Studies from an eastern home
Our Zenana Terrace
THOSE learned and artistic persons who now and then find their way to us in the midst of the Hindu quarter here in Calcutta, to spend an hour or two, will sometimes break off from their preoccupation with mediæval art and modern monstrosity to assure us that the lane outside our door is a genuine bit of Early Italian loveliness. We like to hear this stated, though we had not needed to be told that our home was beautiful. In the mists of November evenings, when a couple of street lamps, swung from wall brackets at long distances, serve to light up the irregular house-fronts--that stand side by side as if treading on each other's toes in subdued and solemn eagerness--we could not have doubted that our lane was very lovely. Here a small verandah carries the front backwards; there a wall crowds forward, as if to see. The handsome old mouldings round some doorway, again, are half obscured under successive coats of plaster. And everywhere their dress of whitewash gives these substantial Indian buildings a look as of tall persons,
decorously wrapped from head to foot in the white and unsewn garments of the East, or, may-hap, at the clear black midnight, thrills one with a suggestion of the pale and sheeted dead.
But if those strangers who have beauty in their hearts can be so affected by our Indian lane, what would they say could they see with our eyes our zenana terrace? Has the reader, in his Western home, some favourite window, with view of lawn and trees, and fringed in early spring with bursting bulbs, or some specially beloved ingle-nook, where fire and picture and low seat make cosy welcome, filling him with the sense of light and peace? In that case he can understand what our terrace is to us. Third of our four courtyards, it opens on the level of the second story. Rooms with higher roofs surround it on three sides, and on the fourth it is enclosed by a high wall, part of which is pierced, to form a screen. In the centre, perfect in its simplicity, a light wooden railing, with four stone corner-posts, protects us from the danger of a fall into the court below. And from the south-east angle of the terrace a narrow staircase, ending in a square and solid tower, climbs steeply up to the roofs and terraces above. Oh, that staircase! By it Crivelli's Angel of Annunciation might fittingly descend, as Herald of God, to seek below her who was blessed amongst all women. Of one
thing at least we may be sure; between Crivelli's Angel and his staircase there would in that case be no disparity.
Or we turn in the opposite direction, and, overtopping the western wall, rise the gnarled boughs and fernlike leafage of a neem tree. Planted according to old Calcutta custom beside a neighbour's house, to ward off the malaria that comes with the east winds, this tree of healing is our perpetual joy. Constant breath and motion does it give. In, out, and about it play the sparrows, safe in its hiding from all their foes, while human creatures talk, or gravely sit and watch, below. Nor are the sparrows all its guests. On its outmost branches perch the crows--so full of humour though they cannot laugh! We take but little notice of these aggressive gentlemen, though we are well aware that our mode of life is to them a subject of perpetual curiosity, and they frequently warn and advise us as to the ways of their own kind, with the friendliest intentions. A crow's manner makes one feel that his information of to-day would, if possible, be his instructions of to-morrow. And the pigeons come--the pigeons who live downstairs, in the front courtyard, and sometimes talk the whole night long. Or a single kingfisher will arrive, and for a couple of weeks together will give his loud clear call from the same spot at the same hour, every day, and then
fly away. But what we love best are the little birds, and there are many--the tiny tun-tun, so much smaller than the sparrow, and an occasional maina, and now and then a down-swooping swallow, with other kinds whose names we do not even know. Yes, and as in the early morning or late afternoon we watch the birds that fly in flocks, away and away to the north, with the sunlight shining on their white breasts and under-wings, we know that if to these our dwelling-place offer any landmark we owe it all to the neem tree that lives by our side. By its graciousness and beauty alone are won what place we may enjoy in the lives and counsels of the birds.
And something, however little, there surely is. In India all the small birds and beasts that seek the shelter of the house are holy. They come in the train of Lakshmi, the Goddess of Fortune, and show that her presence is about us. And it was a yellow-clad fakir who, seated with us one day in silent watching of the loves and quarrels, the faithfulness and mutual forgiveness of the sparrows, suddenly broke his musing with the words, "How wonderful that they can live thus without a scripture!"
But our terrace wall, with the bed of flowers and creeper that runs along it, turns a corner. From west it bends some short way to the north. The way is very short, for here begin the dwelling-
rooms again. But in this end is the perforated curtain-like screen through which the women-folk may take a furtive look at as much of the gay world as can be seen in the neighbouring quarter. And above it, but at some distance beyond, rise, to the sight of a watcher within the house, the tall green-turbaned heads of a line of cocoanut palms. One behind the other they stand, a procession that faces the light as it rises in the east. An hour passes, and it strikes level against the underside of their upright fronds, and then, for ten minutes or so, an anthem, of light thrown back, is chanted to the ascending sun. Then all again grows grey, veiled in the excessive radiance of the tropics, and day wears on. But the morning glory of the palm-trees is not all. The afternoon has come, and at an hour before sunset the eastward-shining beams once more strike level with the great green crowns. This time, however, the sun-rays are caught on the upper surface of low-hanging down-curved leaves, and so twice every day the palm-trees worship God; and Hindu eyes, trained to seek and respond to the cosmic spectacle, look out from secluded dwellings behind enclosing walls to note this, the matins and evensong of light.
Earlier and later float down to us, on the terrace, the sound of bells rung in the prayer-room of each neighbouring household at the hour of worship. Or again, in the moment of twilight,
ere yet the young moon is clear above the neem, there come as is fit great thoughts, wide rendings of the veil that hides the Infinite. For this terrace of ours, this hearth of the soul, is silent and hidden and distant from the world, and whether at midnight in the starlight, or seated in the daytime within the shadow of the wall, or even lingering in the sun about the doorways, it is impossible there to forget Crivelli's Angel, or to do aught but await, passive and half-expectant, the inflood of the Divine upon the heart of man.
- www.vivekananda.net edited by Frank Parlato Jr.