In the last fortnight, I have discovered I have neighbours. Confined and working from home in lockdown, they come to their windows at appointed times during the day. They come with a coffee mug or a child, to water plants or to steal a smoke but, more often that not, simply to gaze outside. They are familiar faces now and if our eyes meet, we politely look away.
Ever since stringent lockdowns were enforced to contain the spread of COVID-19 across the world, roads and city squares have fallen quiet. Where are the people if they are not making a grocery run or walking their dogs or at their chores? At their windows, of course. In a city like Mumbai, where the view from your bedroom is a building just 50 metres away, a theatre of humanity plays out at each window and balcony.
Little else conveys this acute sense of urban isolation and the desire to escape than a figure at a window, fitted with a grill and bird netting. But, as we have learned recently, the window is also the site of unexpected connections — cross-balcony choruses in Iran and Italy; fitness classes for the homebound led by a trainer on the street in Hamburg; a wedding in New York with the officiant leading the ceremony from his fourth-floor window; and, in India, clapping and vessel-clanging on the prime minister’s instructions.
Barricaded by lockdowns, we have all become citizens of the windowsill. The Alipore Post, an online journal and newsletter of art and poetry, captured this feeling on its Instagram account with a painting by Paul Gustav Fischer, a Danish artist active during the turn of the 20th century. Fischer drew city life — an evening at the theatre, a market in Naples and street views of Copenhagen but also of urban interiors, with a female figure often by the window. Bengaluru-based Rohini Kejriwal, the journal’s founder, picked Fischer’s painting of his wife looking out of a window lined with potted roses, a faraway look in her eyes, and a book half-abandoned on her lap, because of how it “captures her days recently”.
This enhanced sense of urban alienation has made many turn to American artist Edward Hopper, whose depictions of mid-century America often figure empty rooms and cities that frame a lone human, looking out of windows, lost in a private soliloquy. “We are all Edward Hopper paintings now,” goes a popular social-media list of his works, though critic Jonathan Jones of The Guardian remarked, “We all hope to defy Hopper’s terrifying vision of alienated atomised individuals and instead survive as a community. But, ironically, we have to do that by staying apart. . .”
Closer home, we have Sudhir Patwardhan. The Thane-based painter is well known for his urban landscapes, which are nothing like Hopper’s New York. Here, buildings and chawls sit cheek by jowl, street and home blend into one seamless unit, such as in Street Corner (1985). In his interior works, Patwardhan’s people often inhabit different rooms or corners, while the city peeps in through the windows. In a work from 2009, titled Inside, Patwardhan has a kurta-clad man looking out of a window, his hands behind his back. He gazes at a cluster of balconies and windows, common in older parts of Mumbai, from which a figure leans out. Talking about this work in The Indian Quarterly, Patwardhan had said, “One gazes from the safety of one’s own space… A play of inside and outside, a game of inclusion and exclusion is set up.”
The window has been used to such effects — as a framing device, a symbol or as a source of illumination — in art and literature over the centuries. It is a liminal space, neither outside nor inside, neither home nor landscape. It’s a borderland, a waiting room. And, like all other thresholds, it holds potential for change. Philosopher Alain de Botton’s The School of Life, an online resource for emotional well-being, has a chapter titled, ‘The Importance of Staring Out of the Window’.
It suggests that in a better society, the high point of a “great day” would be “staring out of the window.” Productivity-obsessed societies won’t get this. In many ways, the hugely underrated activity of window-gazing relates to our current anxiety. Our routine — morning yoga, coffee from our favourite place, dropping off the kids at school, a walk in the park, evening chai — has been upended by not just a lockdown, but also uncertainty. Spells of cabin fever set in, forcing us to find excuses like an unnecessary grocery run; every cough makes us wonder if we are next. Some of our greatest insights, though, come when we stop trying to be purposeful. Window daydreaming is a “strategic rebellion” against the demands of immediate pressures “in favour of the diffuse, but very serious, search for the window of the unexplored deep self,” writes de Botton.
Windows and balconies were the primary preoccupations of my childhood. With no siblings to trouble or play with, I did some of my best work in these parts of the house. I stole pigeon eggs, asking my mother to fry one up. I blew bubbles and flew plastic bags like kites.
I grew a soybean climber and the harvest was turned into sambhar. My parents designated the balcony walls as the place where I could scribble with my crayons with abandon; the height of this canvas grew with the years, until the walls were whitewashed. The best times were the summer holidays, spent in mindless cloud-watching, car-spotting and wondering why sparrows take sand baths. It was watching a copperpod tree burst into yellow blooms. There was nothing to be achieved except the joy of looking out, something that has continued well into my adult life.
Windows make such a case for idle play, for allowing oneself to be bored and not attempting to fix it, to give in to the passage of time. As much as a symbol of alienation, window activities absorbed artists like the 18th century Parisian, Jean Siméon Chardin. In some works, the artist had adolescents blow bubbles from window ledges. The paintings were a commentary on the right to leisure, but were also cautionary tales about vanitas — the transience of life and the futility of attachments. In these paintings, a bubble quivers at the end of a straw, destined to glimmer for a brief, iridescent moment in the world.
For a large section of the population, however, there has been no choice but to find refuge in windows. It’s the premise for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), where a wheelchair-bound photographer attempts to solve a murder, all because he has a view of his neighbours and nowhere else to go to. Lockdowns, the new normal, have been the norm for the aged, the chronically sick, the terminally ill, the specially-abled, those with severe mental health issues and caregivers. Cities, with their malls and promenades, often forget to cater to these residents who are in near-confinement for the most part of the day.
Nitesh Mohanty, a visual artist and faculty member at Ahmedabad’s MICA, was a caregiver to his wife Diya, who suffered from cancer for over a decade and passed away in 2018. “This lockdown doesn’t seem different to me. As a caregiver, I had been socially distant for a long time. For a lot of people bound by a certain space, this is their world, their canvas and playground.” During their joint battle against the disease, Mohanty kept a visual journal in which he photographed their home in Mumbai, bestowing mundane details with significance. Dried flowers, half-eaten fruits, Diya’s resting hands and bedspreads were part of this journal, but what’s also instantly noticeable are the number of window photographs — views from a hospital ward, chirpy sparrows and an ominous crow on the window grill, and, Diya by the window, like a figure in a Hopper painting. These images are part of his upcoming photobook, which also charts Mohanty’s journey as a caregiver. “A window was something I would constantly seek. It meant light, music and air. While everything inside was filled with toil, apprehension and despair, the window became a metaphor for hope. I was never there to seek anything but a moment of solitude yet it offered so much more in return,” he says.
Our worlds may have shrunk, but as long as there is a window, there is hope. In Brooklyn in the US and Somerset in the UK, residents have initiated local movements by putting drawings of rainbows and even crocheted ones on their windows. For children, it’s a game of “spot the rainbows”. At its heart is the simple need to connect in ways that go beyond a Facebook post or a text message.
A window is also a luxury, as Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019) showed us. The lower-class Kim family lives in a basement apartment with street-level windows that turn out to be a source of great distress. Their lives are marginally better than Geun-sae, who lives in a windowless basement, much like a sewer rat, with some reading material to pass the time. The best views of a garden, and access to privacy belong obviously to the rich Parks, with their floor-to-ceiling windows. It’s almost as if the sun chooses whom to shine on.
That windows are markers of your social status is nothing new. In 1696, the UK parliament introduced the “window tax” for houses that had more than 10 windows in England. It was thought that houses with those many windows could afford to pay up. In response, people started boarding up their windows, resenting the tax as “a tax on light and air”. It became common to see outlines of windows painted on bricked-up house facades. Servants were, of course, relegated to windowless rooms.
In a city as congested as Mumbai, with a population density of about 73,000 per sq mile, people get resourceful about windows and balconies. It’s a feat of human adaptation — balconies become bedrooms for teenagers, window parapets become storage spaces for bicycles. It’s common to see young children studying on the window parapet in Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) buildings — the most privacy they can get in a household of six, accommodated in a 1BHK or less. It’s why many Mumbai residents grumbled when Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked citizens to come to their balconies and clap on March 22 at 5 pm. A balcony is too much to ask for in a middle-class Mumbai flat.
The privacy gained by a window is also privacy lost. Lockdowns have accentuated the voyeuristic quality of windows and balconies. We can no longer read our book by the window without the feeling of being watched. That feeling of being under surveillance only increases when a government asks its people to turn out lights and place diyas at balconies and windows. You are asked to choose a side — you are either in or you’re out.
Windows, perhaps, were never supposed to be this. They are better off as the land of lovers — they who stand there pining, serenading, longing, waiting. It’s the chink in the wall for starcrossed lovers; the chand ka tukda in Padosan (1968); the melancholia of a moonlit night in Dil Ek Mandir (1963); the husband who watches his wife leave for work every morning in the Bengali film Asha Jaoar Majhe (2014). In these countless examples, we find some assurance, even as we wait like Beckett’s tramps, not knowing what life will be like on the other side of lockdown limbo. In the meanwhile, we watch the clouds, we wave to our neighbours, we hang on to our windows and we hope.
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