Sunday, August 08, 2004

Home to Many

A relic of British times, an ancient yellowish building with white portico pillars, renovated once to add bathrooms that would be inside the house, overgrown on the fa├žade with creepers that bloom with pinkish-mauve flowers every winter, and steps leading up to the porch. This is the way I remember the house. 1, Prayag Street, in Allahabad, was a house I had been visiting ever since I was born. My father had been born in that house. So had numerous aunts and uncles of mine. My great-grandmother died in that house, as had many others. There were many trees, many birds, many memories, many ghosts.

This was the house that belonged to my father’s grandfather. Typically British in its architecture, it boasted high ceilings, rope-operated skylights, creaky ceiling fans, and even two decaying moth-eaten heads of deer, an ancestor’s hunting trophy from times that were not so politically correct or environment-friendly. Of course, by the time I first entered that house in my mother’s lap, my great grandfather was no more. My father’s parents lived in the same city in a different neighbourhood. My great grandmother was still there, walking with the help of a stick, for which reason I later identified her as lathi wali dida, my only resort in a house full of relatives.

And was it full! Grandparents, great uncles and aunts, uncles and aunts, cousins, even the occasional niece or nephew who was older than me! Every get-together at Prayag Street was a party. And the life of that party was my father’s uncle, my Ashok dadu. The clown of clowns and the best choreographer of make-believe tribal dances! In his years of government service, his house had been the centre of his transferable world. He returned there from time to time, as did all of us. Even after retirement, when his siblings were all settled elsewhere, he remained at Prayag Street, the centre of our world. The house may have been mouldy from the outside, may have needed a coat of paint or two, but from inside, it was completely and undeniably a home. It was not just "home" for people who actually lived there at that point of time. It was also "home" for anyone who had ever lived there at any point of time. Even though they had moved away, their photographs, old books and some belongings always remained. Shelves in corners of the bedrooms were stacked with books. The flyleaf of each book had a history. A book won as a prize for doing well in the exams. A book received as a birthday gift. A book from someone’s university syllabus. The dates took one back in time.

The walls of that house were what I found most fascinating as I grew up. They were lined with wedding photos of all the people who had anything to do with that house. Black and white, and later coloured too, these photos took me back in time. The people I knew by then as old, graying, and vulnerable relatives, looked out at me from those simple, elegant photos as youthful, optimistic faces. The brides were coy, the grooms were handsome and looking right into the camera. They did not know then of the things to come. Of the future, of their lives, or of children they would have, or of the children their children would have. It all lay ahead. And I, peering at those long ago photos, often on tiptoe, felt like I was straddling two different eras, two totally different lives. It was like knowing the future and looking back at the past. It was also intriguing to note the strong family resemblances. Everyone looked like one of the others at some point of time. No DNA testing required for this family!

My parents also occupied one of those places. My mother, with long hair, my father, with a jet-black moustache, different from how I know them today. Another picture, of my father as a baby in his grandfather’s lap. The old gentleman proudly holding his eldest grandchild, pointing at something far away, held my attention. I wondered what he might have been pointing at. Probably anything that would make my father smile for the camera. In retrospect, when that picture was mounted on the walls of an ancestral home, it seemed to represent the generations, the future, that my great-grandfather was drawing my father’s attention to.

The long summer evenings spent at Prayag Street are unforgettable. Children would be urged to show off any accomplishments of the previous year. Any poem recited, any song sung, was appreciated. Jokes would be cracked, and no matter if they were funny or not, everyone would laugh. I suppose a sense of togetherness made up for the sense of humour! The simple dinner was eaten off mismatched crockery. After all, it’s impossible to have perfect tableware with a dozen or so extra guests! Many mouths to feed, but twice as many helping hands headed to the tiny kitchen. And the lady of the house, Manjushree dida, found something for each one of us to do, making sure we felt useful and grown-up!

But things change. Children grow up. And then they (or rather, their parents) have school exams and attendance to worry about. Gone are the carefree days of missing school at a whim. Trips can no longer just happen, they need to be planned. The annual visit to Allahabad ceased to be a permanent feature of our calendars. When we did go, chances were all the others who used to make up the mirthful parties would not be there. Ashok dadu and Manjushree dida were there, of course. But their daughters were married and the house seemed to be missing the old times. We were older. The ceilings did not seem as high as they used to. The rooms were smaller than we remembered from our childhood. Our grandparents visited us in Delhi, so Allahabad was no longer the holiday spot. We spent our holidays as tourists, exploring other parts of India and filling up photo albums. This year Ashok dadu passed away and Manjushree dida moved to another city to be with her daughter. The house was sold in a flash to avoid haggling and real-estate mafia. There were no regrets. There aren’t any even today. The house may soon be broken down and rebuilt as a block of flats with every modern convenience possible. It is not our Prayag Street any longer, with the people gone. Its spirit will haunt us, pleasantly, wherever we are.

(Written in November 2001)


Sudarshan said...

Hey, I like your style! Keep it going.
Found your blog while looking for bloggers with the same set of 'interests'...

Diligent Candy said...

...this post sends chills down my spine!

Uma said...

Just bumped into your blog.. n love your style of writing.. this post esp took me back to my grandparent's place n the numerous summers spent there..