The Roof Beneath their Feet by Geetanjali Shree is a captivating novel that intertwines the past and present, uncovering profound truths along the way. Shree beckons us to dive into themes of love, loss and friendship, the weight of unspoken emotions, and explore the layers beneath the book’s intriguing title.
Read this enthralling excerpt from The Roof Beneath their Feet to get a glimpse of the roofs Chachcho and Lalna walk upon.
When the roof is beneath your feet, there’s the whole sky above. We have started walking—me and my memory of Chachcho.
The flesh of Chachcho’s arms hasn’t started turning into water yet, so we will have to walk stealthily, away from staring eyes, making our way through the darkness. Chachcho bumps into her own arm and frightens herself. Wherever the level of the roof changes, we have to go up or down a couple of steps. Or climb up a water tank and jump. Or leap from a ledge. Then Chachcho will have to gather her sari above her ankles.
Which she does. She looks around. In a faraway corner, servants have laid out their masters’ beds. The bright shadows of darkness. When Chachcho’s sari flutters in the breeze, she gathers it around her knees and easily climbs up the parapet. Then, as if walking a tightrope, she walks across and jumps down to the other side.
She, and I with her. We keep walking, far away. Over countless houses, leaping over their suffocating walls. At the end of the mohalla, I stop—one more step, and down! At that moment, I feel her behind me. How long must she have been following Chachcho and me to have come this far? I don’t want to, but I have to turn back, and my memory of Chachcho is left behind, as if it has jumped over.
On the roof, the evening lights have started coming on, as if it is their secret desire to stay up all night and gossip with the darkness. Lalna’s hair is red. Chachcho used to henna it for her with a brush. Lalna started greying earlier. But it was Chachcho who died first. I did not want some stranger to prepare Chachcho for the pyre. You can’t do it, son—the pundits, the elders, they all were adamant. It wasn’t the time for arguments, so I stayed silent. How could I make them understand that, just because she couldn’t say anything anymore, it didn’t mean that some stranger could see her body?
As she grew older, Chachcho covered up more and more of her body. A blouse cut like a kurti to cover her midriff. Long, loose sleeves, coming down to her fingers. The pallu covering her head, down to her forehead. Her face wrapped tight in her aanchal. Her feet covered in shoes or lost under her sari. Uncle’s death has broken her, the people sunning themselves on the roof said. That’s how devoted our women are.
No one thought that she might be covering up her ageing beauty, erasing her shrivelling body from her own sight. I’ll change the large mirror in your bathroom, it has become clouded and stained with water, I had said. Let it be, she had replied, its flaws hide mine. In my dumb heart, I see her reflection in the mirror, floating like a dream in the steam-filled bathroom.
Whenever I feel like crying, it’s as if something big and restless in my chest starts panting. Not one tear comes out. Chachcho . . . Chachcho . . . What can I do, besides saying your name? Chachcho, Chachcho . . . Memories rustling like dry leaves. Memories like a magic lantern, moving from here to there in a flash, turning upside down, inside out, playing tricks.
This isn’t right, I think. This memory, at least, must come soft and slow. This high-speed flashing and spinning doesn’t suit it. This memory is my grief. Grief is slow, is deep, is seeping in, drop by drop. I say to myself, I’m really sad, very sad, very, very sad. I’m stuck in my sadness, and it drags me along, to memories—old, useless, endless. I peep in from the skylight to where Chachcho’s room used to be, but I can’t make out much, except something just out of sight, some dream carefully folded and kept away.
It’s because of my sadness that I have started dreaming in broad daylight. A dream not of the future, but of the past. Again, that tired old man, and memories of the past, bloodying him. Even the happy moments from this world of memories give the old man more grief. Dreams that go backwards, not forward, can do nothing else. Like that heavenly beauty from childhood tales who you realized was actually a witch when you noticed that her feet were turned backwards. I return stealthily. To be alone. To remember Chachcho alone. How meaningless these things are. To remember someone dear, their death, a son crying for his mother—what is there to tell? I love Chachcho—what do these words mean? I turned away immediately after lighting her pyre, I had no wish to see the fire blaze.
Is that how easy separation is?
Lay her down, touch her with a flame, turn away.
I came back home feeling utterly light and empty.
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