By P Ravi Shankar
I was extremely upset and howling my head off. My mother struggled to keep me quiet. My parents had just got down at the bus stop and it was raining. It was a short walk to Laksmi Nivas. My mother was dragging me along and I was trying my best to turn around and run back to my paternal grandmother. The bus journey to the village had been miserable. The bus had ploughed through heavy rains and waterlogged roads. There were occasional claps of thunder and the tarpaulin sheets covering the bus windows offered scant protection against the rain. The bus was crowded and leaking. Puddles were forming on the floor.
My maternal grandfather’s house was a two-story mansion located in Thiruvazhiad (turn-away-goat could be a literal English translation) village, Palakkad district, Kerala. He had built it in the 1960s and had named it after my grandmother. The house was a combination of living space and granary. There were long passages which were used to store the rice harvest. Wood was prominently used in the construction. The house sat in a huge plot of land. There was a front yard and a huge backyard. The house was large, but the number of rooms were limited. There were only three bedrooms on the ground floor, and they were all dark and scary. There was a traditional dining room and a wood burning kitchen. A well and a huge bathroom completed the amenities.
There were three bedrooms on the top floor and a small attic above that. The rooms on the top floor were small with wooden windows and had excellent views across the backyard to the hills beyond. The rooms opened on to a common corridor in front. This offered excellent views of the road to Nemmara, the main town in that part. Traffic was sparse and our attention was captured by the buses to Palakkad town which ran at hourly intervals during the hot, lazy afternoons and at half-hourly intervals during the morning and evening. The village was situated in a cul de sac, away from the main hustle and bustle.
During the seventies, my grandmother had three to four helpers working in the house. Traditional stones were used to grind dough for idlis and dosas and we had a smaller stone to grind masalas or spices. There was a huge mortar and pestle used to pound grain. Physical labour and strength were important. I do not remember my grandfather (mother’s father) much as he had passed away when I was very young. My grandmother was a religious lady who used to read the Hindu religious epics daily. Later (late seventies and eighties) she was mostly confined to bed and suffered from Parkinson’s disease.
I enjoyed climbing the wooden staircase to the first floor with its curved wooden banister. I believed the darkness of the house and the rooms scared me and contributed to my aversion. As I grew older I grew more adapted to this house. The house was dark but stayed cool during the hot summers. The red tiles on the roof were charming. The windows had no glass panes and once closed they let in very little light. The long corridors encircled the rooms on the ground floor letting in very little light into the inner rooms. The furniture was mostly wooden, locally made, solid and heavy. My grandma’s room had a massive valve radio. Evenings were spent listening to the news and other programs on the radio. Old houses had dark storerooms which both fascinated and scared me.
My father’s house was located inside East Yakkara near to Palakkad town and the holy Manapullikavu temple was nearby. It is believed Brahmins performed yagnas (prayers) on the holy riverbed and the place was named yaga-kara (do yagnas) and eventually came to be known as Yakkara. In the seventies, this was a peaceful place with traditional houses. The narrow winding lanes and the paddy fields lend a rustic charm to the place. My father’s mother had purchased a house after they moved back to India from Malaysia where my grandfather had worked as an estate manager. My grandfather had died when my father was young. The house was renovated and, to my childish eyes, was charming. There were windows with coloured glass panes in the drawing room. The floor was coated with a red oxide powder which had to be reapplied regularly. Pink bougainvillea grew over the welcome arch and the bright yellow front door welcomed visitors.
The best part of the house were the two rooms in the wing adjoining the kitchen. The house had doors and windows which could be opened only half. This I felt was an ingenious arrangement. Both my mother’s and father’s houses had doorsteps which were massive, and I used to trip on these often. I was not used to them. There was a dark room that did not open to the outside. My cousin would study there. Wood was still the cooking material, took time to catch fire and burn. It was like an astringent to the eyes. I still remember the hot summer afternoons. We had lunch in the hot dining room and by the time we finished I would be soaked in sweat. The rice was hot, the fish curry spicy, the fish fry crispy, and the pickles incendiary. The roof had a few glass tiles to let in the light and I watched fascinated the path of the light beams being made visible by the kitchen smoke.
The rains were my favourite time of the year. In those days it used to pour in Kerala. The rains continued throughout the day, and I enjoyed creating and sending out flotillas of paper boats in the rapidly flowing streams of rainwater. The weather was cool, and the smell of the Earth (petrichor) was mesmerising. I also remember the smell of fresh paint as the windows and doors often would have a fresh coat of paint just before our visits. Now with the national highway (NH47) passing behind the house, the area has changed totally. So many new houses have sprouted. And there are two large apartment complexes.
These two houses had character and solidity. I regret not having the opportunity to interact with my grandfathers (the patriarchs). The houses reflected in many ways the matriarchs living in them. With their illness, being bed ridden and their eventual passing, an era came to an end. These houses no longer hold the same level of fascination they once exerted on my young mind!
Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.
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