Morning Sickness

Reading the newspapers first thing in the morning is a habit, and perhaps one that I ought to break.  The filth that one can ingest is mind boggling.  This is a smorgasbord, with a menu that is vast and varying. 

Coffee with corruption? 

Pot of tea with pollution – PM 2.5 levels at 500?

Toast with torture, or would you prefer terrorism instead? 

Violence against Dalits with dalia? 

Poori with politics?  As greasy as they come, if you don’t mind.

Trolls or threats with your thepla?

Rava Upma with a bit of rape on the side? 

Ragi malt with Ram Mandir riots?  

Lychees – in season now, and luscious – with lynching? 

Parathas?  Lots of choices available – Sabari-malabar, NPAneer,…

You prefer South Indian? Inflation idli with scam flavoured sambar?  Or dosas crisp as burnt flesh? 

 

Yes, truly time to stop that subscription.

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The Walking Dead

An appropriate title for those who dare to walk on our streets today, don’t you think?  The trailer that I watched a few days ago featured zombies with skin falling off, ghastly injuries and a haunted look on their faces.   I dare say that is a fair approximation of how folks look when they have fallen and injured themselves.  I have seen quite a few of them walking about in the area where I stay.

I am now coming around to the idea that we need to start putting out signs, like they do for cigarettes – Beware!  Walking is hazardous for your health.  And then show horrible pictures of what can happen if one decides to ignore that dire warning.  In fact, I might not be too far off the mark.  Pollution levels are so high nowadays that it’s downright dangerous to go outdoors.  We are told that those who stay in Delhi are inhaling the equivalent of 12 cigarettes a day if they are exposed to the outside air.  Why risk it, even if the AQI here is ten times better than Delhi?

My opinion is that it’s always best to stay home, preferably snug under the covers.  We Bangalore folks are like that.  We hate being out.  The weather is too irritatingly good.  There is no challenge in it, unlike the rest of India where you might get a sun stroke, or the cold weather could even finish you off for good.  Here, one goes out in the morning and it’s lovely, in the noon it’s a bit sunny, but it’s lovely again in the evening.  No fun at all.

In a way, with the weather being what it is, and the dangers of breathing in polluted air, it’s a good thing that walking has become so dangerous.  Why venture out at all? With WFH and Amazon and Swiggy, who needs to step out anyway?

I tell you, it’s wonderful staying at home as much as possible.  It’s restful, it’s peaceful.  Lack of exercise has anyhow made me a bit larger framed than I used to be, so it’s good if I don’t move out much.  If I need to go somewhere, I take the car.  It’s very restful driving in Bangalore because the traffic hardly moves, so you spend lots of time just sitting in the car.

Once upon a time, I used to walk everywhere.  Not anymore.  I tell you, it’s best this way.  The BBMP is strapped for cash, so it can’t really repair the footpaths.  That removes in one fell swoop roughly half the footpaths the city has.  The other half is being used very purposefully by conscientious citizens who do not believe in letting good real estate go waste for foolish uses like walking.

Walking?  Bah!  As though we were Neanderthals.

 

 

PAUSE

Every morning around 4 am, I have the most interesting ideas crowding my head.  They could be solutions to problems that I have been trying to tackle by day, or a design that I could possibly work on, or perhaps a random idea for an article I could write, and so on.  When I get up, these ideas would have completely disappeared, their will o’ wisp existence so ephemeral that I am left wondering if I had just dreamt them up.  But my nocturnal visitors are so persistent in their appearance that I have no choice but to accept that they do exist.  If only I could get up at that time and start working, perhaps I could make use of them, rather than racking my brain hours later, furtively searching for those – or what seemed like – wonderful ideas.

One morning as the ideas started streaming in, I reached across sleepily to my phone and hunted for the voice recorder.  Then I recorded some of the stuff that was popping into my head.  For the next half hour, every few minutes or so, I recorded every single idea that flitted across my mind, until the husband grumpily complained about the murmurings and flashes of screen light that were disturbing him.  Later, as I transcribed my recordings onto a sheet of paper, I was astonished at how productive my brain had been at that early hour.  Was it the pause that brought on the productivity?

In the last two days, I have been abed, brought down by a sudden and nasty attack of sinusitis.  I have been resting and unable to do much.  Strangely enough, this enforced break has finally seen me put a metaphoric pen to paper.  Of course, I have been writing reports, business letters and proposals, but I cannot remember the last I wrote anything in a such a freewheeling, random, non-directional manner, without any idea where the words might lead me.

It’s the pause, the break in my normal routine, the enforced rest to almost all my faculties, that enabled this.  Pauses are pregnant with possibilities.  Pauses in life help us distance ourselves from our quotidian schedules, take stock and recharge ourselves.  Pauses in writing, in music, in art, are necessary devices.  They help provide the most powerful experiences.  Pauses pack in the punch.

Who knows, perhaps tomorrow morning I might waken at the witching hour and unleash some magic.

A Place in the Sky – A Tribute to Charles Correa

(Originally published in Architecture+Design, October 2016)

It is a year since we lost Charles Correa.  The news of his passing away stunned architects in India, and in other parts of the world.  He always seemed so alive, radiating energy and enthusiasm, that to imagine a world without him seemed almost sacrilegious.  Correa was amongst the greats – a gifted architect, a far sighted urban planner, an insightful thinker and an exceptional communicator.  He was all of those things, and some.  In an extraordinary career spanning from the post- Independence era to the 21st century, he had more accomplishments to his credit than any other Indian architect. His was an architecture that was quintessentially Indian, but to restrict his achievements to the country of his birth would be a travesty, because his many accomplishments were hardly restricted by location.

An early genius

To get a glimpse of Correa’s brilliance, we need to look at just one detail – the fact that he could talk (and did talk!) right until the end of his life about the first major project he had designed as a young architect in his independent practice, the Gandhi Sangrahalaya.  In its elegant, spare lines, the Gandhi Sangrahalaya was akin to the khadi cloth that Gandhiji wore and popularized – simple, eminently suited to the weather, and when one looked closer, beneath the starkness of the cloth, one saw the complex texturing and grain of the warp and weft.  Similarly, the museum looked simple and unpretentious at first sight, but if you looked beneath, you saw the sophistication of thinking that went into its crafting.  Simplicity of this sort can only be achieved with great effort, but Correa had the gift of making it all seem quite effortless.1

It is a rare architect who has the maturity to produce such a sublime piece of architecture so early in their career.  Most architects would cringe at having to display their first work.  More remarkable perhaps was his ability to stay true to these principles right from the beginning to the end of his working life.  Architects often buckle to the demands of a fickle patron or tight budgets, but for the five decades and more that Correa practiced, he seldom swerved from that commitment.

The museum exemplified many of the ideas that he held dear all through his career.  Time and again, he came back to the idea of open to sky spaces.  As he put it,’ The sky is the source of light, which is the most primordial of stimuli acting on our senses.  And across its face, every day, passes the sun – the origin of Life itself!  Small wonder then that man has always perceived the sky above to be the abode of the gods, and that down all these many millennia, it has exerted such extraordinary power on us and on the architecture we build.’  Perhaps the greatest tragedy of contemporary architecture in India is the failure of architects to respect and respond to this wonderful gift of nature.  India’s tropical climate gives us the great advantage of having a perfectly happy existence under the sky so long as some shade is available.  This can help us build more economically, more in connection with nature, and most importantly, Correa saw how this could be used to create good habitation for the poorest in our society.

In his recognition of this, and in his consistent propagation of similar ideas, Correa was a first a humanist and then an architect.  Whether it was the Belapur housing or the practical ideas of how pavements could be 2used in multiple ways, underlying all these ideas was a concern for improving built environments for everybody, no matter how indigent they were.  If financial constraints limited the scope of how much could be physically constructed, the skillful manipulation of built and open spaces in his designs ensured that these buildings were never dismal or demeaning.  The vindication of these ideas can be seen in present day Belapur where open to sky spaces have endured despite extensive renovations by the occupants.  In fact, Correa strongly endorsed the idea of working in the flexibility that would allow for incremental growth and changes over time, but the underlying grammar was strong enough to accommodate the changes without itself being altered.  How different from other architects who cannot tolerate the slightest of alterations in their buildings!

Agents of change

Perhaps this idealism came from his experience as a young architect in a newly independent country, perhaps it came from his respect for Gandhiji’s ideas, perhaps from his admiration of Corbusier, someone who approached architecture with an almost messianic zeal.  Regardless of where it came from, it informed his attitude to architecture and more importantly, to planning.  As the Chief Architect to CIDCO in the early sixties, he was responsible (along with Pravina Mehta and Shirish Patel) for the recommendation to decongest Bombay with the creation of a new city across the bay.  There is such a remarkable pragmatism, compassion and intelligence in those recommendations that one can only rue the shortsightedness of an unenlightened government.  They lost an invaluable opportunity to make something wonderful out of that city.

In this perhaps, Correa was cast in the same mould as the Modernists who saw themselves as being something more than just architects, more as agents of change.  Wherever he could, he exerted his intelligence to ferret out better solutions for problems, whether it was the pursuit of practical climate control in all his projects, or his interest in pressing 3urban issues (especially how to deliver the greatest good to the greatest number of people) or the quest for sensible housing that would be responsive to the needs of the users.  This meant that his buildings were possibly not au courant, or ‘stylish’; they were often completely contrary to conventional wisdom, and yet, what wonderful architecture resulted from these exertions!  When every mall design centred around the same narrative – an air conditioned box with artificial lighting recreating an ersatz urban atmosphere – Correa incorporated open streets and squares at the Salt Lake City mall in Kolkata.  When planning for research laboratories meant creating windowless spaces crammed with scientific equipment, Correa created a green campus at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore, where ‘our modern day rishis could step into the forest for wisdom and enlightenment’.

Not a movable feast

This was typical of Correa – his work in India was completely rooted in its’ philosophy and culture.  He often said that architecture is not a ‘movable feast’ that can be recreated in the same manner anywhere across the world.  His buildings always looked like they belonged to the place where they were built, because he built with the climate and the context in mind.  Vibrant colours, large overhangs, soaring atria, courts, terraces and pathways were the hallmark of his architecture because most of his work was in a tropical or Mediterranean country, and these features grew out of the imperatives of that climate and culture.  When he built in temperate climates, the details changed, but the basis for design ideation always grew organically from first principles.  5

Correa did not believe in ‘tranfer’, he believed in ‘transformation’.  Therefore, while the glass roofed atrium at the MIT Brain and Cognitive Sciences Complex at Boston was a closed structure, and the courts at the JNIDB at Hyderabad were open to sky, the purpose behind them remained the same – of bringing people together so they could bounce ideas off each other.  The provenance was the same but the manifestations were completely different.  (Imagine transposing one set of ideas to an entirely different context – and ergo! – you get the sort of architecture that is prevalent across the world today.)

Architects tend to peg themselves at a level of problem solving or of providing aesthetic solutions that work only at the surface, and the designs consequently reflect the pedestrian nature of their cerebration.  Correa’s work, on the other hand, was never pedestrian, never just an assemblage of solutions to a set of problems.  Since his approach was never at a mundane level, his solutions were equally extraordinary.  His architecture was also a search for a higher mystical truth and he was deeply influenced by the way the Ancients established a connection between Man and the Universe.  He came back to this quest repeatedly in his designs.  4

Sometimes it was seen as directly as in the plan of the Jawahar Kala Kendra at Jaipur which was based on the Vaastupurusha mandala; sometimes it was through light that drew your eye upward and beyond, as in the truncated light cones of the Salvacao Church in Mumbai; and sometimes it was as elementary as establishing the connection between earth and sky through the clever placement of a court, as in his own home at Bangalore.

A different approach

There was an effortless elegance to his work.  He worked with simple materials and details but it was the coming together of space, light and nature in a wondrous amalgam that made it beautiful.  When he built for the elite, his palette of materials remained quite the same as when he was designing housing for the middle class.  Whether it was the Dona Sylvia at Goa, or the Kovalam Beach Resort at Thiruvananthapuram (both five star hotels),  the sense of luxury came from the scale of the spaces, from the way the built forms sat within the landscape, from the way they connected to the elements, and not from the employment of expensive materials.  He never concealed his contempt for the superfluous aesthetic that was imposed as an afterthought in many architectural works.  For him, the ‘interior’ was not a separate entity from the ‘exterior’ – they were different facets of the same entity.

6

As an extension to that attitude, art and craft were as much a part of his buildings as the other elements, never an ‘add on’.  Whether it was the marble mural by Henry Hodgson on the façade of the British Council building in New Delhi, or Mario Miranda’s gently humorous sketches on the walls of Panjim’s Kala Kendra, or the surreal, trompe de l’oeil paintings at the Cidade de Goa (also at Panjim), art was blended into his architecture to heighten it, to bring layers of meaning to it and elevate it to a different plane.  At the Cidade, the painted walls are so cleverly juxtaposed with the spaces that at times one wonders where reality ends and fantasy takes over.  As he put it, ‘(These are) a highly fragmented, kaleidoscopic series of visual sensations and architectural spaces.  What is real?  The object?  Or the image? Or the image of the image of the image?’

The Cidade de Goa also showed another trait in Correa’s work that sprang out at you at unexpected moments – his wonderful sense of humour!  Whether it was the fleeting glimpse of a cassock behind the colonnade at Cidade (where was the priest going to in such a hurry?!) 7or the custom designed chairs for the Bay Island Resort at Port Blair (or the ‘Nico’Bar at the same resort!) or the sculpture of Einstein pondering the mysteries of the universe at IUCCA at Pune, you could sense that Correa was having a great deal of fun designing all of these.  This also brought a sense of joy to his buildings, a magic of discovery as you moved through them, never knowing what would come next.

Part of that magic came from his understanding of the human affinity for movement along a path, where subtle variations of level, axis, light and atmosphere can create as much of an impact as the architecture of the building itself.  He said, ‘A path is the essence of our experience (as) it represents a sacred journey, a ‘pradakshina’, a pilgrimage.’  Whether it was the meandering pathway through the courts at the National Crafts Museum at Delhi, or the formal axis that ran right through the building all the way to the rear garden wall at the British Council, or the gently sloping path at the Champaulimaud Centre at Lisbon that seemed to lead to some mystical destination, the path becomes as important as the structure itself.  And in Correa’s case, he took it a step further by punctuating the path with platforms, and ‘non-buildings’ such as the sunken courts at the Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal or the Gandhi Darshan in Delhi.8

Beyond architecture

If his achievements as a designer were not enough, he was also a gifted orator, writer and filmmaker, and through these media, he was as effective a communicator as he was through his architectural work.  He was direct and fearless in his speech, and never one to shirk from calling a spade a spade.  In India, this is hardly an asset, or a trait that could work well with prospective clients (least of all the Government!), but there was such practicality and sense in what he said, and such sincerity of intention, that one could never take it amiss.  While his commentaries were always backed by his dry wit, his writings were equally infused with that incisive intelligence and humour.  He wrote as he spoke – every word communicated itself to you with the same fervor and passion – but there was more to it.  He picked from a vast canvas that spanned from music to films to art to philosophy.  He could jump with felicity from Hindu philosophy to Hindemith, from De Sica to de Chardin.  This catholicity meant that his worldview was not restricted to architecture alone, and when he spoke, you knew that it was with the wisdom distilled through several filters.

A vast legacy

Great architecture has the uncanny ability to move both the highest and the lowest denominator of users because it works with the instincts that are hardwired into us as human beings – our intuitive response to light, nature, and materials; the way we move through spaces; and our instinctive search for something more elevated than us, for a greater truth, even in the way we occupy a space.  Correa’s work had that quality.

He strode like a colossus on the architectural firmament and he leaves us a vast legacy.  Few others could match that ability to work across scales, across locations, across degrees of difficulty.  Correa was someone far ahead of his time, and sometimes that acted against him.  Some of his most seminal ideas were rejected (always to the detriment of that project), and nowhere are the consequences more evident than in the tragic unravelling of his beloved Bombay.  Perhaps the only vindication of his untiring efforts to make architecture work as an ‘agent of change’ would be to implement his ideas in the coming decades when India is slated to urbanize at a furious pace.

Post Script

In a public function at Bangalore that he attended just a few months before he died, his voice was hoarse and he needed a walking stick for support, but his beautiful spirit was undimmed.  He was as gung-ho as ever, taking potshots at ineffectual architects, corrupt politicians, the bovine bureaucracy!  He showed us a film on the ethereal Champaulimaud Centre for the Unknown, and a shot that stuck in my mind was of the pathway that led between the buildings to the sea beyond, to the place where Vasco da Gama set sail into uncharted waters many centuries ago.

I could imagine Charles Correa walking up that path, and disappearing into the great unknown – as he did soon after.

9

Kitchen Quandry

I am redoing my kitchen.  Or rather, I am thinking about it actively, and that is a step up from,

Not thinking about it at all, or

Thinking about it, and rejecting the very thought, or

Thinking about it, and controlling flight and flee reflexes successfully.

So there is evolution.

The last few days I have been trying to draw out some basic sketches of the kitchen.  It’s interesting to see how little I actually observe my kitchen.  I have taken so many things for granted that I am unable to remember the small details that I need to record before I can start planning.  For the life of me, I can’t recall if the loft cupboards jut out or if they are flush with the ones below.  I don’t remember if the column stuck out on this side of the kitchen or the other.  I get a shock when I see there is a wall between two sets of drawers (that in my recollection) were lined up together.  So I come home from work and take a couple of photographs on my phone.

I randomly look at them later and I am struck by how cheerful my kitchen looks in the photographs.  The warm woody cabinets stare back at me unsuspectingly.  They have no clue what I have in store for them.  For years I have resisted renovation, preferring instead to turn a blind eye to sagging cabinets and rotting woodwork.  Do I really want to change all this?  Should I succumb to the chimerical images that pop out at me seductively from the glossies on my desk?

Nearly twenty years ago, when we moved to this apartment, we were a young, penniless couple whose priority was to save money.  The cupboards in my kitchen are made of pinewood which I meticulously salvaged from machine crating from my husband’s workshop.  The carpenter and I lugged the crates to the lumber yard and got them opened, planed and cut to size.  I got an earful from the owner about how the nails in the crating wood had ruined his blades, before I gleefully escaped with my loot.  I had a pile of lovely wooden planks practically free!  Under the skillful ministrations of my carpenter, the wood came alive and morphed itself into shutters and shelves.

Hafele had just introduced their wire baskets into the Indian market and I remember making a trek to Parmanand Hardware on Commercial Street – the only guy to stock them in all of Bangalore.  Except two that seemed to have jumped off the rails, the rest are still doing well (pay attention, Hafele – you’re getting free publicity…maybe you can replace just those two as a return favour?).

Back then, I got a lot of admiring looks for my kitchen, but now that has given way to disdain.  You are an architect, can’t you redesign the kitchen and make it more modern?  More stylish?  More funky?  More like Smita Aunty’s, with a bar counter and high stools?  More like the ones you design for your clients…??  Most of these scornful statements have come from the family, and some from others who are genuinely perplexed by my reluctance to change my crummy kitchen.

I am like the doctor who will not treat her sick family – what I do for a living I prefer to leave at the office.  But, of course, things don’t work that way.  I have also reached the point where I know that change is imminent,  but I cannot bear the thought of junking my kitchen.  I cannot bear the thought of replacing my well-worn wooden cabinets and their hundreds of difficult-to-clean grooves, with gleaming, new cabinets that would be a dream to clean.

Irrational, right?  But are we all not irrational beings with strange quirks and eccentricities?  A completely rational world would be a horror to live in.  Design and creativity thrive on irrationality!

In my imagination, my kitchen cabinets are smiling benignly at me as I say this and giving me an FB-ish Like.  I smile back a little weakly because now I have the unenviable task of reconciling the old with the new.  I groan inwardly to think of all the painful detailing that is coming my way.  I cannot even imagine how I am going to design the dratted thing.  I shudder at the thought of getting a carpenter for this work.  Horrors await.

Hmm, then again, wasn’t it ring out the old and ring in the new?

The Prodigal Ekalavya

Some people worship Rajnikanth…..I worship Charles Correa.  I have been his devotee for more than two decades, starting from the time I was at architectural school in the eighties.  I must have been in the second year of school when I started noticing his work, and it was love at first sight for me.  From being nerdy and studious, I went on to being (still) nerdy and fanatical.  You were either with me or against me, depending on how much you loved his work.  I wandered about like a madwoman looking for the buildings he had designed.  When I had exhausted all possibilities in Delhi, I sanctioned one whole vacation in Mumbai to looking for ‘Correa’ buildings.  My aunt stayed in Borivli and my uncle at Cuffe Parade.  These two, and then every relative or friend on that route was requisitioned to help me ferret out these buildings.

Once when the great man visited my college, a friend who had trained at his office and knew about my obsession, took me along to meet him.  Mr.Correa was most gracious, showing no signs of disgust at my goggle-eyed gawping.  Later when he spoke to the students inside the auditorium, he was attacked repeatedly for his LIC building that had just been completed.  I wanted to stand up and shout out – For Heaven’ sake, leave the man alone!  He is allowed some mistakes – he is human too!!

I never said it, though.  After all, for me, he was God.*

Through my student years, all means, fair or foul, were employed to get closer to my idol.  I pestered my great-uncle Raman who knew him from his Ann Arbor days to wheedle out a summer training at his office.  I could not make it that summer for some reason, and I got a mighty wallop from my great-uncle for having called out a favour and then wasting it.  When it was finally time for my legitimate training, I wrote triumphantly to Charles Correa and Associates – what joy! – and as I happened to be in Mumbai, I was called in for an interview.  It must have been nerves, compounded by the sight of the Almighty himself, but I fumbled and fouled up that interview.  I went home, wept buckets, and waited disconsolately for the inevitable rejection.  It came soon enough, on impeccable creamy parchment – We regret…..

Well, that was the day I summoned all my foolish, fanciful, hero-worshipping sentiments, wrapped them tightly in a bundle and threw it out of my life.  I moved on, moved cities, moved jobs, got married, started a family, started a practice.  I saw every building that Correa built in every city I visited, but it was with a kind of mature detachment.  I was over that madness.

Or so I thought.

Years later, as I started having more time to myself, I started reading again with a passion.  I caught up with old friends – Mumford, Tanizaki, Rasmussen – and formed some new ones.  Somewhere along the way, I picked up my well-thumbed ‘The New Landscape’ and ‘A Place in the Shade’ and read them once more.  As I read through those books, I felt again the stirrings of my long-buried, infantile admiration for Correa.  Even after a good twenty years, every word in ‘The New Landscape’ spoke to me as eloquently as it had when I first read it.

I began looking up his writings obsessively on the internet.  I devoured every word.  This time it was a love affair with his writings, his ideas, and as I read on, I felt optimistic about my own growing interest in writing.  If Correa had not put down these ideas into books and articles, would we have been able to access his brilliant mind as intimately?  I felt assured that perhaps there was sense in putting down the thoughts that relentlessly crowded my mind.  Perhaps architects do read after all.

With the same madness that had taken over me many years ago, I started once more the attempts to reach Correa.  Each time I was rebuffed.  I finally got to see him on stage at an event in Bangalore.  After the initial shock of seeing how much he had aged, I was gratified to see that his beautiful spirit had not dimmed.  His voice was gone, victim to the infamous Bangalore weather, but he was firing all cylinders.  I wanted to call out to him, Mr.Correa!  You must wear socks and shoes in the evening.  The cold night air is really bad for you.  If I could, I would have got him some potent, homemade, ginger ‘kashayam’ but, of course, there was no way I could reach him.  (Someone else with greater ‘powwa’ managed to get across some ginger tea to him.  Well…)

So, here I was again, having come full circle, and strangely enough, no nearer my goal of meeting the great man.  I accept in all humility that it is a childish obsession; and perhaps it is a childish notion that some of that greatness could somehow rub off on me.

But, hey – some people worship Rajnikanth.  I worship Charles Correa.

* In his defense, he used the glass in the most intelligent manner possible.  That entire facade was oriented North, and from outside, the glass reflected Connaught Place; from inside, one saw for the first time the awe inspiring spectacle of the entire colonnade from an elevation.  Contrast this with the asinine glass-fronted buildings that one sees nowadays, 50 metres across and 10 storeys high, all facing Westward towards the blazing tropical sun.  Jesus.

Retreet

Sometimes, we get so comfortable with our spaces, or the way we have laid out the furniture, or the way our kitchen is organized, that we would rather work around the problems that we might be facing, than make a change for the better.  I have my own example to offer as an illustration of how one can get frozen into these patterns, and how simple changes can make huge improvements.

My apartment was built at a time when space was not counted by the square feet.  The building sits in a garden filled with trees, with large, gracious spaces, both inside and outside the flat.  From every window in my flat, all I see are the canopies of those trees.  But the building was getting on in years, and over time, it had acquired a tired, middle-aged look.  Moreover, the houses around us, which were just one storey high all these years, suddenly decided to add on the floors.  We watched in mute horror as with each floor they added, some more of our precious light disappeared.  One day the lovely east light that stole in every morning and lit up our rooms with a golden glow, completely stopped making an appearance.

We trudged on, glumly, unhappily, depressed by the darkness that had taken over our home.  My family started with gentle suggestions, and that escalated to sulky grumbling, and then it reached a point when I had to make some changes.

At work, I have solved larger, more complex problems, but ask most architects, and they will admit to some paralysis when it comes to their own home.  So, there I was, gripped by the same mind-numbing paralysis.  I knew I had to bring in more light, I knew I had to reclaim my lost privacy, but how?

One lazy Saturday afternoon, I was lounging around and looking out of my bedroom window at the greenery beyond.  I could see the Sampige tree right outside my window, gently swaying in the wind, each leaf reflecting the light in a different way.  The sweet fragrance of the Sampige flowers filled the room.  It was as though I was seeing the tree for the first time and in full Technicolour glory.  Something went ‘Click’ in my brain!

I think Kekule and his dream about the ring of serpents are a perfect example of how many designers solve problems.  Often, it is one image or one idea that clicks, and then as we build up on that idea, it takes form and gets plumped up.  All the other necessary elements get plugged in by and by, but that idea always remains at the core of the design.

So it was with the tree.  I started with breaking down the dratted window.  The day the frames came off and there was nothing between me and the tree, I stood transfixed.  I could see the green even more vividly.  I could see the squirrels hopping about, chirping away with that curious up-down synchronized movement of their tails.  I could see the koel sitting on a high branch, cooing away.  There was nothing between me and that vision of beauty!

Other things followed quite naturally after that one decision.  There were many changes I had to make in the rest of the house to restore light and privacy.  But my family agreed with me that had I not made any other change, and had I created just this one space, I would have still achieved something wonderful.

On most evenings, you can find one or the other person sitting on the window seat next to the tree.  On lazy summer afternoons, my daughter will stretch herself out fully with a book and a snack in hand.  It is a favourite perch for the cat.  The poor fool gets all excited when she sees the squirrels and birds, not realizing there’s no way she can get at them.  Whenever I feel tired or anxious, I sit there quietly and look at the tree, and I feel serenity returning to me.  There is something restorative about connecting with Nature so intimately.

If I think about it, I am somewhat bemused.  There are people who have whole gardens with trees to enjoy.  I have only this tree.  And yet, it is enough.  Standing on the street, the sight of the moon may be something quite ordinary.  But the sight of the moon framed perfectly in your window is something magical.  The morning light in an open, unhindered space feels quite ordinary, but when it comes slanting in through an opening, casting mystical shadows on your walls, it is something else.  Architecture is the art of making this magic happen.