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Published Book or Work by:

Ameeta Agnihotri

The Home That Was

The Home That Was
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Published by The Hindu

Strong and sturdy, the house represented our family to all of us. We lived in a closed knit unit that encompassed uncles, aunts, cousins, their kids and every other guest who decided to visit and stay. As children we never quite knew whom to call siblings and who to call cousins. It all seemed like one huge family living under one roof. I remember my mother and all the female relatives cooking happily in the kitchen, sometimes for as many as thirty people, without the slightest flutter of panic.

The house we all lived in was huge, or so it seemed when we were small. The rooms seemed endless, and had really solid, thick walls. Parts of it had a ground and first floor, that was beamed with wood, on which rested red Mangalore-like tiles. Each room had a name that described it, and my grandmother, Dadima, refused to call them by any other name. She always spoke to us in Gujarati, even though we were actually from Bhuj, and were supposed to be talking in Kuchchhi. Strong and big boned, she could freeze us with a single look. Even my Dadaji was petrified of her although he stood six feet tall and had a luxuriant moustache that curved upwards in true macho style.

A courtyard formed the center of all activity in the house. It never stopped fascinating me how you could not see into the house from outside, and there was no ‘gate’ as such, something our home, in Coimbatore has. A few steps led to the Deli, or outside door. We had platforms called Otlas on either side of the door, on the exterior, right next to the road. Made of solid wood, the Deli could be opened from outside as well as from inside. We left things lying in the courtyard, all night long, and nothing would actually happen to it. Nor would it go missing unless the object was a book that the cow decided to eat for her midnight snack, because it fluttered too close to her food for her to ignore and tasted different from her normal, boring grass.

Each morning, before dawn cracked, the goats and cow would be taken by a cowherd to destinations unknown, and be brought back every evening. One time, my brother, an aspiring cowherd went along with them just for the experience. ‘It was fun,’ he claimed, returning looking all red and dirty, but never volunteered to go again. A special room right next to the entrance, on one side of the courtyard held all the fodder for the cattle, making me wonder about the quantum of food they kept eating all day and night long. “Chew, moo, chew. That is all they do,” I sang at age six, deciding I wanted to be a poetess. An Enid Blyton fan, I decided to name the cattle. The cow was Bessie, the goats, although both female, were George and Billy.

Surrounding the courtyard, we had rooms that were meant for different purpose. One particular room held a lot of mystery for my young mind. Always locked, it was dark, intriguing, and I would sit on the staircase that led to the terrace wondering what was inside the trunks that lay stacked one on top of the other. Cobwebs, soft, fluffy and gray added to the untouchedness of the room, and the old lock, huge and secure protected all that was inside.

Obviously, precious things, I imagined. Diamonds, rubies, pearls and gold crammed lay crammed inside, like in Ali Baba’s cave, but never really ventured to ask my Dadima what it really was. Or even if I did, she did not really enlighten me, as I suspect even she did not herself quite remember.

What she did remember, though, was that the house was over two hundred and fifty years old. She told us tales of how her father, who was a very important minister in the king’s court had given her a share of his huge house as part of her dowry. The part that did not come to her, was divided into many smaller bits and bequeathed to other members of the family. During its undivided heyday, the house stretched from one end of the road to the other, and must have been filled with the happy sounds of at least a dozen children.

The rasodo, kitchen, a very important place, had a stove - a very crude counter top kind of structure that had two burners, with a large space underneath for the wood logs that formed its fuel. Lit early each morning, it burnt all day, and was used for every single need, including heating water for a bath. A sigri, coal stove, was used for smaller cooking needs like making rotlis, paper thin wheat chapattis, or a quick cup of tea. No Gujarati household is ever complete without a jhoola, and we were lucky to have two of them. One in the outside room, where the men entertained, and another in the inner room where the women sat with female guests. We, the children, would spend hours swinging higher and higher trying very hard to get out footsteps on the roof. A couple of times a few of us even slipped off, accidentally, but nothing serious ever happened as we were quite adept at taking care of ourselves. We would lie flat till the swing stopped, yell like crazy till every member of the household came rushing to see what the problem was, offer appropriate sympathy and go off to get on with their chores. Those were carefree days, with no television, no electricity and not too many cars. We walked all over Bhuj, whether it was to the shop at the market, or to the park, our daily evening outing.

At night, during the summer, we would put out the coir rope beds, with cotton mattresses on them, and sleep under the stars in the courtyard. I always made sure my bed was made as far away from the cattle as possible, afraid one of them would decide to nibble my hair off my scalp. After an early dinner, we were sometimes allowed to perform small plays, dances and songs for our family. I would imagine myself to be a Manipuri dancer, and bend as low as apooible in an attempt at being graceful. One of the bulliable cousins was made in charge of making sure everybody watched, and applauded. That experience has paid off, and today he is a leading solicitor with a thriving practice in Bombay.

My real sanctuary was a little attic like room. It had an attached terrace, and it was here that I spent a lot of time. I would read, write or simply be, listening to the sounds from the road below. The room was hot, very hot during the summer, but it was my private space, right there, atop a steep wooden staircase. You could not even stand straight in it, unless you stood in the middle of the inverted beamed V that sloped downwards, resting on the wall and supporting the roof.

During our last pilgrimage there, my sister and I had gone to pray to our family god. Now grown up, with families of our own, we felt that the house had shrunk. It no longer looked or felt as huge as it had during our childhood. It seemed sad to me, desolate almost, not half as mysterious, tired. My grandparents were both gone, in their place lived strange but welcoming tenants. The house had electricity and water flowed out of taps. Soft water no longer had to be drawn and brought from a well at the other end of town. Our tenants had TV, and the cattle fodder room was no longer in use. There were no cattle to feed. But it held a very important part of me, one I would not, could not let go.

Then, just as I was planning my next visit, it was all gone. Razed to the ground by violent jolts of fate. On January 26th 2001 we lost our ancestral home, one that we thought was invincible and strong. With it, we lost very dear members of our family. All that remains amidst the rubble is the tiny temple – the abode of our family god, and our memories. By Ameeta Agnihotri.

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