The Sky Above Us


For 9 years, we lived in a huge apartment in Amsterdam - 5 of them with Srishti. It was on the 7th floor of a tall residential building in the district of Buitenveldert in Amsterdam Zuid (South). The beauty of the apartment lay chiefly in the ‘view’ – with a vast stretch of the Amsterdam skyline visible whenever one looked out from whichever room. And that skyline was defined not just by buildings but also by trees and airplanes. In the immediate vicinity were the heads of long rows of trees that seemed to grow taller every year, its green tender with every renewal in spring and resplendent every summer. And Schiphol being not far away, planes could be seen passing by all through the day: some would go past really near, and look massive; others were far away and small. But of course, above and beyond everything else was the sky itself - that wondrous canopy of nature. It was no small boon for us that no matter what the weather - be it the constant drizzles through the year, the depressing all-permeating grey of the winters, or the glorious sun-drenched days of the summer - the sky was always available and accessible to us.

The biggest room in our home was the master bedroom, the best part of which were its windows. Wide glass windows that lined the entire stretch of a wall. Standing in the room, one of course saw the trees and buildings; but lying down on bed, especially at a particular angle, framed by the windows, all one could see was the sky - huge rectangular blocks of uninterrupted sky. Over the years, lying down and watching that sky became my own definition of 'rest'. Mostly indulged on Sunday afternoons after lunch, with or without Srishti. And, at times, if I lay still and stared into that vast expanse of the sky long enough, the borders of the window-frame dissolved and I felt as if I was being projected into space. It was the closest to a 'mystic' experience that I have known.

Like all other things that I loved about Amsterdam, I cherish the memory of that sky. So does Srishti. For months after returning to Kolkata, she would sorely miss Amsterdam. And keep asking me, "Mamma, when will we go back home?" She thought we were on an extended holiday in Kolkata, one of her annual trips stretched too long. She missed all aspects of her 5-year old life in Amsterdam, particularly our home. And very often, as I tried to put her to sleep on weekend afternoons, she would remember being bundled up with me in bed and looking out at the sky together. A wistful smile would spread across her lips then.... and she would invariably end her recounting with:"It was so beautiful, na?" I agreed, wholeheartedly.

Here we see a different sky. It is not associated with rest, light or space. The sky is a presence in our lives only at nights and mostly when the stars are out. We don't see much of it during the day, which simply whizzes past in a furious whirl of activity. We also experience sleep differently: even on the days we are at home, it is no longer a rest in communion with nature, but an anaesthetised oblivion in a cold dark room with the AC on and all the doors and windows shut. Shut firmly to keep out heat and dust and mosquitoes - heat and dust during the day, mosquitoes from late afternoon to night. This is unavoidable in a tropical climate with the fear of dengue looming large everywhere. But keeping the heat and infections at bay unfortunately also entails shutting out the light. Shutting out the sky. And living in self-contained/constrained spaces, with nothing to look out at and only feeling hemmed in.

Srishti is still a small child and highly adaptable. Hence, after the initial trauma of our relocation from Amsterdam to Kolkata, she has coped well with an essentially hemmed-in existence. She has also managed to develop a new association with the sky. She knows that her 'dida' (my late mother) has now become a star; and taking up that lead with enthusiasm, ever so often, she searches for that star in the night sky. On days that she can spot the brightest, she pulls me out into the balcony: "Mamma, see, see, dida". And then she weaves a story about what she thinks her dida is feeling looking down at us.

I had seen her dida burnt to ashes two years back in front of my eyes. Thinking of her as a star is very difficult after that. I know she lives on in me and my sister in all manner of intangible ways. But I can't philosophise/intellectualize/romanticize death beyond that. Before Ma's death, I could. After she left, all philosophy falls short of my actual experience of her loss. The searing pain of the first year is gone, but the void remains. As do the silent tears, that still flow unwarranted at odd times for inexplicable reasons.

But I keep my thoughts on death to myself. When Srishti speaks, I indulge the natural storyteller in her. If she has found a way to communicate with a grandmother she has hardly known and can only vaguely remember, who am I to interfere? Besides, her dida would be delighted with Srishti's imaginative faculty - if she is indeed up there. She had waited very long to see a grandchild. Srishti was her only. But she got to spend only 40 days with Srishti - measured out equally over four trips in four years. Being a star will thus give her access to what she missed out on in real life - Srishti's childhood in Kolkata: seeing her grow, go to school, sing, dance, draw, weave tales, and speak Bangla.

I have thus learnt - gradually, over the last year - to give in to Srishti's belief. That Ma is looking down on us. Hence, on the rare days that I can afford to stand and stare at the night sky, I participate in the relationship that she has forged with a star.

The rectangular block of the Amsterdam sky that was mine epitomized rest, feeling one with nature; the cable-streaked semi-circular patch of night sky that I'm now re-discovering in Kolkata with Srishti stands for astral communication with Ma. I have learnt to value both.