Once upon a time, three close friends went for an outing to an ancient city. Being avid architecture enthusiasts, they roamed all around the town square, looking at the remnants of a once-thriving civilization. The meticulously planned city was a sight to behold, even centuries after its prime. Everywhere they went, they saw rubble and bricks holding together the skeletal form of old houses, castles, and temples. It was fascinating for them to imagine how this place would have looked like in its golden age. After walking around all day, each of them sat at a nice spot overlooking an old temple, soaking in the day’s experience.
One of them mused,
‘How glorious would this city have been in its heyday. While only disintegrated parts of the construction remain, the architecture commands such glory and respect. I will build something like this in my lifetime.’
Later on in life, he went on to become a great builder. He designed a state-of-the-art township near the capital city that was celebrated all around the Kingdom. It was the architectural highlight of the era.
The second friend was ambitious as well, but he wanted quick success. He thought,
‘No matter how well one builds a city, it will inevitably turn into rubble in a thousand years. And while I can see that everyone celebrates the remnants of this ancient capital, the person who designed it is not alive to see his work being appreciated by the future generations. Perhaps I should build a township that turns into rubble in just a few decades. At least, I will be alive to witness how people laud my achievements.’
He went on to build a township a few miles away from the first friend’s township. While it looked majestic from the outside, it was designed to perish within a few decades to fulfil his desire to be exalted while being alive.
The third friend was an observant man. He looked closely at the remnants of the grand old temple that stood in front of him. On one of the walls, he spotted a little sapling growing out of the crevices between the bricks. Then, he looked around, and almost everywhere, he saw little plants trying to grow similarly. There was a statue of the Buddha in the old temple that was completely entwined in the roots of a Bodhi tree. That statue was believed to be a symbol of the union of nature and divinity. It was universally revered as a living sermon by the Buddha.
The third friend had an epiphany. Later in life, while his friends were busy erecting monuments in their respective townships, he devoted himself to the humble act of planting saplings all around their city. Driven by an unshakeable faith, he dedicated his life to sowing seeds for posterity.
Unfortunately, in a couple of centuries, their civilization was wiped out by a natural calamity.
A thousand years later, in the new millennium, their city has become a popular tourist destination. People come to see the ruins of the glorious ancient civilization from faraway places.
The township designed by the first friend draws in a lot of crowd. Archaeologists study the architecture of the remnants with deep interest. Even if most buildings do not hold on to their functional use anymore, they still represent a magnificent past. The spirit of a great ancient civilization is still alive in each withering brick.
The township designed by the second friend had turned into rubble within a few decades of building. Contrary to his expectation of being lauded as a great builder, he was castigated by the community for his sub-standard workmanship. After all these years, the land where the township once stood, is barren and bereft of any life. In stark contrast, the township built by the first friend stands right next to the barren land, in all its glory, despite the deterioration dictated by time.
And, there is something else as well, in this ancient town that teems with life – the third friend’s work.
A thick cover of vegetation has been thriving through the times, all around the ancient city. The forest has been serving as an arena for Mother Nature to choreograph the delicate dance of life. The wise man had managed to plant only a few thousand trees in his lifetime. But he had invested his time and energy in something that would self-replicate and sustain itself through millennia. The flora all around the township is growing steadily. In a few centuries, the forest will entwine the whole city in its embrace, just as the roots of the Bodhi tree had entwined around the Buddha’s statue in the ancient temple. He left behind such a flourishing legacy.
Today, no one remembers the name of any of the three friends. But their karmic fingerprint is alive in the quality of their work.
Today, in the ancient town of Ayutthaya, under the shade of a resplendent tree in springtime, as I look at the Buddha’s statue entwined by roots, I have a feeling about what I should do with my time, life, and work.
आ चल हिसाब करते हैं तू तेरी जागीर बिछा में मेरी हथेली बिछाता हूं ज़रा देख लकीरें हाथ पर हो या ज़मीं पर नसीब एक ही का बना है हैना?
आ चल हिसाब करते हैं तू तेरी महफ़िल दिखा मैं मेरा जनाज़ा दिखाता हूं ज़रा देख, अर्थ किसका और अर्थी किसकी हंसी किसकी फूटी, सिसक किसकी छूटी नसीब एक ही का बना है हैना?
तेरे मेरे जनम में बस आंगन भर का फ़र्क है एक तरफ़ झूठा स्वर्ग है एक तरफ़ सच्चा नर्क है यह कैसा मायाजाल, जिसमें रोज हम मचलते हैं आ चल हिसाब करते हैं
धूप भले ही एक सी दोनों अंगना बसती है छत बिना है छांव कहां बस जलती मेरी बस्ती है झुलसे घोंसलों में हम ही जाने कैसे हम संभालते हैं आ चल हिसाब करते हैं
पापी पेट है या सेठ यह तो मुनीम ही जाने इंसाफ से सदा ही हम रहते हैं अनजाने लकीरों पर रोकर हम अपने हाथ मलते हैं आ चल हिसाब करते हैं
मुझे नसीब से बैर नहीं जिसे कभी न मिला उससे बैर कैसा चलता रहूंगा मैं मुसाफ़िर मन में जतन है ख़ैर ऐसा साहिलों के पार अपनी सुबह ढूंढा करते हैं कभी खुद पर ही रोते, कभी मन ही मन हस्ते है आ चल हिसाब करते हैं आ चल हिसाब करते हैं
A fabric that we spend the most time choosing yet spend the least time looking after, would undoubtedly be the good old curtain. We invest an entire day to get the right shades, get them stitched with utmost care and yet, once installed, we forget all about them. They set the mood for our homes but accept our forgetfulness and neglect in return. Such is the life, of these soft, overhung draperies.
To a room that otherwise houses a stationary assemblage of inanimate things, the curtain adds a sense of quiet motion. Subliminally, a curtain serves as a company. Sometimes, even while being alone inside a house, when the curtains sway silently, we choose to believe that outside, somewhere far away, someone beautiful is breathing.
When it comes to functional utility, the curtains punch way above their feathery weight. Curtains serve as the best sunscreen. They let us customize how much daylight we wish to let into our rooms. In the process, they trap floating dust motes in their fabric fencing, letting us breathe cleaner air. Apart from the utility, curtains also serve as a subtle implication for the need for privacy. When we draw the curtains in, the world outside grants us the time and space we need.
Children extract value from the curtains in their own sweet way. While most adults hide behind curtains, kids choose to hide within them. If a curtain is long enough, the fabric becomes the fortress that conceals every bit of the little one, but its tiny feet. However, more often than not, it’s their giggling that gives their location away to the one searching for them.
The curtain fosters the dream of being Tarzan in kids, a dream that often ends with a tough bum-landing on the floor. Kids take time to wean of from their mother’s pallu. The curtain serves as the sanctuary of snot and tears during this phase of life when the wailing kid fails to extort sympathy out of the family. And this habit stays with us at a subconscious level. We have to hold back our reflex of wiping our hands with the curtain, lest someone is watching. Couples living together deter each other from doing this, while exercising restraint themselves to commendable heights. Only kids enjoy free reign. And now you know why curtains show up on clotheslines of families with kids every other weekend.
Meanwhile, the curtains at a bachelor’s home weep silently, lamenting their fate. While these sullied fabrics look out of the window, they see clean curtains drying in the shade across the street. They feel imprisoned behind the bars of the window, abused by a jailer, who by all means, still lives like a child.
The bachelor chooses to believe that the sun and the wind cleanse the curtains just fine. In this putrid penitentiary, the curtains face criminal neglect. There’s an effort that goes into removing the curtains from the bars. Clearly, product designers have designed these mechanisms without considering the laxity single ageing adults are capable of. As a consequence, the curtains gather dust in a corner, beside a broken flower vase that has by far, never housed a real flower.
While cotton has been the preferred fabric for a curtain, there’s a new fashion wave in the way we adorn our windows. Synthetic materials, cut into precise rectangles, blind the in-dwellers in most office spaces. There’s a good reason why these synthetic curtains are called blinds. They are designed to blind people on either side of the window. Perhaps these blinds are used more in places where adults work, because here, most people feel safe only while crying on the inside. Emotions are subterranean. And so, it is easy to get away with a sterile, non-absorbent cotton curtain… (Yes, we have wept into curtains at some point in our life, haven’t we!)
The curtains play roles that are too subtle to be noticed by a casual observer. There’s a beautiful way in which this simple overhung fabric enables our expression. Just how a curtain raiser event promises to unveil a motion picture or a stage play, so does a curtain-raiser back at home. The world outside with all its nuance and motion is screened within the frame of the window. It’s a free show for all spectators. And just in case we wish to dance alone or in the company of friends and family, we can draw the curtains in and play an actor without inhibition. When you wish to have a private show, you can draw the curtains in, when you wish to witness the spectacle outside, you can draw the curtains out. One can choose to be a spectator or an actor. Who could tell a piece of fabric could affect our motions and emotions to this degree!
Curtains are the silken veil our demure domestic selves hide behind to smile and dance in assumed safety.
With all the levity associated with a curtain, it also serves as a grave reminder of social exclusion in the past few centuries. With the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate in India, the ‘Purdah system’ became prevalent in many parts of the subcontinent. Women were expected to hide their faces behind the veil, as a mark of respect to elderly men. Muslim rule in Northern India influenced Hindu upper classes to follow a similar practice. ‘Beauty must be guarded behind a veil’ was the rationale. Be it a burqa or a ghunghat, women were the casualty. Some proponents of the practice viewed it as a means of judging a woman by their inner beauty rather than physical beauty! As a consolation, the women of the working class were exempt from the purdah. Who would harvest grains if the lower-caste women don’t go to the fields! And it was work that helped these women get a clear view of the sky under the unforgiving tropical sun. A little freedom in inherited bondage.
Bollywood has its own fascination with the word purdah. Many iconic songs use it as a metaphor in the lyrics. Be it ‘parde me rehne do’, imploring to hide a secret behind a curtain, ‘humse sanam kya parda’ where the lover invites her partner to drop his guards and become one, or the Qawaali of Rishi Kapoor as Akbar, who swears to unveil the purdanasheen, else his name be changed!
The curtain is the only piece of fabric that is almost always in motion. A curtain sailing and drying on a clothesline by the river exhibits a palpable joy, one that speaks of savouring a greater freedom, of dancing under the open sky.
The best curtains though are the ones weaved out of leaves. Nothing filters sunlight better than a lush canopy. The Japanese have a word for it, Komorebi.
If you have a good outgrowth outside the window, be it from a screen by vines or by a Mayflower tree in bloom, you can enjoy your privacy and a scintillating view without needing to draw the curtains in or out. The leaves purify the air and change shades with seasons. They host the play of squirrels and the song of bulbuls. The rain rests on them while falling and the wind dances to their touch. A priceless combination of view and functionality, gifted to us for free by nature. I might as well say, directed so elegantly by nature, this play surely deserves a rousing curtain call!
But rarely do we care for this gift. The other day, I noticed an unusual flux of bright light illuminating my room. As I peeped outside, I noticed the absence of green in my view. The annual pre-monsoon pruning of trees had begun. And in the process, I had lost the liberty to dress down to my comfort. The trimmed trees decreed me to not roam at home without pyjamas. The clotheslines of the entire neighbourhood were up on full display in their balconies. And I finally saw the face of my new neighbour across the street, who was hidden behind the canopy for the past few months. Her beckoning smile seems to be the only consolation.
Nevertheless, I have my reasons to weep. It’s monsoon. The clouds weep with me. They shower down and invite the tree to grow with renewed vigour. The curtain of the community is getting greener by the day, one leaf at a time. Dressed in my pyjamas, I lean on my window sill. It’s drizzling. A bulbul chirps. I wipe my eyes with the soft cotton curtain. I can only be grateful.