My great-grandmother, a healthy woman till the end, died six years at the age of a hundred. Three generations of the family: my, my mother’s and her mother’s; gathered together at our ancestral home for the first time after nearly twenty years to pay our respects.
Six years later, we were back here again. The same people, the same place. But for someone else, something else. I got the shock of my life when my sister called me and asked me to pack my bags and come back home. I, naturally, assumed the worst. My mother, intuitive as ever, called me next to tell me that, no, no one had died.
The old Tharavaad – our ancestral home – was going to be destroyed.
Great-grandmother, or Grandma as we called her, had the Tharavaad built long back when she was 10 and had succeeded her late mother as the matriarch of the family. For nearly 100 years, the place stood, living as long as Grandma did. Now, she was gone. It would go too.
Grandma used to tell that one shouldn’t kick the doors of a house – any house. To do so was to disrespect it. The door was there to protect you, to keep you safe. It was the weakest link in your sturdy structure of a house. It must be respected.
The first thing to go was the door. When they came to destroy our Tharavaad, the first thing they broke down was the door. The construction guy kicked at it first. I noticed it. I turned to my father and said so. But he was too busy talking to this guy and that guy chose to ignore me.
I had vehemently opposed the destruction of the place. I was fond of it but as an uncle pointed out to me, as I hadn’t visited it in many years, why would I be interested in it? I had asked for a reason why the house needed to be destroyed at all. And my mother, with the scornful looks of the family, had taken me aside and said that the land on which the Tharavaad stood was worth a lot of money. The land would be sold, Grandma’s will would be read, and all her belongings that were not part of the will would be auctioned off.
And that was it. I didn’t say anything because I was not sure what I could say. The elders had satisfied looks on their faces, thinking that I had no argument. My sister, my cousins, and my wife were the only people who stood by me. They could empathize. My wife had only heard the stories. But my sister and my cousins were part of the stories.
The Tharavaad was a vast, single storey building that, in its heyday, had housed over two-dozen members comfortably. But, last month the north-wall was brought down by the years of neglect and a thunderstorm. At the same time, the members of the family spread out across the world also came to the decision. The house would go and also the surrounding family lands with it. Everyone present had taken one last look of the house. Most refused to go in for fear that it would simply fall down any minute. Others, like my sister, said a proper goodbye to the house that held so many memories.
The Tharavaad had been a symbol of unity to us; at least that is what I used to believe. The house from which we all came, the house from which all families in our family tree began and spread out and multiplied. But no one came back anymore. We have been absorbed into our lives outside, in the world, away from our own selves, tapped into a mobile phone or plugged online. We all lost touch with our past and our memories. We made new memories far away from home.
When I was young, they told me that one day the Tharavaad would go. It would die after everyone leaves. I had refused to believe it then. There was no particular memory that brought me back to this place. For me, it was a place of permanence. And I didn’t want it to go. So, when I grew up, I promised myself, I would come back here, to stay here, and to protect it. But things didn’t happen the way I wanted. To my eternal shame, I lost touch with my past too.
Another uncle (or perhaps, he was some cousin of mine) asked me in heavy Malayalam tongue what I did for a living these days. I didn’t understand a word he said and had to embarrass myself by asking my wife for a translation of what he said. I replied, in what little bit of the tongue I could manage, that I was working in a bank in Hong Kong. I doubt he paid attention. The damage was done. He began a monologue about how children these days had begun to follow the path of loneliness and despair and had left their parents behind and had started living separately from them. The old traditions were forgotten and lost to the new generation. The old ways were dying out and, with it, the children of the Tharavaad themselves didn’t want it, so what was the point of having it. Throughout, my wife obliged me with a running translation of everything. Although I could understand what he was saying in bits and pieces, I still had to listen to her to translate his words, if only to get the whole picture. By the end of it, I felt disgusted. I wanted to say that it had been my intention to stop the destruction of the Tharavaad because I felt it was important to keep it for us. I was even going to offer to buy it then. But I became too conscious of myself and my lack of reason for wanting to stay the half-dilapidated house from being destroyed. So I said nothing. Instead, I told my wife that I needed some time alone with my thoughts and went away. She read my mind and asked me to be careful. I could hear my uncles and aunts laughing but I paid no attention. If this was to be the end of my past, my childhood, I wanted, at least, one last look at it.
My path was small, but filled to the brim
I travel along it, sipping at whim
The journey wasn’t long. There was a dirt road built that, I was sure, wasn’t there before. A grand-uncle had built a new house nearby the Tharavaad and had renovated the surrounding area in an effort to invite everyone back to their past. It was the pitying cry of a man who was unwilling to let go and we all thought of it the same way. No one answered his call. His house still remains to this day (it’s where we were all staying during our visit), the effort of his two sons who had decided to keep it and earned a hefty profit with money obtained from farming and harvesting the fields around the house. But back then, the grand-uncle was alone.
The grand-uncle’s dirt roads connected the new house to the old house and at the same time became a kind of heritage walk to me. I glimpsed into the old cowshed where our cows Nullini, Meenakshi, Madhu, Kavita, and Shushila sat eating hay and providing milk that was enough to run a family of 30. Fortunately, there were only 25 people in our family, but the milk wasn’t wasted. It was distributed equally between the cows, the calves and all the dogs and the cats that made the neighbourhood home.
The Tharavaad itself sat on a small plateau of sorts, planned in such a way that it was protected from the elements. The artificial wall that was created by the builder’s workers stopped the wind and made it slow enough to be pleasant. I remember nights in the Tharavaad to be a cool delight even when there was no electricity. There was a natural shelter formed from a dense canopy of palm and coconut trees that hardly let in any sun. That is why women of the house used to travel to the fields in the old days to lay out clothes to dry out in the heat.
I ignored the KEEP OUT sign and went in. The whole place was dark and reeked of decay and despair. I looked into all the rooms and found nothing. My sister said that there had been a sort of looting and distribution of found items. So, the place was empty. But, I looked in every room. I didn’t know why but I felt like I needed to do that. And so I found my way to the east wing of the house where Grandma used to live. She used to tell the most exquisite ghost stories simply because, in her own words, “What else to do at night?” and those words summed up in quite bad English that she wouldn’t tell any other stories except ghost ones.
They had left her bed exactly where it was. In her last few years, she had grown more and more comfortable sleeping in it than spending time outside the way she liked. My sister was the last person to see her before she passed away. In her words, Grandma had looked tired and fragile, but not enough to miss the chance to tell one last ghost story before she closed her eyes. My nephew – my sister’s son – still shivers when the story is mentioned to him.
It had been my sister’s decision to let the bed be destroyed as well since she did not deem ourselves worthy of it. No one dared to question her. I stood at the foot of the bed, waiting for the tears to flow, but they didn’t. Something else caught my eye. A piece of wood or so it seemed. I looked under the bed and I found a palm-leaf manuscript. It was a delicate thing and I was careful. Palm-leaf manuscripts had epics etched into their surfaces, and were guarded on both sides by thick wooden plates and bound together with strong string. Yet, this particular one gave me pause. It reminded me of something from before. I couldn’t remember what it was. But I decided to keep it with me.
Follow the water to its perceived end
It will always remember a good friend.
I moved on to the last destination on the path down memory lane. Clutching the palm-leaf manuscript, I headed to the pool.
It wasn’t a pool in the modern sense. Our ancestors found an underwater cool spring, and they dug down. The pool was barely 10 sq. ft. I could see the bottom quite clearly. I placed the manuscript safely away from the water onto a rock and stepped out of my shoes ritually and into the pool. There were a series of concentric square steps that one took to get to the bottom of the pool. I stood on the first one. I looked around. Giant palm trees greeted my presence, they seemed to be bowing down to me in the wind like they used to in the old days. I looked down. The other end of the pool was where my sister had been bitten by a neerkoli, a non-venomous water snake, and to counter the effects, she was made to eat rice without salt for a couple of days.
I had asked what would happen to the pool. My mother said there were plans to make a larger pool near the new house and make a system to drain the water from the old pool to the new one. I asked about the fishes. Forget the fishes, she said.
I felt a little tickling around my feet. Fearing the worst, I looked down and found hundreds of tiny fishes gathered around my legs biting my skin.
I closed my eyes, letting it all in. A memory swam in front of me, I was right here, and Grandma was making something. I didn’t know what it was but I asked her if I could have it. One day, she said. You’ll know when it’s yours, I promise.
I opened my eyes, tears flowing freely now as I undid the string around the palm-leaf manuscript and looked at it. There were no epics. Instead, in simple, but broken English, words she etched in hard labour, the stories she told me long ago. Her last gift to me, as promised years ago, was delivered today.
The fish stopped pecking my feet. I couldn’t see through my tears, but I had the distinct feeling that they were looking up at me. They didn’t eat my dead skin anymore. Very soon, they dispersed.
I got out, put on my shoes. I grabbed the manuscript and dried my eyes. I looked at a small flat slab that seemed out of place in that sylvan setting and pictured my mother washing our clothes on it, the woodland echoing with the sound of her thrashing the clothes against the rocks to remove the dirt. I took a last deep breath, took one last look and left the place without looking back. I never came back there ever after that.
Ages come and go, but a few stones still remain
Given a voice, what forgotten tales they might say
Then time changed, old stone built a new house
And the old Tharavaad became a smaller one far away.
Image courtesy: Ashish Khushwaha, Urban Metaphor 2, 2016