The roof of a house is as wide as its inhabitants’ imaginations. It is not merely a space made of bricks and cement – the roof in an Indian house is a space of leisure, desire, secrets, and dreams. Standing on the roof, have we not imagined fruitful romances with the neighbours? Don’t the planes flying overhead make distant lands seem within our reach? Doesn’t the open sky – the sun in the day and the stars and the moon at night – make us feel one with the universe? An essential structure of the house, the roof has allowed the mind and heart to wander while our feet remained firmly on the ground.

For womenfolk, the roof has also doubled up as a private space. Quite a contradiction for a structure that is devoid of any walls. Nevertheless, women have turned into a space where they can work (making pickles, sewing) and a place of rest (chatting with other women, sneaking in a nap). Used and frequented by women, the roof is naturally a fertile ground for their stories.

Chachcho and Lalna

In Geetanjali Shree’s The Roof Beneath Their Feet, the roof at Laburnum House is a living, breathing character. Shared by some hundred people, the roof is where all the mischief and drama happens. Young boys spy on young women through the skylights, some even go as far as urinating through it. The inhabitants excavate for gossip and secrets, while hoping that theirs remain undiscovered. Despite the diverse cast of characters, two middle-aged women Chachcho and Lalna appear to be the most interesting of all. Related by neither blood nor a shared husband, the neighbours do not understand what ties them to each other. Lalna, banished from her home, was accepted by Chachcho until suddenly one day, Lalna disappeared only to return after Chachcho’s death.

A rich, discontented wife of a neglectful husband, Chachcho’s decision shocks Laburnum House. Lalna quickly becomes the subject of scandals and rumours, as the neighbours decide she is the mistress of Chachcho’s husband. Lalna resists these simple categorisations as she gets increasingly closer to Chachcho. They gossip at odd hours, bathe together, feast on parathas and pakoras. With the absence of a central male figure that ties them together, it’s easy to imagine that the women might be more than just friends. And yet, the intense love that they share is often common to female friendships – bodily and emotional boundaries are made redundant as women turn into each other’s caregivers.

Divided into three parts, the first section of the novel is narrated by Bitva. A young man who does not know which one of these women is his mother. He dearly loves Chachcho and is suspicious of Lalna, even contemptuous some would say. The section reflects on how our lives continue with the motions of hunger, hatred, and suspicion and other mundane emotions even when we’re overcome with grief.

The second section of the novel is narrated by Lalna who has returned to Laburnum House after a long – and mysterious – absence. With food and affection, she tries to win over Bitva despite his resentment of her. Regardless of how she has been treated in the past, Lalna shows no regrets for the choices she has made. She knows the mohalla will gossip about her no matter what, so why not live how she pleases? Lalna’s rebelliousness makes her an instantly lovable character. She cares little for social niceties and lets her tongue run wild. The master of the house (who’s in a coma) is a vegetable and the sullen Bitva is a pumpkin! It is in this section that Shree’s playful narrative voice is the strongest.

The world of languages

The third and final section, also the shortest, is only a few pages long. Narrated by an omniscient narrator who seems to be prying for gossip, we witness Lalna in her lonely abandon. Bitva wants nothing to do with her, the man of the house is comatose, Chachcho is dead and yet Lalna continues to mystify and horrify Laburnum House.

Lalna, remembering Chachcho remarks, “She [was] the certitude in my new life – [and] I, the freedom in hers.” Through Chachcho and Lalna, Shree asks us what do we make of women who are not mothers, sisters, or wives? What happens when women are (literally) allowed to occupy physical spaces? And most importantly, what happens when two women are allowed to love each other? We do not know which version of the story to believe after all, and in there lies Shree’s genius. A story is only as “true” as we have convinced ourselves to believe – grief, gossip, and indifference have the power to alter any truth completely. Perhaps only the walls that listen, the windows that see, and the roof that dreams know us for what we truly are.

While reading the book, I could not help but wonder about what its Hindi version might have sounded like. I imagined certain dialogues and phrases, the rhythm, and silences. In the end, I could not come up with anything that might have been even close to what Shree had written. This is Rahul Soni’s translation's biggest win – it tickles your imagination and encourages you to think about the story as not one text but two. It automatically makes translations feel like magic – how translators carry a story from one language into another, how languages as contrasting as English and Hindi meld into each other to bring to life such wondrous yet strange worlds, and the role of language in our shared dreams.

The Roof of Beneath Their Feet is not to be read as just a novel but perhaps as an answer to the larger questions of love, memories, language, and loneliness.

The Roof Beneath Their Feet, Geetanjali Shree, translated from the Hindi by Rahul Soni, Penguin India.