What is the name of this colony?’ the auto driver asked as I handed him the 100 he had asked for the drop home from the town, without a demur.
(For a long time now, I don't haggle with rickshaw drivers in my hometown. I have realized that it isn’t worth the bad blood it breeds between me and the driver who is also trying to make ends meet and fighting odds just as I am. A few units here and there shouldn’t be reason for people to have acrimony between them even if for a while. So I give them what they ask, which in any case isn’t a king’s ransom.)
‘I have never come here before,’ the driver said as if he had discovered a new archeological site, looking around.
‘Oh, it has been here since 1980. Nearly 42 years.’
The driver takes a good look at our house, a two-storey building, and asks, a wee sheepishly, ’Won’t it crumble and fall?’
'It hasn’t fallen so far,’ I say smugly, happy that the building has so far stood the test of time and weather.
As I cross the 42-year-old gate, I tell myself that this house, Ganesh Mandir, shall never fall, not until there is wind in my soul. The house has undergone a lot of changes from what it was when Appa bought it as a bare, unfurnished readymade unit in 1980 from the Kerala housing Board in installments. From a no frills, single storey, 3 BR house with red oxide floor to a double storey 4 BR with tiles to traipse on, it has transitioned sufficiently to suit our modern needs. Yet, it remains quintessentially the edifice of those times, with many things remaining intact, from its basic structure to all its furniture. The sofa set is 44 years old, and so is the dining table. The Godrej steel bureaus, a fixture in every household then, have been there from the earliest times, and there stands a Bajaj scooter in the garage as a marker to our humble beginnings and a happy past. From 1976 to now, it has been Appa’s hallmark, even after his tenure on earth expired. KLG 36. It is not a number to us. It is a legacy.
The house is an old soul with a quiet demeanour, although a lot of cosmetic changes have made it look snazzier than what it originally was. It lacks the opulence of a Gulfee’s mansion with none of the newfangled fittings and interiors to brag about. It still carries memories from our initial days in it when there was no water supply, and we used to get water from a nearby Municipality tank in pitchers and pots. Over the years, we saw it fall into disrepair, getting decrepit with age, falling off from ends and corners. The attrition it suffered pained us, like watching a loved one enduring a terminal illness. Termites ate into its innards, roots tunneled into its heart, monsoon rotted its façade, and slowly, it looked all set to become a memory.
Appa who promised to help us put some fresh life into it, left without honouring it, and we were left with a house, which like the auto driver suspected could crumble and become debris should the monsoons press the pedal a bit. Revival and resuscitation of something that had become so dilapidated wasn’t a challenge; it was a nightmare. Most people in the area had resorted to the easiest way out – of relieving the structure of its ailments by pulling the plug off. We saw many old houses in the locality being razed down and new, contemporary edifices being raised in their place. It was an option that we dismissed as unviable because there was a first floor which was only 15 years old.
If something could be done, it had to be exclusively done to the ground floor alone. The mere thought of a restoration of this magnitude beat the living daylights out of us, but one can’t leave a loved one to die without an attempt at revival, can we? We did what it would take to put Ganesh Mandir back in shape. It was arduous; months and months of uncertainty, contractor tantrums, remote control from Dubai, overshooting of budget and inordinate delays later, the house came back to some structural stability. A lot of things changed, but a lot remained the same.
One of the things that has remained constant from the time I can remember is the way our puja altar looks. Although a number of deities were sent into superannuation after the refurbishing, the basic arrangement still looks the same. The three large pictures that adorn the walls of the puja room have been part of my earliest memories. And the Guruvayurappan in the middle is something that has graced our home for 55 years now. It was purchased by my parents at Guruvayur soon after their wedding, and the fact that it still stands tall without peeling off, with only some bit of its original colour paling, is testimony to the fact that the house is in safe hands. Amma wanted to know if we could do a digital enhancement of the picture, but I insisted that it remain as it is. Taking it off the frame might break the paper and even if it is safely separated, any improvement will purloin its sentimental value.
To me, this picture is like O. Henry’s Last Leaf. Till the portrait survives, and till He surveys the precincts with His benevolent eyes, this house will not fall. Every time people quiz me about the purpose of keeping the house when in all probability, we may never return to drop anchor there, I say, ‘It’s a bridge between my past and my future. Burning it would mean razing my identity to dust. To us, our family, Ganesh Mandir isn’t a house. It's our permanent address. It is the quintessence of our life. It is the cradle of our destiny.'