I HAVE this perverted habit of looking into apartment windows. I think it started when I moved away from Mumbai for the first time. I remember I had felt like I was being assaulted by the malice of London’s winter. The cold winds would blow with a bitterness, like a punishment, and I’d tense my shoulders as I walked against it, my hands balled up into fists in my coat pockets. I resented the cold, my first winter in London, for making me feel smaller than I already did in this new city.
The rows of windows that lined the streets, that lit up and came to life in the evenings, became my only respite. When the sun set at three p.m, the windows would come into focus, shine through the foggy darkness with a mellow glow. The very thought of it almost makes me salivate even now. Time moved slower in those apartment windows. I would look up when I was walking home in the hopes that I would see something there that I shouldn’t. But I would hardly see anything, of course, just a bit of ceiling, the light fixtures, bookshelves maybe, bits of houseplants sticking out, and the occasional incidental person that passed by, occupied by a mundane detail of their day.
In the winter the skies turned white and felt limitless in an unfathomable, dreadful kind of way. It felt to me like being locked away in a dark room with no walls or ceilings. I figured out fairly quickly that cities expand in the cold the same way that metal expands with heat. I saw, during my first winter there, how the people around me would shrivel up inside their winter coats. I noticed that the buses took a lot longer to reach the bus stop even when they were visible just down the street. It had to be because the roads were expanding in those very moments that I stood, shivering violently, and the bus drove on and on towards me. Only the buildings remained standing, tall as ever, looming over everyone and everything, stone-faced and glassy-eyed.
The worst days of my week were grocery days. It would take me hours to talk myself into making the ten minute trip from my university halls to the store. I would only go if circumstances were dire: if I had absolutely nothing to eat for dinner, the milk had gone bad, and I’d run out of bread and cheese slices.
I hated having to put on layers of heavy clothes. I’d wear a thermal, a shirt, a jumper, and then my coat and scarf and beanie. I’d pull my jeans on over my thermal leggings. My first winter was also the year I wore two pairs of socks with my boots. I hated walking out the door and having the frigid air bite into my cheeks. I hated how the wind pushed me when I turned the corner, making my eyes water uncontrollably. I hated having to fight with the city every time I stepped outside. I hated that it was always dark. And then the walk back, always the most difficult part, with the straps of the plastic bags cutting deep into my palms, I hated that the most. I’d trudge back to the university halls, acutely aware of how the city was trying, and nearly succeeding, in pushing me into the ground.
It was around six p.m on one of those obsolete winter evenings, on my way back to my dorm, that I first discovered the secret world of apartment windows, hidden in plain sight as all the best-kept secrets are. I had stopped on the side of the pavement and put the grocery bags down for a moment so I could get the blood circulating in my palms again. Because I was off the main road, where it was relatively quieter, I could hear a woman’s voice coming from one of the apartments.
It wasn’t just the common inclination towards eavesdropping that made me strain to hear what she was saying but the language she was saying it in. It had a lilt that was strictly absent from the English language. I couldn’t make out the words but I recognised the heavily-breathed cuts of her K’s and the deliberate ripples in her R’s.
I looked up into what seemed to be her kitchen on the first floor. I could see her silhouetted against the pale light of the apartment. She was talking to someone, or reprimanding them, and her taut syllables escaped through the open window, combining with and loosening in the cooking steam as they floated down towards me, reaching me in the form of words that had come undone, musical gibberish that smelled of cumin and turmeric. It made my mouth water. I wanted to ball her words up in rice with my fingers and eat them.
I remember trying to hold my breath when I left, trying to keep the smell within me, trying to hold her words inside me. I walked carefully so that I wouldn’t break them. I carried her voice with me to my room. Even when my mind wandered on to other things later that night, I still felt full. It was the first time I’d felt warm since the clocks had changed.
It quickly became routine, something to look forward to on my grocery runs. I’d march through the cold to the store and back, and then slow to a saunter as I approached the apartment building. I’d look up towards the kitchen and inhale the aromatic spices that wafted out from her window, heavy with her voice. I’d inhale the cadences in her phone conversations, the inflections in her arguments with her family, the melodies of songs she sang to herself, and I’d hold my breath for as long as I could and thought of home.
Gradually I began to notice the lives that occurred in the other windows. On one of the evenings, for example, while I was loitering under the kitchen window, I felt water fall on my head. I took a couple of steps back and looked up. A few floors above the kitchen window I had come to know so well, a young woman was watering her plants.
She was still in her coat and she had her phone tucked in between her ear and her shoulder. She was talking fast and with urgency as she poured water into the flowerpots. When she noticed me and realised what had happened, she held a hand out by way of apology. I smiled at her in return. She continued to water her plants clumsily and then retreated into the warm light of her apartment and shut the windows.
On my way back to the dorms that evening I thought about her, about how she couldn’t have been much older than I was, and how strange it was to me that she was watering her plants after dark.
Back home, Mama buys houseplants compulsively, to the point where we had to start keeping some of them in the building’s compound because we didn’t have any space for them in our small Mumbai apartment. Every afternoon, after lunch, she goes down to see how they’re doing. I remember how embarrassed my younger brother and I used to be because we could always hear her voice all the way up in our apartment when she was downstairs. She loves to have long conversations with the security guards, who stand and listen politely to her lengthy theories on horticulture and gardening.
She has all these tricks and techniques to keep the plants healthy. She knows all about the different kind of soils and how to tend to them depending on the family. She places the pots strategically around the house according to how much light and moisture the plant needs. If anyone is playing music, she always asks to play it in the living room, where the majority of the houseplants are. She always says, “Music is good for anything with a soul.”
We always make fun of her for saying that. If she ever scolded my brother or me for playing our music too loudly in the evenings we’d tut jokingly, “But mama, music is good for everything with a soul, no?” And we’d laugh as she smacked us over the head, playfully.
My father, I don’t know what got into him one day, never understood or cared at all about the plants. He has his rigid rituals, his paper in the morning, work in the day, tea and TV in the evening, and then off to bed after post-dinner conversation. The plants are nothing more than furniture or decorations in his eyes, and he treats them as such.
But one evening I suppose he was feeling restless. Mama had gone out for dinner with her friends I think. He was walking aimlessly around the house. I guess he thought he’d do something nice for her before she returned, or maybe he was just bored.
Mama came back just has he started to water the plants. “What are you doing!” She rushed over and snatched the jug he was using away.
It was strange to see my father, at least a head taller than her, looking so shrunken and embarrassed as she scolded him, “You never water plants at night.” Then she was quiet for a moment, just looking at him, her expression softening.
Papa looked sheepish, he mumbled something about superstitions and trying to help. It made mama laugh. She shook her head and stood on her toes and kissed him, “Stupid.”
I thought of that when I made my way back to my dorm room. With every step I took away from the building, I loved the woman watering the plants in her coat a little bit, and then a bit more. I loved her because it broke my heart that she was watering her plants at night, and because I couldn’t tell her that she shouldn’t. I loved her the same way I loved the woman in the kitchen window below her: quietly and from a distance.
Some evenings the windows in that apartment building were quieter, more contemplative. When I’d walk past on those days all I’d hear is the gentle murmuring of the radio in the kitchen, and the pattering of water falling on the pavement. Other days I’d hear more commotion, fights, dogs barking, raised voices, giddy laughter, overlapping music. I liked that the lives in each square shape would shift minutely from one day to the next, making the days of the week predictable yet distinguishable from each other. And I liked the exceptions to the rule, like the old man who stood by the window in a ratty bathrobe every evening and smoked.
He watched the activity on the street impassively, sometimes holding a cup of tea, always with a cigarette in his hand, light wisps of steam and smoke rising around him at all times. We saw each other whenever I was on my way back from my grocery run. I knew that he’d be leaning against his railing and smoking the same way that he knew I’d slow down considerably as I approached the building. Sometimes we’d acknowledge each other with a slight nod of the head, half a smile at the most, and that would be all.
I think there were a few students staying in one of the flats. They often had people over, and their happy chattering would carry down the street, pulsating with the beat of their playlists. Sometimes I’d glimpse a figure dancing or someone popping their head out to smoke. I would smile a little when they sang along, off-key, to the songs playing. Sometimes I’d recognise one and I’d hum along with them softly to myself.
They were different from the students in my university halls. They were easier to be around. With them I didn’t feel anxious. In halls, I’d take a few tentative steps towards the kitchen and if I heard anyone else in there I’d turn and go back to my room, no matter how hungry I was. I never knew what to say, how to act, or who to look at, so I avoided them altogether.
There was one night, I remember, I could hear music coming from the kitchen and many voices. I tried not to think about it but it made my heart sink as I walked back down the corridor to my room and locked the door. They were having a party and no one had called me. It wasn’t their fault, they hardly saw me. I avoided them whenever I could. Still, I felt the walls of my dorm room closing in on me that night and shrinking me to about the size of an inch.
With the students up in the window, I didn’t have to worry about any of that. I basked silently in their gentle party lights and never felt unwanted, or uninvited.
I didn’t mind being quiet when I was looking into those apartments. There were some days when my own silence would feel oppressive, days that I spent on the university campus, or that I didn’t step out of my room at all because it looked too cold and gloomy outside. On those days I’d usually call my brother at night, just to say something, just to listen to someone say something to me. He answered in a tired voice once, “Yeah?”
I asked him how his day was, what he’d been doing, what he learnt in school. But his answers were curt, dead ends. I brought it up with him.
He said, “I’ve been in school all day, and then classes. I’ve been interacting with so many people, I just want to switch off for a while.”
I knew it was a lot later in the night for him in Mumbai than it was for me in London, and that he didn’t mean anything by it, but his words made my heart, already sinking all the time, drop to the pit of my stomach. I didn’t know how to tell him that on most days the only time I talked at all was when I talked to him.
No one tells you that. No one tells you how uniquely depressing it is to go entire days without uttering a word. It’s not something you experience when you live at home. At home, even on days you don’t feel like talking to anyone, you spare a ‘good morning’ or a ‘fine’ somewhere, at some point. No one tells you the value of those immaterial conversations, how easy they are, how important they are in their disguised mundanity. I only realised after I’d left.
But I didn’t mind being quiet, being on the periphery of the conversations and the music emanating from the apartment window at the top of the building. The people living there didn’t owe me anything. I didn’t come to this new city expecting anything from them. Maybe that made all the difference.
I caught a debilitating cold that winter. The kind that makes your head feel heavy and hollow at the same time. My sinuses were blocked and my eyes would not stop watering. I spent half a week curled up in bed, playing movies I’d seen before on my laptop and listening to the dialogue with my eyes closed. On the third or fourth day I decided that it was time to venture out and buy some real food or, at the very least, some hot food to eat. I pulled on all my layers, wore my coat over my snot-covered hoodie, and left my room.
I hadn’t realised how late it was until I stepped into the grocery store. There was only one other person there, a man, stooped over the discounted fruits aisle. I made my way around the shop feeling sluggish. I picked up a shopping basket and threw in a carton of orange juice, some pasta and canned tomatoes. I was very aware of the plaque coating my teeth and tongue. I wiped my nose on my sleeve, too tired to care about how disgusting I was being. The flat white light of the store was severe and it made my throat feel tight and made my eyes burn. I dragged my feet to the till and paid.
Supermarkets are so strange in their disregard for the outside world and the way that time works there. Apart from the dispassionate awareness of its opening hours, supermarkets function suspended in a single moment. To go in at any time of day, any month of the year, feels and looks exactly the same. The people that come in seem to go into a trance as they enter. Their eyes glaze over and they move from aisle to aisle with thoughtless, automatic gestures. No one smiles at you, no one sees you.
When I stepped outside the cold tore at me. I tucked my chin into my chest and made my way back, feeling weary and sick. I approached the apartment building and I slowed down out of habit, looking up almost involuntarily. That day I didn’t care about the man smoking in his bathrobe, the woman shouting at her child in the kitchen, the kids playing their loud music. I just wanted go back to my warm room and lie down again.
I had never seen the kitchen after dinner had been cooked. It was dark and the window was shut. The plants had already been watered above and that window was shut too. The man in his bathrobe had gone inside. The students had lowered the volume of their music to avoid getting into trouble. Most of the windows were nearly unrecognisable to me. I’d never seen them at this hour.
I stared, in spite of myself, with my mouth open. I took a few steps back, then looked again. So many of the apartments were dark, so many of them seemed unmoving. I was so used to seeing them flicking with a life of their own.
Only one window, at the very edge of the building, was still illuminated in soft amber light. I craned my neck to look inside. The window was shut but I could see through the glass. An elderly man and woman were standing close together and dancing to music I couldn’t hear. Their bodies near one another and their movements so gentle that I could have been looking at a photograph. I loved them too. They were both in their nightclothes, she was resting her head on his shoulder as he held her close to him.
I couldn’t tell whether they were sad or happy. I don’ think it mattered. In their apartment window they were pristine, untouched, turning slowly, with their eyes closed. They gave no indication of how long they’d been there, or for how long they would continue to dance, taking their time as they shifted their weight from one foot to the other and slowly made their way across their living room. I don’t know how long I watched them as I stood outside in the cold, thinking of nothing.
Rabia Kapoor is a writer from Mumbai. She is currently putting in her ten thousand hours to master the craft.