March 09, 2021
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The Verticality Of City Buildings

We read the history of the city every time we look out on it...We write the history of the city every time we look out on it. And we continue to look out on it, to recount the stories of our lives through what we see, and remember how we felt when wh

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The Verticality Of City Buildings
The Verticality Of City Buildings

Since I first moved to Purvasha, the Mayur Vihar housing society in which my parents own a flat, I have been going up to the roofs of C and D block. And since I first went up to a roof, long before I moved to Purvasha, I have been wondering what draws me up.

We read the history of the city every time we look out on it. From atop C block you see Rashtrapati Bhawan flanked by secretariats, looking down the avenue through India Gate at the Purana Quila. From here, east of the Yamuna, we see the British planners paying homage to the imperium they replaced. The first floodlit Indian stadium stands not far south, named for the prime minister who inaugurated our republic. And further south, the towers of Nehru Place , their roots infested with computer peripherals, the building blocks of the new economy, of this latest turn no one foresaw. We write the history of the city every time we look out on it.

One whole chapter of Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris is devoted to the view of Paris from the tower of the cathedral. Standing there in the middle of the nineteenth century, he reconstructs the fifteenth century view. For Hugo the view from the top of the old gothic building plays an essential part in his tragic tale. And reading that chapter I begin to feel that perhaps it is more than part of the story. Perhaps it is the story.

* *

In 1803 the British defeated the Marathas in a pitched battle fought somewhere between the pontoon bridge road and Akshardham temple. Not far from where the Commomnwealth Games Village is supposed to be. I know this because the first time I read about this engagement, the battle of Patparganj, the writer said that if you climbed to the top of Humayun's tomb you could see cannons blazing across the Yamuna.

And when I read this line, everything else fell away: the British on the ascendant, the Marathas finally beaten, the Mughals humiliated and weakened, India's history waiting for the victor to start writing it. It all fell away.

All I could think of was that person, that hypothetical person, who had climbed to the top of Humayun's tomb that day in 1803 to watch the guns flashing east of the river.

* *

I find myself up on the roof of the main building of IIT every weekday afternoon at lunch time. I stand in sight of the Qutab Minar, at a place that was a phantom point suspended in midair for most of that building's history. The secretariats are seen side-on from IIT, Rashtrapati Bhawan sitting back west of them, its darker dome a clear assertion of superiority. On foggy winter days, all three grand domes are smudged onto a horizon that has crept closer while I wasn't looking.

Almost every day I try to figure out where Purvasha lies on the landscape that lies north of me. I've taken various sighters—there's the Lotus temple, there's Nehru place—and tried to triangulate the Mayur Vihar Phase 1 group housing societies. It hasn't worked, so far. One particularly clear day I saw the four-chimneyed power station that sits near Pragati Maidan. It doesn't help. My eyes aren't used to calculating these kinds of depths.

On the other side of the river, here in Mayur Vihar, I have never tried to look for anything in particular. Each distinctive and diffused landmark carries its own weight, like the songs of a favourite album. Each one draws a different mood towards it. But there is never one feature of the landscape I seek from the roofs of Purvasha the way I seek Purvasha when I am on the roof of the IIT building.

* *

The F train comes overground for two stops on my way to work.

Some evenings I look west— past backyard flowerpot neighbourhoods, past delivery trucks crawling south on a snarled expressway to Bensonhurst or Staten Island, past the bay with its small celebrated islands and its statues of liberty—to Jersey where the sun is setting red. Some mornings I look north to the tall buildings of downtown Brooklyn, where I'm headed, or the diminished, but still impressive, cluster of oblong boxes that sits at the lower tip of Manhattan. Some days I look east over the canal, past its picture postcard drawbridge, past old factory signboards, past graffiti-stained boundary walls, past rows of residential rooftops to graceful old apartment buildings.

And then there are days when all I want to do is spot the two church spires that bookend the block on which I live.

* *

Looking down from the D block roof, there is the game of cricket underway in Sahyog apartments. You have to wait for the ball to be retrieved from under cars or inside a drain, you have to wait for squabbles about numbers of balls bowled or number of runs scored to be resolved, you have to wait while evening walkers stroll through the playing area. And then, when you've waited, comes the delivery, the swing of the bat, the scrambling batsmen, the throw to the column that serves for the stumps, the appeal, the recriminations, and then, after another long wait, the continuation.

And right next to it, a buffer between the two societies, a dirt strip that not long ago housed people. No smell of rotis cooking rises from it anymore, no film songs play on black and white televisions. We shared a wall with some people for several years, and now a court has ordered it so they are gone.

In The Point of Return, Siddhartha Deb's protagonist thinks about bidding farewell to Rilbong, his fictional hometown. And he thinks that the best way to bid it farewell is to go to a place from where the entire town can be seen and to stand there and look out at it. It is the kind of farewell that brings reassurance; the feeling that the view from on high is permanent in a way that our lives are not. Standing there looking down at the strip which separates Purvasha from Sahyog, I feel that idea of permanence crumble. Deb's protagonist, having thought of going up the hill and looking down on Rilbong, doesn't actually do it. And it strikes me that perhaps this is because he realizes that the permanence he seeks is an illusion, has always been.

The city forms and reforms itself. Hoardings come down, flyovers go up. And we continue to look out on it, to recount the stories of our lives through what we see, and remember how we felt when what is gone was still there.

* *

In 1988 Bruce Springsteen played in Delhi. The cheapest ticket was one hundred rupees, not the kind of money I could ask my parents for. Not for a concert. Not because my parents didn't want me to go to concerts, but because there had never been concerts to go to.

Even today when I see the floodlights of Nehru stadium, I sometimes find myself thinking of that night in 1988 when I stood out on the balcony of our fifth floor flat in Shahjahan road and looked east at them, glowing yellow in the smoggy Delhi air while Bruce Springsteen played underneath.

* *

In his Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard talks about the role of the attic and the cellar in bestowing a sense of "verticality" to the dwelling which, he says, is essential in creating the intimacy of the home. Talking of "incomplete" Paris dwellings he writes:


"But the height of city buildings is a purely exterior one... " (pp 27)

The opposition is to Bachelard's daydream of a country home. The absence of an attic, a place that can be climbed to, flattens the city home, flattens it into "mere horizontality."

Having lived all but one or two years of my life in multi-storeyed buildings, I have known the truth of Bachelard's statement. I know that I have known its truth because I have rebelled against it.

When I go up to the seventh floor and I climb that last flight up to the roof, I am like Bachelard's daydreamer climbing up the stairs to the attic. Like Bachelard, I always remember those stairs leading up. On the way up they could lead to the joyous freedom of an open sky or, when the management committee decrees it, the crashing disappointment of a locked grill. There's no way to know till you've climbed the first nine and made the turn. On the way up, the mystery at the end of the stairs has the power to exalt and to dismay. On the way down they're just stairs.

" ...a house in a big city lacks cosmicity. For here, where houses are no longer set in natural surroundings, the relationship between house and space becomes an artificial one." (Poetics of Space, pp 27)

Perhaps in Bachelard's Paris there is no chhat, no place to walk out on in the evening, no place to fly a kite from. But here in Purvasha there is. The view from the roofs of the society takes Bachelard's "natural" and disembowels it. Once you walk up to the roof, this group housing society, this gated village, reveals the organic relationship it bears to the space it inhabits.

Perhaps Bachelard has forgotten Victor Hugo standing up on the tower of Notre Dame looking out at that same Paris. Each one of our homes may lack cosmicity, but together we own these high points, these places from which a collection of ugly grey towers is as natural or unnatural as a mausoleum of sandstone and marble.

And from these high places we can stand and claim intimacy with everything that we see. Not ownership. Intimacy.

* *

I thought about Jacques Cousteau all morning today. Not about the Calypso sailing in search of the secrets of the sea, not about diving bells and underwater cameras, but of an old man talking about what we've all lost. Cousteau talked about pollution, about the greying of the skies. He said something I don't exactly recall, but it went something like this:

"I remember," he said, "the time when, as a boy, I could see the Alps in the distance from on top of the Eiffel tower in Paris."

* *

They begin to lose their specificity, these patterns of light. It starts with the evening when sunset slowly transforms the horizon into a set of diffuse bands. The pinks are the centrepiece, the yellows the body. Some evenings grey-black streaks of cloud overlay the composition, directing and redirecting the eye.

This show doesn't last long. It's easy to miss it. Spend ten minutes chatting with someone down near the water tank and it's gone.

At night the Nizamuddin bridge used to pulse with light like a vein shot through with radioactive dye. It looks dimmer now, with the formalized lighting of the new temple behind it. And lost in the night sky is the memory of the pontoon bridge road when it was still in use, a twinkling string of fireflies swaying where it passed over the river. Far away on the other side the gurdwara's dome is lit and, on a clear night, behind it stands the much bigger dome of Humayun's tomb, its marble white reflecting already reflected light.

Then there are those days when at eleven in the morning the sun disappears behind a sky full of clouds. Thin clouds that cannot keep the light out. Shadows disappear. Everything is lit sepia. And you hope that it will not rain for another ten minutes at least, because it might be years before this light is seen again. And when it is, you might not be here to see it.

* *

Circles of confusion capture the light of the Dutch sun.

Did Vermeer use the camera obscura to project a view of Delft before he painted it? Did its early lenses throw small unfocussed patches of light— circles of confusion— onto the wall where the sun glinted off the buildings?

It's the only way he could have known where and how to scatter those brilliant dots of yellow, that illumination. It's the only way he could have observed a phenomenon not visible to the naked eye.

Looking down at the old city from the southern tower of Jama Masjid, an inversion of Vermeer's view of Delft is seen. The rooftops of Delhi, whitewash and concrete as opposed to the dark browns of Delft, are dotted with circles of black. It is a phenomenon visible to the naked eye: Sintex water tanks.

"Vermeer seems almost not to care, or even to know, what it is that he is painting. What do men call this wedge of light? ... What do we know of its shape? To Vermeer none of this matters, the conceptual world of names and knowledge is forgotten, nothing concerns him but what is visible." (Lawrence Gowing. Vermeer.)

* *

When we seek out the roof, we seek solitude and an end to solitude. We want to feel like part of the expanse. We want to feel insignificant in the expanse.

This Independence Day I stood up on the C block roof and watched people fly kites. Thread tangled with thread up in the sky. People stood on a few square feet of space, not a boundary wall in sight, locked in delicate battles high above. The wind was blowing west and every now and then a defeated kite floated into Purvasha. One of them came flying towards me, and for a moment it seemed that the bubble that surrounds me would burst. But a draught caught it at the last moment and it flew up, then landed flat on the roof just behind me.

And when it had fallen, and when a little girl who was flying kites with her family on the other side of the water tank had run around and picked it up, smiled at me and walked away, I wished for a moment that it had hit me, this kite. I wished for a moment that it had made me feel something pointed, something physical.

* *

When the Admiral came down the stairs I noticed he was carrying a telescope.

"That's a nice telescope," I said, once introductions had been made.

"I was first in my class in Khadakvasla," he said, mixing himself a drink. "This was the prize."

It lay on the table and I looked at it with awe, realizing that things I could not begin to imagine must have been seen through its eyepiece in the three decades since it was presented to a young naval cadet at Khadakvasla.

"It's a good telescope," he said, setting his glass down next to it.

"What were you looking at up there?" I asked.

"They've been working on the colony water tank for the last two days. I was trying to see how much longer it will take."

Amitabha Bagchi's first novel, Above Average, releases in February

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