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 five different rooms — one in the front, two on the side and two 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.
Edited: Last visit home I realised there is a fifth door on the ground floor, edited to reflect that.