Posted by: gdevi | July 30, 2010

Fixing a Hole

My father was a good engineer who built beautiful houses for other people and sturdy roads, bridges, dykes and seawalls for the state, but our own house was in a constant state of disrepair throughout our childhood. We were always building additional rooms, taking down walls, putting in doors, building shelves, expanding to the left, the right, the back and the front. Our house confused not only our guests but also us from one year to the next. We laughed with added acknowledgement when Inspector Clouseau used the “old closet ploy.” Don’t open that door, buddy. It is not the street door. You are now in the cow shed.

My mother, an unworldly woman was completely unaffected by the ever-changing blue print of our house and worked around it without complaint. The only time I heard her complain was when the tall coconut tree next to the kitchen got a case of windfall and coconuts started to crash down on the slate roof of the kitchen and smashing the tiles. These cracks were imperceptible from below but we knew they were there when the monsoon hit us and the kitchen started to leak. Come and look at this, mother would say, how can I cook in here with it leaking like this? Bring me an umbrella. This is ridiculous. The same thing happened the year before and the one before . I would like to die after cooking in a non-leaking kitchen at least once. Why don’t you cut down this tree?

Achan didn’t like to cut trees down. Besides it was a healthy tree with a fine yield. It was foolish to cut such trees down. We will work around the tree, he said. How wonderful, we said, the next one is going to come through the roof and crash down on our heads. When I first read Charles Bukowski’s gorgeous poem “We didn’t have money but we had rain,” I was reminded of how I used to walk around the house with appropriately proportionate pots and pans to catch the leaks from this coconut missile launcher.

. .. and all the roofs leaked-

dishpans,

cooking pots,

were placed all about;

they dripped loudly

and had to be emptied

again and

again.

That was my job.  I have an idea for remodeling the kitchen, achan said. It will be done this summer. Good. Do something, amma said. I will catch pneumonia if I work in here.

So when summer came achan decided to remodel the kitchen. Schools close for summer vacation in Kerala on March 31 and reopen on June 1st. We had developed a system over the years when amma, Appu and I would visit amma’s and achan’s families for a few weeks during which time achan would stay back and work on the house. Every summer we came back to a complicated new house. My old room was the new garage, the old garage was my brother’s new room, the old storeroom was my new room, my parent’s old room was the new living room, the old living room was the new verandah, the old dining room was totally gone, the old kitchen was the new dining room and so on. The house in general had expanded so much to the right that there was hardly one man-space between my window and the compound wall and our house sat on a big compound. There was a crazy painter that my father called each year and he came back as the authority on this season’s colors. Wild lilac, child, wild lilac, that is the color this year, he would tell us waving his paint brush ominously.

Because we were children we enjoyed this confusion. We did not know where anything was anymore. The beds were propped against the wall because the floors were being done, some walls were still unfinished and mortar crumbled under your fingers. Where are my books? Where are my clothes? Where is my pencil? Where is the coffee? Where is the bathroom? Amma would get upset at all the strange men walking through the house. They were laborers working on the house, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, painters. Some of them were creepy young men who would stare at me even though I was only ten eleven years old. They stared long and hard at the young girl who worked in the yard and who tried to flirt with them when amma was not looking. Stop your acting, dear girl, amma would tell her, or you’ll end up with trouble you don’t want.

The kitchen, as achan promised, would be completely new. We used a wood stove for many years even after everybody else had moved into cooking gas and then electricity. There was a new long, deep, wide counter for the stove with three stove spaces into which wood would be fed. Below the counter was the hollow space where we stored wood. The new counter was plastered with red oxide and the chimney was cleaned. Old shelves would be repainted and loose legs tightened. There was a new sink but it was a challenge washing dishes in it. Achan was nearly six foot tall, amma nearly five, our household help and I even smaller then, and the sink was made for achan’s height and not for any of us. It required you to have extraordinarily long arms . If a spoon fell inside the sink, all of us would have to literally bend our body right at the waist like a curved hairpin to reach inside the sink and retrieve it. It was like immersing your face into a cool dark cave searching with your fingers for the lost object. Gave us a standing back pain.

The coconut tree was still there, where it had always been.  The broken tiles on the roof were replaced and special reinforcement made over the areas likely to be broken by the tree in case of another windfall. The same thing is going to happen again, amma said, the coconuts will start falling in the wind and this roof is going to leak again. Why don’t we change the roof tiles to concrete so even if they fall it won’t leak? Besides I can use the terrace to dry things without the dog getting into them. It would be useful to have a terrace.

Our house was one of the few in the neighborhood to have the old tiled style of roof instead of the more modern concrete ones. One of the reasons why our house sprawled so much to the sides was because we refused to build a second floor to the house; we wanted a house with only one level. Amma was beginning to see that it might after all be advantageous to have a terrace, the main reason being that our dogs got into anything we set out on the ground to dry in the sun, like nuts, grains or fruits. The back yard is full of trees and plants and enough sun doesn’t come through and if there is a terrace we can dry clothes very easily, amma added.

We didn’t build a second floor to the house until 1993.  I was in grad school then. Achan had had two heart attacks and a triple bypass surgery in the three years I left Trivandrum to study in the US; I didn’t know what a bypass surgery was like. There was a good doctor at the Grand Forks Clinic whose name I don’t remember now who agreed to meet with me and explain the surgery that my father was undergoing; he loaned me a video as well. A good kind doctor. After he recovered from the surgery, achan wrote me that he was going to build another floor to the house and give the kitchen a concrete roof.  Before I die, I want to give amma a non-leaking kitchen, he said. I was kept up to date on the house building through letters and phone. What color paint would you like in your room, achan asked me. I really don’t have a preference, I said, anything other than wild lilac would be fine with me. There is a big, tall window in your room, achan said, since you always liked windows. It looks out into the side yard.

When I went to India in 1994 for my brother’s wedding I relived the confusion and surprise that used to seize me when we came back from our childhood summer vacations. The house was completely different from anything I remembered.  The troublesome coconut tree was still there but everything else was different. The old living room as usual was the new verandah, achan’s old office and amma’s old office were combined to make the new living room, the huge old dining room had been made more compact, part of it given over to the new kitchen and another part extended out to build my new room, my brother’s new room was on the second floor. The kitchen was completely new, the sink as usual was this time a little too low, but the roof was fibre glass–take that coconut tree!–and the kitchen was bathed in all the sunlight we could ever want. Amma dried nuts, grains and fruits on the terrace and hung clothes out to dry there as well.

I loved my room. It was painted a sober ivory and I could sit and read by the window. My friend Judy Sargent who worked at the University had come with me for Appu’s wedding and to see India and Jude and I shared my room for the month. Most of my old books were there, but some were missing too. Where are my old notes, I asked amma. That must be in the junk room, amma said. We saved the junk for you since you like to clean. Why don’t you clean the room and look for the things we want to keep, amma asked me. The junk room was my brother’s old room and it was while we dusted and cleaned and sorted through old stuff that I got to know my brand new sister-in-law well. She was only a few days married to Appu and I thought, what better way to get to know us all than to see all the junk that we have. We sorted through all that old stuff, my brother’s notes and texts, his posters, machinery, my old books, amma’s old books, achan’s ledgers and books, road maps, newspapers, magazines, shoes, umbrellas, photographs, old records, turntables, lamp shades. I was completely pleased to share the ordinary and extraordinary story behind every piece of junk with our new darling.

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Responses

  1. dear cuz, what a lovely memory. i am inspired to add stories to my blog, rather than only post on what the kids are up to… maybe I will start finding the time one of these days.
    I loved picturing your home while reading… i had stayed in appu’s old room when I was there in 2000.
    hugs and love,
    sunita

    • Yes– I love that photo you took of two year old Luma playing with the water hose on the terrace! Very beautiful picture! Thanks cuz – much love to you and all – G.


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