A Coming Of Age Story About New Cities, Unrequited Love And Balconies

A Coming Of Age Story About New Cities, Unrequited Love And Balconies
Benazir Baig

Change is difficult. Especially, in our current state of crisis, with our safety nets pulled under us, we tend to search for familiar people and spaces. At first, the idea of a balcony might seem synonymous to architecture or an ornamental feature of a well-designed house. However, when we emphasise our relationship to spaces, and rightly so, since spaces we inhabit mould us, we create symbolic personal narratives around our lives. These personal narratives transform these spaces into something more, some ethereal. The balcony, in this case, remains not just an extension of the house, but perhaps an ‘outside’ world that’s free but that’s still home and safe.

Benazir Baig, a former student of Hindu College, Delhi University and Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, found herself in the city of dreams, Bombay, when the pandemic hit. As a city, Bombay is known for its abundance –- the abundance of love, of hope, of dreams, joy, and opportunities. However, every resident, whether permanent or temporary, will probably tell you that despite all this abundance, what it lacks is per capita space. Therefore, and no matter how hopeless it might seem when we say this, in Bombay, a lover of big spaces or balconies, mostly ends up constricting herself to merely dreaming of long balconies and homes as big as their heart.

Having moved to Mumbai three years ago, Benazir worked as an assistant director for the National Geographic Channel and now handles Bollywood projects.

Much after the heart of the aforementioned lover of balconies, she writes an ode to her love for balconies, perhaps in hopes that someone else reading this might find themselves in one of those lovely balconies and feel more at home, and perhaps also as a reminder for herself in the future to look back on.

Here’s Benazir in her own words.

“I have lived in many cities owing to my father’s transferable job, changing cities meant a new house, new school, and a set of brand new friends. Every city was a purveyor of new hope, I could shed my past persona and start afresh, for a little girl it meant a chance of getting into the popular girl gang or working harder to get a good grade.

I remember the excitement of moving into a new house, it would add springs to my brother’s and my feet and we would sprint around looking from one room to another. I would always want a room with a balcony.

For a girl of ten or eleven years of age, the balcony was a space where I could play kitchen-kitchen, sometimes I would pass out, and on being woken up, to my dismay, would find my toy utensils kept away. The balconies were so spacious that we could do umpteen things, I would dance with my girlfriends, try to memorise the mathematical tables as I walked to and fro in my broad balcony. I must have done a lot more but it seems time has erased a lot of those precious memories.

In the balcony, I got the time to connect with myself, I never realised it then but now when I look back it was a space where I experienced my individuality, in a way where I realised I had different characteristic traits, goals, and ways of looking at the world, this distinguished me from my family and the people around me. And because of those quiet moments, where I aimlessly stared into nothing, I understood about breathing freedom. My first attempt at pushing my boundaries was when I wanted to speak to guy friends, I’d rather do it in secret then answer an onslaught of questions that my parents may have had for me. This secret getaway kept me away from the direct gaze, no one was watching me here, I could try to be what I wanted to be.

I would creep out to my balcony to have a late-night conversation with my friends and of course lover. The concept of having a lover/ boyfriend has been a taboo in my family, my family always emphasised on good education and never on the other emotional drama that young kids or teenagers go through.

I remember one of the many balconies overlooking the basketball court, one of my many first crushes would come at a specific time to play basketball. So like a total creep I would wait for my crush to make an entry, and that’s when I would also leave my house. On days when he wouldn’t come, I wouldn’t go out to play either. I soon learned this was a classic example of unrequited love and I moved on. All this was happening when I was around 13, I can’t think of any gripping social or political event, but I can tell you this was the time when I watched the FIFA world cup final with my dad, staying up at night only to see my favourite team lose the game, all thanks to a head butt. I was disappointed and grief-stricken. Phew, anyway life goes on.

Balconies was a space where I let my fantasies run wild. I would lean across the railing with the wind blowing in my moonlit face and hair dancing to the soft tunes of the breeze, and in my heart, I was Madhubala of the silver screen. This is in no way indicative of my passion for acting since I harbour none. What it instead signifies is I could be anyone or do things that were forbidden, without having to struggle too much.

In my present, the struggle is harder, and finding respite in the balcony is not enough.

I grew up and it was time to move out of my parent’s house and boy I was excited. The Anna Hazare anti-corruption zeal was high, and I wanted to study nowhere but Delhi University.

Thankfully I got into the reputed Hindu College I thought and my family ensured this is my golden ticket to a better life sans hardships. Of course, that wasn’t true and I realised it eventually. From living a comfortable and protected life with my parents, here I was on my own. The city was new, the people were new, yes, I was excited but mostly scared. Like most outstation students, I opted to move into the university hostel. I was quite excited to share my space with a fellow student. I mean this was the first place where I was totally free, far away from scrutinizing eyes. I could do anything I pleased, and most importantly this was the place where I would learn to be independent.

I tottered to my room, excitedly chatting with my new roommate, and lo behold the room had the tiniest balcony ever, but, a balcony nonetheless. It overlooked a green spread, hostel boundary lined with pink bougainvillaeas and barbed wires. Often, a little cat would sneak in and softly purr, as it licked itself clean. Such joyous days, and now when I am in the better half of my 20’s, I remember that time, so simple, so carefree, if I could I would like to relive it all over again.

There are so many things I’d like to do differently. It’s human to only want more and never be satisfied, and with this thought, I would move forward.

In the past three years, the idea of a balcony has become rather blurry, almost lost from my lexicon. Three years back, fresh out of college, I decided to move to Mumbai with my dreams packed in my bag, I hoped to make a name, be successful, and most importantly, become financially independent.

Mumbai was so different, the air smelled and felt different. It was the time of the year when the monsoon clouds were brewing up. This made me extremely nervous. I was on my own. I had to figure out everything on my own. There was the pressure of doing well at my new job but also finding the right space to live in. Before this, I did not have to bother looking for a house, and now I did, and it was no easy business.

In Mumbai, you cannot find a house without an agent. Everything in this city is a monetised affair. The Bombay we see in the films is filled with art-deco-type architecture and sweeping promenades lined with tropical trees but the city where the professional working-class population was accommodated, was in the suburbs, of the northern part of the city. In this part buildings exist neck and neck, from outside they have a washed-out look, with growing moss. Some buildings are as old as 100 years. You can’t find beauty in them immediately, it takes time and shall slowly grow on you.

One thing that I found extremely peculiar is the nonexistence of balconies. Instead, there are extensions around the window enclosed with iron wire mesh or a window grill having enough protrusion to extend your arms. This space doubles up to dry clothes, keep a few potted plants, albeit the small sized ones.

Hence the ordeal of the real world began, the agent or more popularly called a broker showed us flats with falling roofs, damp walls, and even zero sunlight. It’s hard to believe that a balcony is a feature missing from most flats in this city.

We liked a few houses, that seemed like they could stand the Bombay rains, alas we were shooed away because we were Muslim girls. We needed a roof over our top desperately, so we half-heartedly zero’ed down on a house and took an oath to work enough to be able to move into a better and more secure house where our identities will not be an obstruction.

We struggled with money, with the maid, the cleaning situation, and most of all, the Mumbai monsoon. We would come back to our house, after clocking in 12 hours in our corporate-ish media firm, only to find our house flooded in water, courtesy weak ceilings, whose bruises had been covered with layers of cement. We learned our first lesson. Never move into a house on the topmost floor of an old building. Oh, the struggle was real, the year was 2018. My flatmates finally left for different cities, Mumbai not particularly impressing them. I stuck on.

For a while, I lived at my sister’s place, until I got in touch with friends who were, like me, looking for a house to move into. We were strugglers at 25. We realised that struggling would take the better part of our life, and that shouldn’t mean we should compromise on a good place to live in. And the errands of finding a new house begun again, stretching out the budget to the maximum, we finally found a beautiful house, again with no balcony but an idea of it, we squeezed in our potted plants, and a drying line for our washed clothes, that we would quickly replace with fairy lights if we had friends coming over.

I was happy, joyous, with peace finally starting to descend over me. I felt lucky in many ways. I found a beautiful house that I could share with girls that I liked and got along with. And the three of us made the house a home. By splashing solid coloured bed sheets on floor mattresses, bright cushions splattered on the rug, and corners adorned with filtered lights that filled our room with a warm and cosy ambience. On countless days I would come back from work and sit near the window or makeshift balcony, sometimes I’d be back right in time to catch the sun setting into the creek. In moments like these, I was grateful for all that I had been able to achieve in the past few years, it was my sweat that got me where I was.

I started working in one of the biggest film industries of the world, working night and day to understand the art of storytelling, and what goes behind the moving image that we see in theatres and now online platforms.

Sometimes I would question myself if this is what I had signed up for? As a film student, we romanticised this field but once you are a part of it, with time, you realise all your endeavours are measured by a monetary scale.

We were in the middle of our shoot when a circular was passed by one of the film and television governing bodies that all shoots need to be cancelled due to the rising cases of COVID 19. This was in March with few cases coming to light.

Honestly, I was secretly happy, having gotten some time off from the grind of the set life, where everyone forgets to breathe and slow down.

Today more than 80 days and counting have elapsed. I ‘stand’ in my balcony, overlooking the green field beyond, it’s a windy day, somewhere the wind chime is softly tinkling, birds are cooing, and you can hear the distant Maghrib Azaan.

I stand in my balcony and think of my home in Bombay to which I have not been able to return to, it breaks my hearts that we had to give our plants away since none of us was home to take care of them, I hope they are thriving, unlike so many others during this time.

We don’t know if we will be able to go back to this space which we had started to call our home or retain it, at a time when our savings are in a shambles.

I have thoughts racing through within me, asking pertinent questions like when will I get back to work? I think my mother will get used to me staying with her, and slowly this independence that I have fought for and achieved will slowly be taken away from me. And if I do decide to go back to my life, will I be ready to leave the comforts of my house and ready to work out those manic hours. Am I ready to live with the fear of contracting a virus and banking on an unreliable health care system?

Yet I take moments out of my day to be grateful for all that I have at a time of a global crisis like this. I have a space for my own, a safe vantage point to pacify my mind, I repeatedly remind myself that the only challenge I have right now is to stay indoors and help run household errands. But there are struggles indoors too, and as a woman, with aspiration, the battle is never-ending. Sometimes the battle is against domestic toxicity and misogynist jibes which are worse than the manic hours I have to clock at work. The fight is to continue to be a decision-maker of my life, I do not want to be told what job is better or what is the perfect age to be married. Then I re-evaluate my problems in the larger scheme of things with a global pandemic that has killed lakhs of unaware lives. Migrant citizens had to walk back home covering 1000 kilometres, and here I am in my balcony, hearing and listening, concentrating on what I can control, helping my body and mind to heal, grateful for all that I am bestowed with.

My getaway for the past few months has been My Balcony.

Thank you.”

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