Spaces and Socialising: The Pandemic and the Terrace

It’s 8:30 pm and Mr Chaurasia has been working out on the terrace. He has his jump rope with him. He does some jumping jacks and some squats too, although his form could be better. A couple of hours ago, he was helping his son fly a kite. Another time, he was playing badminton with his wife.

Any day of the week you visit the terrace of the building I live in, there’s a good chance you’ll catch Mr Chaurasia engaged in this routine.

At this point, it is pretty obvious that the pandemic has altered nearly every aspect of our individual and collective lives, in small and large measures. One such change relates to our understanding of shared spaces and how we interact with people around us. Older and more familiar modes of socialisation such as daily metro rides, college classrooms, or coffee breaks at work are giving way to other forms of interaction.

The virtual space is all too obvious. But the understanding and use of spaces is changing even without the marvels of our information age. A space much familiar and often ignored is becoming important: the terrace.

Back in my hometown in Bihar, the terrace remains a spot for socialisation even when global pandemics aren’t raging. People often walk around on their terraces in the evening and talk to their neighbours—who are on their own terraces. We even sleep there when it’s hot inside.

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However, the terrace is not used so much in my locality in Delhi and I suspect this to be the case with cities in general. It’s more difficult to do so than in small towns or villages. A bustling city life with people returning home late in the evening, often after covering long metro routes or sitting for hours in traffic jams (or both), doesn’t leave everyone with enough energy to visit their terraces. Even those who have some energy go to gyms or sports centres or parks instead. And others prefer sitting in front of their TV screens. With tall buildings crammed into each other under a cloud of pollution, it’s not like there’s a sparkly night sky waiting for you either.

But normal city life has been fractured by the pandemic. Even though lockdowns have been relaxed, many people still have more work-from-home days than office days. Gyms have only recently started reopening and can’t possibly be occupied like they used to be. And students and other non-workers are still not stepping out of their homes. And when the only destination to travel to outside your doors is your terrace, you start visiting it more often.

What this has meant for many is that after a day of online classes and office or household work, the terrace has become a daily getaway of sorts. My neighbouring terraces are more populated than they ever used to be. Our terrace is now not only visited during Holi or Diwali, but practically every evening. Living in a building with many flats, I see my neighbours playing cricket and badminton with their children, taking walks or talking on their phones (although that might be because of the terrible network downstairs).

This could not have happened earlier. Delhi’s unauthorised colonies seldom have parks. It is not for me to say whether this has impacted those families positively but one might assume so. Interacting daily with even their own families through sports or with their neighbours while taking walks has transformed the terrace into a proper common space. Such walks have become a feature of my daily routine as well, allowing me to catch up on some podcasts, do some reading, or have hour long calls with friends. Comparing our total footsteps at the end of the day has also become a daily competition between my sister and I. And yes, I was once struck right in the centre of my forehead by a plastic ball hit enthusiastically by a kid playing cricket, but oh well, at least he’s scoring some runs.

But this has by no means been a coordinated effort by the residents of our building. Instead, the need for socialisation and wanting to get out of the same four walls of one’s home automatically morphed into a common physical space. Our basic needs for interacting with people led us to use physical spaces in newer ways. From it being a space where we could break the monotony of indoor living, the terrace not only allowed people to interact with their families and each other more often but also created new ways of interaction and induced some positive lifestyle changes.

This is by no means a universal change either. Many people might not even be visiting their terraces. But the limited observations around me still underscore the basic point: physical spaces affect our ways of interactions in subtle and overlooked ways; and the need for socialising and activity leads people to remould their physical spaces with new meaning.

When normal life resumes, the terrace might lose its importance as a common space. Or it might not. Perhaps people would still want to find time to play cricket with their children. Perhaps Mr Chaurasia will continue his jumping jacks.

Prateek Pankaj is a student of History at Hindu College, University of Delhi. You can reach out to him @prateek_pankaj on Instagram and @Prateek_Pankaj3 on Twitter.

Featured image credit: Rishabh Mathur/Flickr (representative image)