The House of My People

If you reach a certain address at the Greenfield School Lane in Sambalpur, Odisha, you’ll come across a big green walled house. That’s my house. My permanent residence. Even though I haven’t lived there for over twelve years now. The earliest memories I have of this house is from 1996 or 1997 when I would come here for the holidays. It was my grandparents’ place back then. And my father would get me here whenever he could. Of course, I’d been here before but that’s only as far as I can remember. I loved coming here because it was a break from my otherwise troublesome life. 

And I remember the house being very different from how it is now. The architecture didn’t change but the house’s identity did. For example, when my grandfather was around, the central hall always had this smell of Colgate tooth powder that he used to clean his dentures with and even now, that smell invariably reminds me of him. And the kitchen used to be my grandmother’s kingdom. The kitchen, with walls coated with a layer of residual oil from her oil-heavy cooking, always had the most pleasant fragrances. I had this love affair with fried potato back then where I’d have it with every meal and my grandma indulged me to no small end.

The house I think was built between 1989 and 1992, with my grandfather’s hard earned money and a home loan that he paid off in a few years but cribbed about for the rest of his days. It was their retirement haven, built in the city of their ancestors but they never seemed to like it all that much. It never matched up to their earlier quarters at Rourkela in the NIT campus. I guess that was home for them. Their logic for building this house in Sambalpur was to be around the many relatives that reside in the city, but the funny thing was that my grandparents weren’t very social. Or maybe they became that way eventually, I don’t know.

My grandma’s brother was given the task of building the house and he swindled a lot of money in the process. This was the first heartbreak for my grandfather associated with the house, and it stung more because he had practically raised this brother-in-law. My grandma swore to never talk to that brother and she never did. (She died this September.) When they moved to the house after my grandfather’s retirement in 1991, it took some getting used to for my grandmother because for several years before this she’d lived in a residential colony of a reputed educational institute where things were supposedly more organized and resources more readily available. And here they were, on their own in their own city, which seemed strangely hostile.

But they eventually got used to it, even though their quarters in Rourkela always remained a fond memory. Anyway, coming back to the house, my grandparents decided to live on the first floor and rent out the ground floor, a decidedly weird choice (because people usually rent out the upper floors) which was based on the assumption that the tenants’ kids would run around and my grandfather didn’t want to have to listen to the noise by letting out the first floor. My tryst with the house began in the year 2000, after my father passed away and I became my grandfather’s legal ward. I have written about that time at length but never from the perspective of the house.

The house saw a young new resident – me, and frankly I think it wasn’t prepared, just like my grandparents, who in their sixties, found themselves raising a kid. I remember the central hall had these two inclined resting chairs which faced the television which was at the other end of the hall. It’s funny how every furniture at that period was customized for only my grandparents. If you were to sit next to them, you’d need to drag a chair from the adjacent room. So, the resting chairs, were lined with soft Turkish towels, with my grandmother’s chair having an extra cushion for back support, and my grandfather’s chair being a restricted area, as in he had a rule that I couldn’t sit on it. The same went for their bed in the inner room – I wasn’t allowed to get on it with my dirty feet. 

I had my own room, the outer bed room, with a cozy bed, a couch and a desert cooler. I remember my grandfather never installed any curtains on the windows because he believed that we always needed the sunlight streaming in. And he had installed these nets in all windows and even the skylights, because he hated bugs and mosquitoes. And he had blocked all drain outlets to keep rodents out. Let’s just say my grandfather wasn’t a fan of pests in general. It was almost like a neurosis. It was an old people house and frankly, I wasn’t all that wild so it stayed more or less the same through the years. There were changes, of course. Like my grandfather has these two wooden cupboards filled with books. I added a new shelf for my book collection. I painted the wall of my room and put up posters of Phantom, the ghost who walks. 

Over the years, the house saw a lot. It saw me sneaking my girlfriends in, it saw my fights with my grandma about the girl I was seeing, it saw me grow up, it saw me finding a couple of sexy magazines among my father’s stuff and it saw me hiding them in the terrace for future entertainment purposes. It saw ups and downs but didn’t change much through the years, that is until I left it in 2007 to pursue higher studies. After that, my grandfather went nuts with the interiors. He’d go on to install things which my grandmother was too old to actually use, like that electric chimney he installed in the kitchen which my grandma never remembered to switch on and eventually gathered oil residue like the walls. Or the air conditioner in their bedroom which my grandmother was too scared to switch on because of the fear of big electricity bills, and whenever she did switch it on, she’d end up switching it off because the room got too cold.

Then in 2013, my grandfather fell ill and succumbed to his illness. It was one of those things that change the landscape of a family. I got mature overnight, being forced to fend for myself. (I was already working but still felt dependent on my folks but Dadaji’s death kind of shoved me on my feet.) But I never lived at the house, so it was open to the whims and fancies of my uncle and grandma who lived there. They changed the house as and how they saw fit. Every time I’d visit, the house would be a little different from before, be it new paint, installation of new gadgets in the house or the whole new purpose of the ground floor, which my uncle made his work space, using it to teach Spoken English to the neighbor kids.

Over the next few years, a lot of things happened. It can all be summarized in three words – disease, death and change. My mother-in-law, who took care of both my uncle and my grandmother in their last days, did a lot of remodeling of the house to make it more convenient, adding an outhouse where a family lives and helps her with the day to day upkeep of the house. Over time, I started feeling disconnected from the house, for no particular reason.

I visited the house recently and was wondering how different it is now from my childhood. I reflected back on the last few years where I’d stopped thinking of this house as my own. In the last few years, I’d visit but like a guest. I’d eat out and avoid spending too much time in the house, which really felt like a stranger. But this time round, it again felt like my house, even though almost everyone who made it my home are gone now. My mother-in-law has decorated this wall in the outer room with pictures of my grandparents, my father and uncle and me. This is strangely ironic because my folks would never put up pictures of themselves and yet, this wall is the only reminder of them having lived here. Of course, there’s my memories too.

It was a strange realization I hit this time round – that this house, however different it might be from before, is still my house, the house of my people. A lot of people have been advising me to sell the house off and buy something in Jaipur or Delhi where I’ve been working, but I know that I will never sell this house, it is all that’s left of my family.


Popular posts from this blog

Why Fighting Propaganda is an Uphill Battle

Instant Connection. Or Not?

Juice Review: Raw Pressery 100% Valencia Orange

26th February, 2017 5:30 AM

Quick Link to All My Story Series & Selected Articles