It was seven in the morning when he went up to the terrace with the tea cup in his hand and a fear in his heart that he was late today. On his way up, he cursed the alarm clock for not being loud enough, his friends for not wrapping up dinner last night fast enough, and even the lady who dropped by to clean and cook his breakfast for taking an off. Though he never relied on her to wake him on time to get on the terrace and sit down on this side of the wall that separated the house in which he had taken up a room on rent, from the house on the other side. The house on the other side was visible to him when he would enter or leave from the gate that led to this house. But once in, the house on the other side was hemmed in by houses on the other two sides as well by other, tall, badly constructed houses that had been expanded vertically over the years to draw in tenants. Like the one he lived in.
But he could hear the voice from the other side of the tall wall on the terrace. The voice he rushed up to meet. The voice that every morning around 6:30 would occupy an unseen space on the other side of the terrace and sing in a tongue that was alien to him. It was a man’s voice, and though he couldn’t understand a word of what it said as it sang, he had fallen in love with the music, the tenor, the softness, and the occasional haunting, sad quality it sang in. He had never seen the face that the voice belonged to, and whenever he met the many boys who occupied the four-storey house from the terrace of which one of them sang, he would look them in the eyes and try and imagine the ones that would match the music and the voice. With all their softness and sadness and exuberance. For the mornings could offer anything. And without any knowledge of the words the music was holding together, all he had was the voice to lead him. Because the one thing he had in common with it was his own land and language that he too had left behind to come to the city to find work, or as had been told to him, his future.
He was up on the terrace now. The autumn sun was struggling to break past the distant trees and he looked up to see that the last of the star still hadn’t given in. He went and took his spot in this side of the wall. His back to the wall, his head resting on the hard surface behind him, his tea in front of him, and the day spread out like a canvas the colour of which would be decided by what the voice would pour on it. Every day, over the last three months, he would start his day with a tea and the voice and the mood of the music would become his day.
The summers had just started and he had started coming on the terrace a little early. So had the voice, and it had only been a few days since he had made his acquaintance with it. He had only recently started recognising some of the songs. And that morning he had walked up early also because he hadn’t found sleep that night. The last evening when he was walking the last stretch to his room from where the bus dropped him, he had seen a tree that was so different from the ones that he had grown up under that for a moment he had stood there wondering if he had somehow been transported to a new place without his knowledge. And then the cacophony of a million cars and buses and autos and the lack of any moisture in the air and the smell of the distant factory smoke all brought him back to where he had been for a few months now. From there, he walked slowly to the house, opened the gate, walked up the third floor to the left of which was his room and unlocked his way in. Inside, he shut his eyes and refused to let anything but the memories of the place he had left surround him. He had given up his sleep for it but he had rekindled a lot of the things that he had forgotten he still had inside him. Like the lake a few kilometers away, the school that had been their playground when he studied there, and even after he had left it, the small shop by the bus stop that was often visited by many for tea and fritters and only occasionally to catch a bus. He stopped his breath for as long as he could and took in the smell that the leaves let out when the night’s rain softened them up. He surrounded himself by the birdsongs he hadn’t heard in a while, and had stopped registering even when he was there. But now he heard and saw and smelled and heard it all. And when he left the bed, he knew he would have to go back to the city. He had made his tea while struggling to hold on the thin edges of the memories, feeling the vastness of the city filling up like a balloon between the two. He had held on to his breath but failed to stop the smells from the city from entering his lungs. Or the sound of the early trucks running on the road across the colony from staying below the chirp of the birds singing all those miles away. And when he ran up to the terrace with the cup, he had wanted to keep his eyes closed, so he could hear the voice before he had to confront the city. And when the had sat on his spot, he had heard the shuffle that usually preceded the song. He would imagine the person settling, and then taking a breath, and then — perhaps — raising his chin to release the voice. That day, the voice had found its rhythm after a few false starts. The voice may have thought of the starts as false, but for him it was also part of the music. It was not very different from how he felt in the city. Often finding himself in a wrong place, and then with a friend, a bite, a phone call, finding himself thinking of it as home. The song also started in a similar way. And when it found its place in the morning, he too found the courage to look up and see the grey sky and hear the sounds and in these, find his own place. When the song had ended, he had walked away with the empty mug. And into his day feeling like he had been at home, even in the night when he had kept himself awake and away. On his way to the bus stop too, he had looked at the tree and had sought forgiveness for not thinking of it as just another tree, taking root in a place it had been planted in. And doing what another tree in another place was doing. In this air, among these sounds. And he had walked to his work with a smile that had stayed with him all day. Despite not sleeping the night before.
Today he had woken up late. And he had dreamt a dream where he was leaving home to never return again. He saw the people standing around as he had his belongings all tied in one single bundle that hid most of the people who were standing to say their goodbyes. He needed to hear the voice tell him that he would go back. Now, as he sat on his spot waiting for the voice and wondering if it had already sung and gone, he looked up at the sky and saw a flock of birds moving past. Migrating from one home to another. And he wondered if they too would make it back. Or was it their home that they were returning to? Who could tell which way was home? His eyes followed them till the last one had disappeared over the roof the last house on the lane, and as he was about to get up to leave for his room and get dressed for work, the voice hit a note. As clear as the sky, as smooth as the birds that had just flown by, and when it sang, it was the song that he had heard in his dream. Or was it when he was home, a child or a young boy on his way to school? Or maybe he had heard it on his way to this place, sung by someone else, or this very person, on a bus or the train, as they both made their ways to the opposite sides of the wall from different places? But it didn’t matter now. He knew it now as he sank down on his spot, his body loose and without any tension. His eyes closed, and the world one home, for him, the birds, the voice, the many people who stayed and moved away all around him. He was here, where he had always been. It wasn’t him and the voice on the opposite sides of a wall. But all under the same sky. Where they had always been.