open human residence warranted exploration, as it was bound to be replete with delicacies.

In later years, I used the balcony more as a place where I could study undisturbed and did not have much time to consciously enjoy the view. But looking back, I realise that some of the most pleasurable hours of my life were spent in that sanctuary of mine, having an experiential lesson on flora and fauna, or just soaking in the quietude of nature.

About the Writer

Revathi Ganeshsundaram taught in a Business School in South India for several years until she recently took a break to study Counseling Psychology. A self-professed introvert, she is most comfortable in the company of family, books, and herself  – not necessarily in the same order. She finds the written word therapeutic and hence loves reading and writing fiction, sometimes dabbling a little in poetry. Her earlier work has appeared in print in Children’s World and The Indian Express. More recently, her work has been published online in Borderless Journal and Readomania.

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