A white dove arcs over the buildings, dips into the fading red of the sky. I find myself anxious about its wings getting caught in the criss-crossing strings, each linking brightly-coloured kite with neighbour.
Yes, a lot of neighbours, being unable to go out into the streets, have taken to their roofs as a substitute. ‘Did you see it?,’ I find myself thinking of a Mary Oliver poem,
‘An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings’
Oliver essentially wrote these lines about a swan, but I feel like it can be about any bird with white feathers – a rare sight, majestic, drawing our eyes to the sky.
People need not be told to watch the sky these days. In this lockdown, after they have shed the snakeskin of their daily routines, and climbed into an open space for a short break, looking skywards seems to be the inevitable thing to do. It turns into an activity we all do together. I wonder if my neighbours, living generation after generation in this colony of North Calcutta, also think of Rabindranath Tagore when the palm trees are locked in a mad dance with the kalbaishakhi storms.
It thinks to itself,
‘What if I were to have wings? –
Would I untie my roots and fly away?
Could I leave my home for a day?’
Doesn’t the palm tree in Tagore’s beloved poem narrate the internal monologue of city-dwellers? When we watch the sky from the city, isn’t the motion picture of its colours limited to the aperture of the urban skyline? Isn’t that what T. S. Eliot spoke of, in Preludes?
‘His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o’clock’
Yes, we often look to the sky as a symbol of possibility, an escape from the concrete jungle. Be it from an airplane or from the top of a mountain, when we observe civilisation washing up like distant waves at our feet, we feel what Samuel Taylor Coleridge had felt in his hill walking poems. Standing atop the Blencathra, one of the highest hills in England’s Lake District, he wrote, in the 19th century, what we still feel, today:
‘But oh! the sky and all its forms, how quiet!
The things that seek the earth, how full of noise and riot’
I remember falling in love with astronomy as a child, when I used to lie flat on my back on the rooftop, staring into the night sky – the stars anonymous, but familiar with my childish plights. I now think of those who are living outside the city, spending their lockdown days amidst fields and skies resistant to the touch of factory smoke. To them, nights must arrive in the voice of William Blake, proclaiming –
‘The stars are threshed, and the souls are threshed from their husks.’
Almost like an echo to this sudden knowledge of how tiny we are, how insignificant we must be within the grand motions of the celestial beyond, we are overcome with the joy of solitude. There are certain things one can relish only in the company of oneself – like sunrise on a hushed, summer morning.
Emily Dickinson has always been perceived as the personification of solitary living. Perhaps, all these decades since, her verses speak to us about how, like a soft tendril, life grows and blossoms by itself – especially when there is no urgency to accommodate too many others. She observed the sky intimately, and spoke of the arrival of a new day, as she watched it unfurl with her neighbouring songbirds and squirrels:
‘I’ll tell you how the sun rose –
A ribbon at a time.
The steeples swam in amethyst,
The news like squirrels ran.’
Yet there is joy in watching the sky with someone special – a friend, a lover, a stranger who, fascinated by the same horizon-picture as you, you lock eyes with. Ruskin Bond explores the art of watching the sky together in Lovers Observed:
‘Sunk in bracken, swimming in pools
Of late afternoon sunshine;
All agitation past, they stay totally
Absorbed in grass.’
Still, the heart constantly yearns to be able to go back to the days when we could watch the sky from a new city on summer break, or from the office balcony with a cup of coffee in our hands. We yearn to have the sea capture the sky for us to hold, to play in its moon-sewn waves.
Perhaps Ranjit Hoskote was unaware of this new dimension to his poem, Marine Drive, to the locked-down, sky-searching reader, when he spoke about
‘a monsoon sky seesawing in the gaze,
unframed, a trap for the sailboat wheeling in the bay.’
Madhura Banerjee is a published writer, having explored genres from poetry to fiction. She released her first book, ‘A Tenant of the World’, at age 21, and her second book was published in 2019 by Dhauli Books. She is a contributing children’s fiction writer for ‘Telekids’, the children’s supplement of the national newspaper, The Telegraph. She also wrote freelance columns on science and technology in the same paper. Her work on science was also recently featured as part of the Scholastic Yearbook 2020, published by Scholastic India. She has narrated her poetry and travel prose on All India Radio multiple times. At age 23, she delivered her first TEDx talk at IIEST Shibpur. She also serves as the Creative Writing mentor for UN-certified educational platform, The Climber – MyCaptain Program.
Featured image credit: Zayed Iqbal Abir/Unsplash