The house has many doors. Almost as if there were an infinite supply of wood and not enough bricks. The ground floor can be accessed from four different rooms — one in the front, two on the side and one at the back.
A narrow flight of stairs branches into two, providing two different accesses to the first floor. One at the front and one at the back.
Up another narrow flight of stairs from there, there is a small terrace and four doors leading to the five rooms. Inexplicably, one of the doors gives access to the bathroom from the outside.
In the narrow buffer between house and compound wall motorcycles and potted plants jostle for space.
There are two gates, where one would have sufficed, providing entrance to the house from the street.
All this is not to say this is a mansion. It is a very modest house, on a tiny plot of land, framed by two coconut palms and very little by way of a garden, but every free space had a plant or a sapling, the moringa and papaya trees, and nithyamalli creeping up over the gate and the sunshade.
Every single room in the house connected to two other rooms at the minimum. Sometimes even three. On the walls with no doors windows flourished.
At the peak of its occupancy this haphazard building housed four different families, 22 people little and big, and four active kitchens vying with each other to offer delicacies at every meal (my Amma’s was the best), but just one telephone (at my home) and one television (at my uncle’s) and lots of gossip all around. It hosted a few funerals, some engagement parties, countless gatherings, a handful of bride-viewings, several births and one marriage (my own).
But it didn’t start off that way.
It was a little less chaotic and better planned as a dwelling when 46 years ago my parents and grandparents moved in with four young girls – my three sisters and aunt. I was still the embryonic hope of a boy, resting inside my heavily pregnant mother. This house was primarily her dream, to own the roof she lived under, as her husband was almost averse to wealth-accumulation.
In the beginning, it had a ground floor with two columns of three rooms each and a second storey with a scattering of rooms, not one of which had a designated purpose – including the kitchen that shape-shifted based on the residents.
The rooms were tiny, it could either take a comfortable-sized cot or a proper almirah. So if the almirah was too big, the cot had to be tiny, or be done away with altogether and replaced with coir mats.
As the family grew, and with it the expenses, the single income had to be supplemented with rent, so rooms were added, new doorways incorporated, and an extra floor built. When I left home and our pet had to be moved out of my room, a small kennel was built for him near the well and the hand pump.
In my rented apartment now I hesitate to even drive a tiny nail into the wall, and I think often of what went through my parents’ mind to constantly tear down walls or put new ones in, and none of that to enhance the appearance of the house but merely to make it accommodate more.
More people. More aspirations. Just more of whatever was needed that month, that year…
That house, with more doors than rooms, has never been without people or bolted up. It carries some bitter memories, as all homes do. But more importantly it carries freedom, warmth, and an unbridled ambition of the numbers it can accommodate.
And the kitchen in its tiniest avatar, when the house was at its modest, always had enough to feed surprise guests of whom there was a steady stream. From relatives and friends of relatives, to cousins from far away towns coming to Madras to study, and all the buddies we accumulated over the years… those badly planned rooms hold many secrets and laughs and tears, securely held by doors made of wood so flimsy that one shove could break the bolts. Those doors were never meant to keep people out, just to protect us from the vagaries of Madras weather, the nesting sparrows (which still would sneak in) and the stray cats.
Over the decades the house had gained a few monickers, only one of which endures. Like No 10, this home is simply called 83 by all who know and love the place.
Affluence over the years meant that some of the changes were better planned. The sit-out added to the first floor about 18 years ago, for my mother, has now been taken over by my 87-year-old father who can’t go down as frequently to his office. Yes, part of the ground floor now has a new purpose – his law offices. Another little balcony, off the tiniest and busiest room of the house, was built last year so my 80-year-old mother can still sit outside, enjoy the cool neem shade courtesy a tree next door, watch the street, chat with the neighbours, admire her plants and haggle with the street vendors as she dangled the basket tied to a long rope.
There are just six people in the house now. My ageing parents and the tenants below who are almost family. There are too many doors and too few people to mind it, so many of these often remain absent-mindedly ajar through the night. The creaky doors await the arrival of guests… it’s been five months.
It was a house that need (and my father) built, and a home that love (and my Amma) shaped.
Every evening at 3.30 dozens and dozens of young girls walked out of the convent school gate in T.Nagar, turned right, walked 5 minutes down the road to the bus stop* at the edge of the busy Pondy Bazaar. A handful of bus routes stopped there.
In the mid 1980s, I was one of those girls for a few years, taking the 11A bus back home.
There sat the flower vendor (who also sold lottery tickets) on a small plastic stool, her derrière spilling out from all sides, her saree tucked under her thighs, revealing turmeric stained feet to match her turmeric stained face. A one rupee coin-sized pottu covered most of her forehead. Large ‘rolled’ gold earrings framed her cheeks.
On a tall stool in front of her was a large coir tray piled high with strands of flowers. Malli and saamandhi, roja and kannagabaram. Her hands were always busy stringing more, even as her eyes darted back and forth, keeping a watch on the kids lining up waiting for their bus. I rarely saw her make a sale, and while we registered her as an omnipotent figure none of us engaged with her.
She was genial in general. Until she wasn’t.
She would gently shoo away young school boys who were trying to make an impression. But when the older boys and the troublemakers decided to stop by she would spring up from her seat with an unexpected grace and speed and threaten to thrash them with her large calloused palms.
It was all fun as we stood there watching this drama.
Now I see it as an act of love and kindness, of bravery and ethics. That no little girl should be harassed. I wonder where that Amma is now. For me then she appeared old, but she must have been far younger than I am now.
*(On those buses these young girls would undergo a right of passage, and be subject to ‘eve-teasing’ – that benign label given to sexual harassment. More than just catcalls, but being groped and hurt in more ways than one can express coherently here. For the few minutes before we boarded the bus, we had the luxury of a safe space at the bus stop.)
Some years later…
In 1995, every few days, after my friend finished her CA classes and I my journalism classes, we would meet up late in the evening at my home and go for a walk along Cathedral Road catching up on the trivial excitements of our lives.
One night, well past 9, we decided to have dinner at Gangotree and were walking back when a gang of men on motorcycles slowed down to trash-talk us, laughing aloud as if it were all just a joke, even when it was obvious we were uncomfortable. We tried walking away quickly, as there were too many of them for us to stand our ground and push back. That’s when we heard a few women swear loudly.
Right opposite Stella Maris college was a shop under construction. There were a group of construction workers having their dinner by the pile of gravel, including these women. Having noticed the boys harass us they chased them away threatening to throw bricks at them.
As the harassers took flight, the women turned to us and instructed us sternly to enjoy our walk and not be scared. That moment of solidarity was a warm hug.
Couple of years later, this time out of Madras…
I was covering the election campaign of 1999 and was travelling by buses and trains around TN. I was not covering a party, which would have meant I had access to the official convoy. I was covering the stories around the campaign from the villages and constituencies for the Indian Express. One evening I had to take a train back to Madras from near Dharmapuri. I was exhausted. I hadn’t slept well the previous night as the door of the lodge room was not secure.
I arrived early at the station, which was empty but for a few vendors. I bought a ticket and found a free bench near a lady selling peanuts. I bought two packets of nuts, washed it down with some soda and requested the lady to tell me when the train arrived. Backpack under my head and my scarf wrapped around my face I decided to rest a bit, but fell asleep. I woke up to a gentle tug of my arm. The lady had shifted her basket near the bench and was seated on the floor by the head of the bench, keeping watch. I remember clearly wiping the drool off my cheek as she laughed. And in the tenderest Tamil she told me she didn’t want people to know I was alone as that would have invited undue attention. So she had sat next to me as I took a nap.
The train was pulling into the platform and all I could do was thank her hurriedly and repeatedly before running into the nearest bogie.
I think so often of these women. Not just kind, but so wise to the ways of the world, so eager not to crowd little girls and young women out of public spaces, instead trying to make it as safe as they could.
Everyday heroes in sarees and with calloused hands.
Every year my privileges get starker, and my gratitude deeper.
This decade began on an indifferent note. My personal life had more downs than I could manage. I was questioning my relevance in a job I loved and the publishing group I helped build. Then I decided to take a risky jump away from my comfort zone; I was tested, I was rewarded, I was supported and I was tested some more before being thrown into another whirlpool of uncertainties.
That’s when I realised, in 2014, what an incredibly lucky life I had. And the less I held on to my fears, the luckier I got. I made big shifts – countries and jobs (and in a way my career itself), but most critically, a shift in my perception of success. Not that I had a set-in-stone definition before, I loved what I did and that was success enough. It’s just that now, the measure of a good day’s work was mine own to make. There were no external barometers. Every word I wrote for work meant something to someone and had the potential to change a life; Every time I picked up the phone or wrote an email, even if I could not resolve an issue, I could make those few moments or days better for someone who may not otherwise be heard… it has been both a burden and a privilege to be trusted with their worries and problems.
The last couple of years have taken me away from home more often than either my children nor I wished, but my girls have been my champions. I see them as the anti-horcrux. The best of me is embedded in them.
I would have said this decade is ending on a good note (even a GREAT one) if it were about my life alone. But it isn’t… as I write the post, there’s unease in the pit of my stomach. After 17 years away, I moved to India. I cannot say I moved back… because this is not the country I left in 1999.
I am political. Have always been. And I know of no other way to live. The PERSONAL IS POLITICAL. I am keenly aware that the privileges I enjoy came on the backs of those who fought for it before me. I see the freedoms I enjoy being eroded a little bit today, and being taken away in large chunks from those who are marginalised by gender, religion and caste. Staying quiet now would be unforgivable.
The languages I speak, the passport I hold, the way I look, the food I love, the drapes I don, the people I care for are all tied to this country. Hence, what happens on its streets is personal to me.
Hope 2020 is kinder to all of us, and more importantly, teaches us to be kinder to others.
I haven’t published a single blog post all year… and yet, this has been such an eventful year. That’s not to say I haven’t written. I wrote reams for work, for studies and in my little books, putting pen on paper.
A lot of travel, work and pleasure, a lot of conversations, new destinations and new people. (Qatar Airways tells me I’ve done over 85000 miles of flying this year on their routes alone.)
I finally started my Masters, from the School of Advanced Studies, University of London. It’s been tough and exhilarating getting back to studies, and at 44, finally falling in love with formal studies.
My work has always been fulfilling. But what I do now is by far the most fulfilling (and challenging) of it all. It’s been more responsibilities, more expectations, slow and steady progress… and a daily practice of gratitude, for the privileges I have and how I can put it to use. Got a chance to speak about my work at various platforms around the world, including the UN.
Home, family, friends are sacred. And our problems have been small or easily overcome, and for that, I am eternally grateful. In a world where conversations are dwindling, digitally disrupted, or falsely framed on social media, it’s still noisy, talkative, sometimes intrusive, always loving relationships that envelop my life and that of my children.
My first-born is already an adult, and if I can imbibe half her maturity, warmth and empathy, I’d be a far better person. The younger continues both to test my patience and to teach me love. For all my rational thinking, out of sheer superstition, I will hold back everything else I want to say about friends and family.
He is white, balding, with a beer belly, and prone to patting his neck. She is tiny, in impossibly tall heels and proportionately short skirt. Pints of beer and football on the big screen.
The waitress circles them, refilling and clearing. The bartender watches over her. The other white men – some balding, some not, some with a wedding band and others merely with an untanned strip where a previous reminder of loyalty lay – pass sideward glances.
Everyone is gathered for football. Everyone is thinking of that night’s lay.
The girl’s laugh is surprisingly loud as if that tiny body could no longer hold all the mirth within.
As the night grows old and the beer grows warm, his interest in football wavers. Briefly. Goal! He is immersed right back into the 70-inch screen.
She senses a waning interest and smartly throws her bare, shapely legs over the arm of the chair, and he instinctively reaches for one, and strokes it. Absentmindedly.
She tugs at his shirtsleeves, her laugh now a tinkle. He leans over and bumps forehead with her, going straight back to the game.
She rises. Pats the skirt over her ample rump, and sways to the washroom.
In the white man’s country, would she even be considered old enough to be allowed into the sports bar?
She has his attention now. The sweating men on screen forgotten briefly.
The game ends. Everyone seems gregarious and disappointed at the same time.
The other white men watch the coupling of this pair, that should have been unusual, but is all too common. In impoverished nations around the world, young girls wait for an escape. A smitten old man is a start.
Lonely white men, I can’t speak for.
Note: An after-hours story from my recent work trip to Ethiopia