On Top of The World

I have many, varying memories of the chhat at my house, the rooftop. Back when “my” house was still “nani ka ghar”, the chhat used to be our hideaway, the place where my cousins and I would escape to, when we wanted to have a bit of an adventure or just felt rebellious. Because, of course, us being the little kids and the chhat’s low walls, the place was strictly off-limits to us, which made it all the more fascinating.

So, it was usually during the lazy afternoons that we’d sneak off, skirting past the living room where nana was taking his usual afternoon nap, and running up the four flights of stairs to get there. Now, the passage right before the chhat was always scary to us, not only because it was dark and dusty (which somehow encouraged thoughts of ghosts and ghouls lurking about), but because there was, at all times, at least one great big lizard, often conveniently placed just above the switch which lit up the single, solitary bulb hanging from the low ceiling. We would challenge each other to be the first one to step onto that small dingy passage, hoping that one of us would take the dare to relieve the others of the five second heart-stopping period of switching on the bulb (without having any lizards jump at us, or ghosts shriek at us). Hasan, being the oldest and therefore wisest and bravest of us four, would gallantly step forward and do the dreaded task. Then, as the bulb would light us the passageway, we would breathe a sigh of relief and then proceed to unlock the door and step onto the chhat, blinking into the bright afternoon sun.

The chhat itself was nothing extraordinary. We prided ourselves with the fact that it was somewhat higher than those of the other surrounding houses, but the view was nothing spectacular: small square houses around us, some hidden by huge trees and the Aga Khan Hospital’s red brick building in the distance. We played a game where we tried to make out the few familiar buildings we could. “Oh, look, that is Asif Mamu’s office, you know!” or “Hey, I can see Quaid-e-Azam’s mazaar!”

The one thing that we loved about the chhat was this raised platform at one corner. Instead of stairs leading up to it, there was a slide-type thing so you had to defy gravity and walk up the slide (all the while running the risk of sliding backwards). It was a short slide, although back then, we thought it a great distance to cover. We would climb over with difficulty and then sit on the platform, considering ourselves to be on top of the world. There was a certain danger to being there, because, firstly, there were no walls, and if you crossed the platform to look down the far edge of it, you could see the terrace one storey below. So, obviously, the whole “we could fall down there and DIE!” factor made it all the more fun and exciting.

I remember this one time when apparently, we had a fight with the adults and with the idea of teaching them a lesson, we planned to hideout on the chhat till all of them became hysterical with worry. We planned it quite well. We made sandwiches and took packets of biscuits and chilled water up with us (we didn’t want to starve while we waited, you see. Who knew how long this thing could go!). We came up and settled on the charpai, an old dusty thing which was about to fall apart from lack of use. It being, again, an afternoon, the sun was at its peak and we were soaked with sweat within minutes. It wasn’t long before the whole teaching the adults a lesson lost its charm, because of course, there wasn’t much we could do but sit and wait. So, after what we considered a dreadfully long time, we went back down, sure that the adults would be searching the streets, calling our names and begging us to forgive them for their horrendous mistake (what they actually did, I can’t remember, but it seemed like the biggest offence at the time!). So imagine our disappointment when we went down and saw all the adults calmly going about their work, not even blinking when they saw us, sweaty and smelly and tried as we were.

Whenever it used to rain (actually rain – not just drizzle a bit – which admittedly, did not happen very often), the rain water would collect all over the chhat and one of our mamus would have to go up with a wiper in hand to guide the water to the drain pipes. I remember this one time when it was raining very hard (at least, as hard as it can rain in Karachi), and the chhat was filled with water to almost our knees. We went up with Asif Mamu, me and my little cousin Aribah, begging him to let us splash around in the water while he attempted to drain all the water away. It was an amazing time, as rain splattered down all around us and we played in our very own swimming pool.

Then, when we first moved into nani’s house, right after the break-up when I was more often than not, looking for ways to escape, I usually came up to the chhat. Coming alone, the chhat now seemed different. It was not the happy hideaway of me and my cousins, the place where it was us against the world. It now turned into a haven of sorts to me, the place I would instantly come up to when downstairs, people were talking in hushed voices behind closed doors and when my dad’s father, Papa, came to talk to nana, and then went on to take Ammi away in a car. I watched this part, hidden behind the trees whose branches reached upto the edge of the chhat, watched as the car drove away.

After this, the chhat sort of became my place, at least in my eyes. I didn’t much want to tell people about my coming here so often, mostly because I was, after all, still a child, and the chhat may still be considered unsafe for me. I used to sit on the platform and look around me, taking everything in. I considered scratching my name there, with a twig or a stick, to immortalize my time there, like the kids seemed to do in movies, but I somehow never got around to it.

There’s a strange calmness to being there, because you are alone, and yet you can feel the world go on around you, the lady next door hanging up her washing, the constant doorbells of our own house, or the Wall’s ice-cream “wala” making his way down the street, the familiar tune trailing behind. It’s like somehow, your own life hits a pause-button and you get a chance to observe the life around you, feeling a sort of comfort in the way you are detached and unconnected to everything, even if it is only for a little while.

As the years passed, I had my share of bad days, where it seemed like the whole world was conspiring against you (I have chalked it up to teenage angst!). On these days, I would come up there, with loud music blasting through my headphones as I attempted to block everything out. It’s a therapy of sorts, I have learnt, to lie on my back on the raised platform (no longer the top of the world, but still a high enough place), and look up at the wide, endless sky up above. Looking at it, taking in the vastness, the sheer endless-ness of it made you realize the insignificance of your own day-to-day problems. And for a while, as birds fly over your head, spreading their wings and heading off into the horizon, it seems like everything will actually be alright. (Of course, the trick is to keep that perspective for a bit longer than the time it takes to sit up and look away from the sky. Immediately afterwards, the day-to-day problems come right back at you, and you are blinded once again by your own apparent importance in the world.)

Most recently, I have gone up to the chhat with Amna and a glass of milk in tow. Because Amna, like us all, feels a certain charm emanating from the chhat and there are enough views to be seen from there which satisfactorily distract her and I am able to, successfully, get her to finish the entire glass of milk, in between “oohing” and “aahing” at the pigeons, or at the Union Club park behind our house.

So, this good ol’ chhat of mine has seen me through the best and worst times of my life. It’s always been there, the raised platform, the view of what seemed once, the entire world, the charpai and of course, the lizard which still sits on top of the switch-box, biding its time, waiting for the right opportunity to jump at whoever dares to touch the switch!


  1. maheen says:

    nud,u made me cry!!!!!
    its sooo hearfelt tht i dont have words.ever think about publishing it?

  2. zeenat says:

    Dear Nudrat,

    It’s a good piece. You can definitely be a writer! So, keep on writing.
    Some tips: think of another word than chhat (terrace, roof-top, etc.)
    be specific: when you describe the slide thing, write that it leads to the overhead water tank of the house, etc.

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