The Rooftops Will Stay Free

In the homes where many are stuck amidst a lockdown, women are not free. Yet there is one space that offers succour.

Dakshinpuri, Delhi: Kalpana works in a beauty parlour. She never takes a day off.

Even on the days she has off, she goes to work because she wants to earn a little more. If she is invited to a wedding, she will join during the day, taking only half a day off from work.

Many times, I’ve seen her go to work even when she is sick – she just takes some medicine and heads to the parlour.

If you ask her about it, she’ll say:

“What would I do at home? If I take a day off, I want to relax. But if I take time off now, then everyone at home will just ask me to do their work. You know how mother-in-laws are! They only care about their own troubles, and think their daughter-in-laws are being melodramatic.

Anyways, my mother-in-law has already labeled me a layabout. In all these years, I have had no expectation of sympathy from her. At least in the parlour, I can get some peace and rest. There, at least, I get to hear a few words of sympathy. In the parlour, even if I am sick, I feel better.”

Whenever Kalpana talks about her work, her face fills with happiness. She speaks passionately about her nail art, the intricacies of make-up, what kind of make-up is trendy these days, what kinds of clothes are in fashion – she talks about all of these things from the heart.

She talks about how, when she was 12 years old, her mother died, and the responsibility of her younger brother and sister fell on her and her grandmother. Her grandmother used to clean grains in a mill and Kalpana began working by cleaning in a beauty parlour.

Also read: We Cannot Have a Lockdown Exit Strategy Which Ignores Women

Gradually, her interest in parlour work started growing and today it’s been 25 years of being in this field. Now, she even does bridal hair and make-up. She trains new girls who join the parlour. She keeps track of how much stock the parlour has. She knows all of it, inside out.

Since she started working at the parlour, she can’t remember ever spending this much time at home. This is the first time she has had to spend so many days at home.

With her dark complexion and skinny frame, Kalpana, wearing a loose-fitting georgette suit, takes strolls around her roof several times a day.

She paces around the roof holding various things in her hands: sometimes a bed sheet, sometimes dried spices or coriander seeds, sometimes bedding or shoes.

As she leaves the roof, the other women who have been watching her smile and gesture – What is this?

As she exits, Kalpana says: “An excuse!”

Today she is sitting in a half-corner of the roof. If you think about it, women get used to being half. Having half-slept, eaten only half a meal, Kalpana hides her half-dried hair in her pallu (part of a sari); without feeling its completeness, her whole life just passes. Carrying with them the desire to be whole, women don’t even realise when they’ve become incomplete.

“Everything is yours.”

“You only are the master of this house.”

“I see. Is that really true? Is that really so?”

“Who knows if it is or it isn’t, or whether it will be. Maybe.”

In the midst of all these confusions, she is measuring her inner and outer world.

She is sitting on a stool and has almost completely sunk into the bottom part of her sari. It’s not a sari that she recently bought, but a sari she received as a gift for her wedding. Back then, she had really loved it because it was embroidered with tiny white sequins. But as time passed, the sequins fell off. Now, with all the extra time during lockdownshe takes off the sequins from her bindi packs and puts them on her sari. This is a good time to get this kind of work done, and this is a good time to get lost in oneself.

When she is downstairs in the room, she covers her head with her chunni (scarf) the whole day and is always busy doing something. But when she goes to the rooftop terrace, the first thing she does is take off her chunni and throw it on the rope (laundry line). If you ask her about it, she will say: “Down there, I can’t breathe. Up here, the sun is strong, but I have my freedom.”

And so, she starts pacing around the rooftop. She unties her hair and says, “Even my hair needs air!” She plays a song on her phone, puts it in a corner and just roams around the roof, lost in her thoughts.

Never before have I seen her use the roof this much.

A Delhi terrace amidst the lockdown. Photo: Author provided.

Normally, people don’t have the time to just go on the roof and sit. If people have a day off, they usually spend it getting work done.

Sure, sometimes a child or another household member will come up to the terrace to water the plants. But most of the time, no one even knows how much dirt and trash has been accumulating on the roof. But these days, the rooftops are clean and the plants are flourishing.

It’s in the evening that people go to the roof and take their strolls. The kids usually go to the roof in the morning. The rooftops have become a place where you don’t need masks. The air coming from God’s home is as clean as the sky. And now, there is no pollution or smoke in the sky. Our eyes no longer burn.

On the rooftop terrace across from Kalpana, the daughter of the tailor woman is enjoying the open air because their room is on the terrace above the fourth floor. It’s a small room that opens onto the terrace. 

Whenever Kalpana and this girl’s eyes meet, they share a smile, without breaking each other’s solitude.

Translated from the original Hindi by Thalia Gigerenzer.

Yashoda Singh has been affiliated with Ankur since 2001. She is the author of the book Dastak. Many of her stories have been published in Hindi magazines and literary journals.