Date of birth?
The high-priced, full-service agent scratched my responses laboriously onto a dirty-cream-coloured application form that, when complete, would get me documentation I needed urgently.
My silence made him look up. “Permanent address?” he asked again.
I was three days old when my mom and dad took me home from the maternity wing of Calicut Medical College. I was 30 days old when my parents left me in the care of my grandparents and went back to Madras, to resume the professional lives I had inadvertently interrupted.
“Home” was Meledath, the 200-year-old naalukettu that housed the Kelanallur Panicker clan, a joint family that at the time comprised 21 adults, about a dozen or so of their dependents and one child—me, the first grandchild.
I grew up in that enormous house, bookended on one side by a temple dedicated to Shiva and on the other side by a kalari, the traditional gymnasium where the martial art form kalaripayattu was taught under the aegis of Bhagavathy, the warlike avatar of the goddess Shakti. I was weaned on the milk of goat and buffalo, and on tobacco—this last thanks to Ammalu, a family retainer who, tasked with caring for me, quietened my high spirits with regular doses of water in which tobacco leaves had been soaked.
I wandered the extensive grounds with my miniature axe and shovel, courtesy my grandfather who believed that male children needed to learn basic agrarian skills. I mimicked the moves of the oiled, ripped, loincloth-clad students practicing their warlike moves in the kalari, and I learned to swim in the temple tank with the help of two dried coconuts tied together to form an impromptu flotation device.
There was no electricity, no gas. Food was cooked on wood fires. The ceremonial nilavilakku, lit at sunset, provided illumination. The family gathered around that light burning bright on the front porch. Granddad and Grandmom told stories. From the Ithihyamala—literally “garland of myths”, Kottarathil Sankunni’s collection of Kerala’s foundational myths and legends. From the Panchatantra, the Kathasaritasagara, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata. Born raconteurs, they made these stories come to life as the flames flickered and misshapen shadows danced on the walls.
Every morning, I went to the Little Flower School in a rickshaw pulled by Maaku, the family’s man for all reasons, and I learnt the alphabet and how to arrange the letters into words, and those words into sentences. Every evening I heard new stories and, through those stories and the shadings my grandparents gave them in the telling, I unconsciously imbibed the values that would shape me for life.
In that first home I had ever known, that storied home whose every stone was infused with the lived history of a land and its people, I learned that we are the sum of our stories.
I was 12 when my parents decided I was sufficiently low-maintenance and transplanted me to their home in Madras. It was there that I began to hate “going home”.
This second home was a two-bedroom apartment on the third floor of a building reserved for senior employees of the Telephones Department, in the suburb of Chromepet.
It was small, at least in comparison to the home I had left behind. It felt claustrophobic after those endless corridors, the large high-ceilinged rooms and the surrounding land with its hundreds of coconut and areca palms and mango and jackfruit trees.
It was silent. Oppressively so, in comparison to the cacophony I was used to, with over two dozen adults bustling around tending to the fields, cooking enormous meals and roasting jackfruit seeds on beds of coal just in time for the nightly storytelling sessions.
My mornings, spent in Christian College High School with its five stadium-sized playgrounds and enormous classrooms, in the company of like-minded, sports-loving peers, were idyllic, more so as the syllabus was challenging, the faculty first-rate, and original thinking was preferred over rote recitation. It was the evenings and nights, spent within the low-ceilinged rooms of our apartment where the walls seemed to close in on me, that made me fretful, miserable.
Dad and Mom were stereotypical professionals. They worked in the same department, but in different branches. Dinner-table conversation—the only kind that involved me—began with pro forma inquiries about my day but then segued into office gossip. After dinner, they retired to their own room to talk late into the nights, while I worked off my energies in my bedroom, bouncing a tennis ball off the walls and whacking it with a cricket bat until I was peremptorily ordered to cut out the noise.
At some point, even those perfunctory inquiries into my day stopped. The dining table was papered over with blueprints, plans, bank statements, loan applications, as my parents plunged headlong into the quintessential middle-class dream. They had bought a plot of land, newly reclaimed from Velachery lake, and were planning to build a home.
Construction began. Various members of the family came on extended visits to offer supervisory help. The house took shape in incremental stages. When complete, it would be the first home anyone in the family had built outside of the ancestral tharavad. Everyone marinated in a sense of excitement, of hope, of accomplishment. Everyone, that is, except me.
My infrequent visits to the construction site were invariably under duress. All it meant for me was that Dad and Mom took to going to the site straight from work and returning home close to midnight. Rinse, repeat, for months on end. Days would pass with no more than a passing glimpse of either of them. I took to leaving notes on their bedroom table. “Need Rs 500 for a school picnic.” “Cricket bat broke. Have match this weekend.” “Got fever. Went to doc. Got medicines. Owe Saroj Pharmacy Rs 86.”
As my physical world shrank, I lost myself in the other, much larger, world that opened to me when Dad taught me to read. How, is a long story. I wallowed in the world of kings and queens and swashbuckling musketeers, of little women and of the belles of the antebellum South, and of dukes and the dilettantes of the Drones Club and of a pig named Empress. I read the epics, revisiting the stories my grandparents had told me and discovering fresh layers. I fought battles alongside Achilles and agonized over the latest predicament of Odysseus, and I explored the world of Kovalan and Kannagi and the Pandyan king Nedunchezhiyan. One thing led to another and that other thing led to a boxer named Muhammad Ali and two worlds I inhabited, of sport and of story, met and neatly melded.
Somewhere along the way, we moved into the newly built house, a sprawling structure that, in design terms, was a series of boxes linked together by corridors.
“Come to our home for dinner this Saturday,” Dad would tell his friends, striving for a matter-of-fact tone and failing by a mile to mask his pride. “We are having a get together at our home this weekend—hope you can make it,” Mom would croon into the phone, making no effort to downplay the possessive pronoun.
Residential address: 36, Telephone Colony, Adambakkam, Madras 88.
Permanent address: As above.
To me, it was just a house. Larger than the apartment. With a yard in front, and a terrace where mom could have her clotheslines and where I fashioned a little reading nook in one corner, with a bamboo chair and a footstool and an upturned dealwood box that held my notebook and pencils and a jug of water. It had a low parapet—I damn near fell off of it and broke my neck, once, that time we discovered the magic of colour television and of World Cup football—but it had no walls closing in on me.
About 500 metres away, further down the road, was the perimeter of the lake, which in summer turned into a vast, lush playground where we learned, thanks to the groundsman of the nearby Guru Nanak College, how to make a proper, brick-layered cricket pitch.
We formed a team—Adambakkam Cricket Club. We found a sponsor—Gururajan, an employee of The Hindu newspaper who had an open purse, a good arm and limitless enthusiasm when it came to throwdowns. We found a core group of good players: KR Murali, who was by then playing first division in the TNCA league; Fabian Heaton, who shared DNA with then national player Roger Binny; Michael, who had a cute sister who thought I looked like a downsized version of Ravi Shastri; ST Dileepan, the left-arm fast bowler who captained Madras State Electricity Board when he wasn’t playing for us…
Early mornings were for practice with the school team. Then classes. Then evening practice with the ACC boys and, hopefully, a few stolen minutes with Michael’s sis. And then home, where I took to serving myself dinner early so I could slip away to the terrace, and into the next book, the next flight of someone’s fancy, with the sense of relief a prisoner feels when granted parole.
Aesthetics was never Dad’s strong suit—he once decided to give my mom, then visiting her sister in Kerala, what he thought would be a pleasant surprise, and so he painted the whole house a shimmering shade of grey. That lasted for about 48 hours after her return; Mom had the house repainted in pastels overlaid with a veneer of acrimony (“Unnecessary expense… could have let it be for a year… not like grey is a bad colour…”)
Another of his inspired design ideas lasted for far longer. The street-facing side of the house, for some reason not clear to me, was done up like a police station, complete with a brick overlay in red oxide paint, with the edges of the bricks outlined in white.
It looked like a prison and, as time passed, it began to feel like one—a prison where I was immured behind the bars of parental ambition. I did well in school not because I wanted to or tried particularly hard, but because studies came easy. My good grades became the compost for my family’s dreams.
“He should study medicine.” That was Mom. “I want him to join the army”—Dad, dreaming out loud. “You should make him an army surgeon”—a compromise formula devised by my uncle, youngest of my dad’s three brothers, who had just finished his MD.
These conversations dominated dinner. They happened in my presence, with everyone talking about me, around me, like I didn’t have a voice, like I didn’t have ambitions of my own. Like I wasn’t there.
School became a trap—the better I did, the more they nursed and nurtured dreams I wanted no part of. I learned to smoke. Then I discovered weed. One of my classmates was “Porukki” (thug) Suresh—a sobriquet conferred on him because, a) he was our enforcer, and b) he was the son of the chief of a gang of well-known pickpockets who even had a colony of their own, off to one side of the foot bridge connecting Chetpet railway station with the road leading to our school. Being friends with Suresh had its advantages—for one thing, no one messed with you, and for another, he was a safe, steady supplier of high-quality weed.
I graduated from school to college—where I was shoehorned against my will into the science stream—and from weed to opium, and then to the needle, with a serving of Mandrax on the side.
A fortuitous concatenation of circumstances—my mom developing a migraine and returning home early to find me passed out on the floor, frothing at the mouth; neighbour uncle, a doctor, deciding to have lunch at home for a change and thus being within hailing distance—saved me from death by overdose.
“Another fifteen minutes…” doctor uncle told me, wagging a portentous finger.
My parents took me to a pricey psychiatrist who, after several sittings, presented them with a big bill and a duh diagnosis: Your son is acting up because he feels isolated, alienated, alone.
So they packed me off to Meledath, to the home of my grandparents. And enrolled me in Malabar Christian College—no relation to the Madras Christian version I had attended till then.
“If he doesn’t like science, and medicine, don’t force him.”
“Let him do the History and Economics double major, he can then sit for the IAS exam.”
The venue for the family conference had changed—we were back in the front porch of the ancestral home, now brightly lit by two tube lights and an incongruous “antique” pedestal lamp of brass tricked out in curlicues that had blackened with the accumulated grime of time.
There was no expanse of land cocooning the house, not any more. The two temples and the lands they stood on had been handed over to trusts. The land in the immediate vicinity of the tharavad had been portioned off to my father, his brothers and sister, and it was all overgrown with neglect.
Whatever was left had been given, by deed of gift, to various of the family retainers, who had set up their own tea stalls and provision stores and a banana-chips outlet.
That house—the earliest, and only, real home I had ever known—seemed strangely shrunk. Perhaps because it was no longer peopled with voices, with laughter, and with stories told in the light of a flickering oil lamp. Granddad and Grandmom had shrivelled with age, pale imitations of the majesty of their pomp, and of my memory. They spent most of their time in twin armchairs in an inner room, silent, eyes fixed on the wall and on the past that they replayed on endless mental loop.
I wanted to enrol for the literature course. “And do what? Become a teacher in some school? Do what we tell you, it is for your own good…”
So, “for my own good”, I signed up for history, which I aced because history, if you ignore the prosy drone of the professor and explore on your own in the cavernous, and mostly empty, college library, is nothing more than richly textured stories.
Economics, though, I hated, because I never could see the point of learning how much rice and wheat India had produced in each year since Independence, as taught by a professor who regurgitated the words of the prescribed text without ever venturing an opinion or entertaining a question.
I used the time to explore music, and drama; to rediscover my love for the playing fields; to re-read the epics and discover the classics of world literature. I watched over my grandfather who, after a massive heart attack, lost his love for books and for argument and for fish cooked in an earthen pot over a wood fire, and for roasted jackfruit seeds, and for me, until one day he went to sleep after a meal of rice gruel and never woke up again. I watched over my grandmother as she moved, in imperceptible stages, from deep grief to apathy and from there, into dementia.
When the time came for my final exam, I told my outraged parents, and the extended family, that I was dropping out.
I moved back to Madras, into a home roiled by the pervasive sense of betrayal, of loss.
For my parents, I was the ne’er-do-well who had betrayed their dreams, their hopes, the lofty aspirations they had nourished for their firstborn. “We hate going anywhere these days because when people ask what our son is doing, what do we tell them?” Mom said that to me, once, her tongue sharp as a Kikuichi knife.
On my part, there was a sense of loss—of a home that had taught me to dream in stories, of youth frittered away trying to measure up to the dreams of others. The loss of identity, of a sense of self, of self-worth.
Chance took me to Bombay with the proverbial train ticket and Rs 800 in my pocket and put me in a newspaper office, as trainee, on a stipend of Rs 750 a month. The kindness of strangers put a roof over my head and food in my tummy; dumb luck and an editor prepared to take a punt on “talent” that he claimed to have spotted in me got me a decent newspaper gig.
My progress was measured by acquisitions—the keys to a rented apartment; a girl who had waited for over three years in the hope that I would find my feet and ask her to marry me; a bed; a couple of chairs…
A more accurate yardstick of professional success was the distance I had to travel to work. Validation was measured by kilometres of railway track—the less I travelled, the more successful I was. An apartment in Dombivili. Then Tilak Nagar. Then Vashi, where, early in the morning of 17 March 1997, a cousin knocked on the door to tell me that my estranged father had died of a heart attack.
From Vashi to New York City, and an apartment two blocks away from the Empire State Building, on the same street as the hotel a bruised and battered Muhammad Ali had recuperated in after his 1971 loss to Smokin’ Joe Frazier. And from there, back to Bombay, to a home in Chembur on the street that was once home to the storied Kapoors of Bollywood, to Ashok Kumar and to Hema Malini among others. And then to Bangalore (now Bengaluru), where I moved to join Yahoo and where I have remained since quitting full-time employment, mostly because of inertia and because I don’t know what “going back home” means and even if I did, I had no real home to go back to.
Sixty years, five cities, at least a dozen different homes to which I have had the front-door key—and no real sense of a single one of these places. What does it say of me when I’ve felt more at home in the house of a very good friend in Delhi where I stayed for a week earlier this year than I ever have in any of these places I have rented and lived in?
Calicut, Madras, Bombay, New York, Bangalore—these cities have hosted me at some time or other for extended periods of time without ever making me want to put down roots. The cities morphed and changed and transformed around me while I remained largely oblivious, intent only on chasing the stories I wanted to tell. Stories of riots and bomb blasts and terrorist strikes in Bombay; of a small community of Indian expats in the US of A; of cricket everywhere…
A nagging need to find my roots—or, more accurately, to discover if I had any at all—took me back to Calicut in 2009. There I found a ruin waiting to happen, as I wrote here and, some five years later when I went back, it had become a hole in the ground, as I documented here.
My mother’s gradual slide into dementia took me, with increasing frequency, back to Madras, by now Chennai, until the day she—who by then had forgotten who I was—went to sleep one night and forgot how to breathe.
I’ve been back to Chennai a few times to make up for lost time with my sister, and to pass on to my two young nieces the stories I grew up on. And it has felt strange every single time. Alien. No ties of possession, of emotion, bound me to that place, that house that Dad and Mom had built with so much of hope.
Once, it was a community—Telephone Colony was, as the name implies, inhabited by employees of the Chennai branch of the state-owned telecom company BSNL, all of whom had bought plots of land at government-subsidised rates on the fringes of Velachery lake.
The lake itself, which once spanned upwards of a hundred acres, is now a tiny sliver “protected from encroachment” by a metal fence. Where water once stood over a dozen feet deep, there is now a high-end shopping mall my nieces drag me to for ice cream. Roughly where we had our cricket pitch stands a provision store, cheek by jowl with another “superstore” selling pretty much the same stuff.
The colony was once a vibrant place, inhabited by a group of people working in the same office, rising through the ranks together. They all knew each other, they shared the bonds of a common profession, of common themes for gossip. And in the nature of close-knit communities, they were forever in and out of each other’s homes. Any one’s business was everyone’s business—to my considerable annoyance, because I could never walk down the streets without being lectured at, harangued about the grief I was causing my parents.
My sister tells a story that typified Telephone Colony. Dad, for reasons of health, used to go for a long walk every evening. He missed one day because he had an engagement somewhere; he missed the next day because there was something on TV he wanted to watch. Early evening of the third day, the bell rang. It was a neighbour, who dropped by because he was “passing through”. While the neighbour was sharing tea and gossip, the bell rang again. Another neighbour, who also happened to be “passing through”. And another, and another. Pretty soon, as my sister tells it, the living room was full of neighbours, and she was getting fed up of making tea.
Turned out, every single one of them had noticed that my dad had missed his walk and had come calling to find out if he was okay.
It was that kind of place.
I went back to Chennai, to that home, for one last time in mid-June this year. I walked those streets late that evening, and I counted the passage of time in the numbers of the dead.
My dad and mom, dead. The “uncles” who were dad’s colleagues, and who had bought the plots on either side of our home and built their homes at the same time as us, dead. Another colleague, who owned the home at the end of the street, dead. The inhabitants of five of the eight houses in the adjoining street, dead, and a sixth, terminally ill. The two others had sold their homes and moved off to parts unknown.
Standalone bungalows have given place to high-to-medium sized apartment buildings; the population has quadrupled, and now nobody knows anybody. “Who knows?” is my sister’s standard response when I ask who lives in this or that house. That, and a shrug of one shoulder.
I walked long into that night through a colony of ghosts, each of whom I knew by name.
On 22 July this year, after waiting in a cramped, stuffy, airless anteroom for a little over six hours, my sister and I stepped into the office of the sub-registrar, Velachery, and signed away our father’s home to a builder. I was, finally and truly, homeless.
“Sir? SIR! Your permanent address, please?”
NA, I told him. Just put down “Not Applicable”.