THE HOUSE WE LIVED IN FOR LONG
Once appa got married, life changed a lot. Days of pampering and petting were over. Life took a different turn. I was so far a pet to everyone in the village. Everyone looked at me with utmost sympathy and special care and love were showered on me. I was a 'motherless-child' for every one. I stood out from the crowd in the village. All these things changed once we came to Madurai.
It should be 1949. I should have been five years old because immediately after our arrival I was admitted in the school in the first standard. Better I say something about the house where we got settled. It was an old house in the South Marret Street. Compared to the modern standards it was more a ‘mouse trap’. It was in a busy area and so like any other house it was packed among a row of houses on a considerably busy road. It was a rectangle and the portion we rented out was at the back of the house and the house owners lived in the front portion. The two portions were divided by a well. Like any old house of those days in Madurai this well was small, probably three feet in diameter. It was called nazhi kinaru ( 'cylindrical well' ). I don’t know what could have been the depth. But for a kid it looked very deep. For some time peeping into the well during noon time and seeing my image deep down there was a good past time. I was always afraid of looking into the well from outside in our village till I learnt swimming. But here there were protective stone slabs around the well and they were almost shoulder high to me then. I felt safe here unlike the large and open wells, which were like open-mouthed giants. This well had an important association with my early days since for many years – almost for the whole of my school life – I was in charge of keeping a large drum near the well always full for the use of the whole family. I used to have a big callus on my left knee since I used to keep that point of my knee as a fulcrum to help me pull the bucket and how I hated that responsibility imposed on me. Even at odd hours I would be asked to draw water. That is about the well. Let us come back to the house now.
I still wonder how we managed to live in that house for so long. It was a long period of 16 years – starting from my school entry to the end of the first year of my post-graduation. We entered the house as a three-member family, appa, amma and I. When we quit the house we were, I think, nine! There was only one pucca room and even that would be half-filled with sacks of rice for most part of the year, in addition to a wooden almirah, a sewing machine and a table and chair. I am wondering now how there was any moving space at all in that room since it was not even a big room. Wooden lofts on three sides of this room probably helped us keep most of our things. I had one rack in a cupboard on the wall for keeping my books and other things. My dresses would be in a small suitcase, which would be above the sacks of rice.
Then there was a sort of verandah with tiled leaky roof making it almost unusable during rainy days. The only safe place during such days was a corner made safe by curved stairs overhead. Even part of this was occupied by a manual grinder. The only furniture in this low roofed room was appa’s cot. Many a time that formed a tier system – appa on that cot and I safely cuddled under that, the lower berth! Then there was a kitchen. Don’t imagine a kitchen with a lot of cupboards, gas stove and all that. It had on all sides bamboo mats making it a separate entity with one cupboard on the wall and a firewood stove at the ground level with a stack of fire wood, and cow dung-cakes on one corner. We had also a luxury item of those days, a kerosene stove.
Wondering that I have not mentioned anything about a bathroom? Well, it was an open space next to the well and that was also the passageway for our portion. Appa made some arrangements with some more bamboo mats giving it a little more privacy. This passageway along the well had a great significance since it was a nightmarish experience to get somebody to our portion of the house. The passageway was narrow between the well and a wall. Part next to the well had a stony pavement but the other half used to be quite slippery with constant flow of water. Anyone stepping on that part was sure to fall like an uprooted tree. Whenever somebody visited our home for the first time they had to be carefully ushered for a ‘safe landing’ on our portion of the house. Once I got into college I never invited my classmates to my home worrying about the great fall they could experience.
There was one good thing about this house that it had an open terrace. It had half-built pillars. I was told that the owner wanted to go for another floor and paucity of funds deterred him from that and half-finished pillars stood as a silent testimony for that. Appa made a shed there with some bamboos and coconut-mats. This became a comfortable place for the students who used to come in large numbers for private tuition. Appa was a great and popular teacher in English and Math in our school. Till this day I consider him as the best teacher I had, especially his way of teaching English grammar was fantastic. It is not merely a son’s blind appreciation. But a real, impartial and judicious statement which I hold till this day.
The terrace became my living place once I got the courage to be there alone in the nights too. Because always the very big banyan tree on the next road with its rustling noise at nights could scare any week hearted person. Added to this was the story of somebody who committed suicide on the very next house. The room where the suicide took place was within a few feet. The stairs running down from this terrace was mostly very dark, who had very bright lights on those days! So whenever I alighted the steps at nights after switching off the only light at the terrace, I used to have a feeling that somebody, mostly the person who committed suicide in the next house, following or rather chasing me down. I used to run down faster in the beginning. Then I thought I should have a ‘face-to-face’ fight with this ‘follower’ once for all and do away with ‘him’ for all times. So with this decision I stopped running madly down from the terrace; instead I used to step down very slowly and at times would stop and turn around to warn anything that could be at my back. Once I did this a few times the fear was gone for ever and then staying alone in the terrace became routine and casual. Once I entered into my teens it became my abode for the nights. It was also my study room.