Death of a House: A Forensic Tale

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And so it ends. Or so it begins to end, for the dying has been slow and painful, and it isn’t over yet. The actual death knell will be struck only tomorrow when the house changes ‘registered’ owners just short of its 50th birthday. And then one day after that happens, because of the commercial development juggernaut that dictates our urban lives, a house, this house, seemingly indestructible, will – much like Monty Python’s dead parrot – simply cease to be. The demolition won’t happen overnight, of course. But at the whim of the builder-buyers, who will tear it down to make way for a 5-floor monstrosity of their choosing, it will soon be an ex-house. Already, it looks much the worse for wear, dusty, damaged, missing its main doors, jaws agape as if in permanent shock at its imminent fate.  It will likely stay like this for a while, hanging on its last hinges. But then sometime in the very near future, we will pass by that familiar corner, looking for it out of habit. And poof, the house would have disappeared without a trace.

Admittedly, it has been in a state of quiet dilapidation for a while now, even though the last tenants – a like-minded women’s research collective I greatly admire – had appreciated exactly that sense of old-fashioned space and gentle decay that is missing from our shiny, crowded, fast-paced 21st century lives. Indeed, the architect friend who had generously done a structural assessment for us (thank you, Y) had pronounced it ‘solid as a rock’. ‘It will outlive all of you’ he added, validating my (then) dream of living right there, along with my roots, on top of them. And I had hoped the house would outlive us. But it hasn’t, or it won’t. Because after the new owners take over, all those solid rock-like walls will turn to rubble. Three generation-old walls that served as watchers, as witnesses, as home, will crumble, or be crumbled, into dust. What’s worse (and here I have to insert a Dogmatix-like howl), the leafy, expansive gulmohar and mango trees that sheltered it (house) and us (its erstwhile residents) will likely go first, their roots dug up and dismembered so as not to interfere with the new foundations of the ‘residential complex’ that will take its place.

But what of our roots? Of the house’s own? 2-2-18/49 Bagh-e-Ambarpet D.D. Colony. That is what I am gathered here to gather and to tell. An elegy, if you will. A requiem for the house through the objects I found in cellar excavations; an ethnographic autopsy in 10 acts.

So, first things first. Act one. Its identity; let’s get that out of the way. Name, DOB, unique identifying features? She – the house – was called Prasanthi. I have no recollection nor stories on why she was named thus, nor any memory of calling her that. Prasanthi means happiness, contentment, and we were happy there for the most part. What I do feel quite certain about – even then as we were growing up – was that the house was a she, a female. If nothing else, the female-headedness of its various residents would surely have filtered into the walls by osmosis. We were its original First Family; the first household of mothers and grandmothers and sisters and reigning dog who made it our primary residence from 1967 to 1985. The lone man at the centre of it all – our grandfather, the Cuddapah-born, Oxford-educated, self-made babu who built the house – having made his exit in 1976, barely eight years into the house’s life. But even after its last owner-resident, our grandmother, had finally moved out in 1984ish, and we’d stuffed the cellar with our histories in order to rent out the place, gender haunted its space. Anveshi, the women’s research centre, the house’s very last tenant, had thrived here for more than a decade, giving it a last feminist hurrah. Surely Anveshi’s impeccable scholarship, its activist agenda would have mixed and mingled with the heady whiff of the babu-grandfather’s own progressive views on women’s education and autonomy; with the librarian daughter-mother’s own awakening feminism; with our own growing recognition that there was nothing we as girls could not do or aspire to do in life. But gender did not mean feminism alone (which women do not have sole purchase over anyway), there was also a lumbering maternal air about the house, a motherliness, a grandmotherliness even, that welcomed cubs and strays into its fold and fed everyone warm sangati and pulusu on regular days, feasts on special occasions. It was always open table, no questions asked. Surely (though I realize I invoke stereotypes of old fashioned divisions of kitchen labor of the time), she must be – had to be – a she.

So, her history then. Or herstory. She was born/built in 1967. Now that I’m poring over municipal sanction plans and drainage drawings and building affidavits, I know that the plot had been purchased from a local landowner Mr. Azam for a song. Literally, a song. At that time, preceding today’s commercial development bonanza, there wasn’t even a DD colony worth its name – indeed, the Durgabai Deshmukh who lent her name to the future ‘hood, was at the time alive and well and our very gracious neighbor! The grandfather  had wanted a place near Osmania University where he could spend his retired life after a long tenure as Vice-Chancellor. Not far from the university, and yet outside it. On the edge, so to speak. And the location was perfect for someone who’d spent his last two decades shaping OU into a fine institution of learning. No false pride here – several neighbors came up to me in the last few weeks as I was cleaning the cellar, to say that those were the golden years of Osmania University; when he sought to establish its academic quality and excellence, but also (what I’m proudest of, given the current HCU controversy over Rohit Vemula’s tragic death) – its autonomy from state politics through a legal case that he doggedly pursued to the Supreme Court. And won!

I mention this because apparently the celebrations of legal victory spilled over to the brand new house. From old photographs I found along with the original court report (which I mean to write about), the first parties for the case were held at Prasanthi – with khansamas cooking in giant kadais under shamianas at the back. Perhaps parties at the Vice Chancellor’s Lodge with university resources would have seemed inappropriate; perhaps they’d already moved to the new house by then, I’m not sure which. But either way, and as a result, the house’s own birth and housewarming seem to have been intertwined so closely with the university’s triumphs that it was hard to tease them apart.

And what did the house look like, then, during those parties? The photographs (that I’m trying to scan and digitize) show all creamy yellow exterior walls and red painted brick, with a wide portico in front that I’ve learnt to recognize architecturally as Hyderabadi Prairie style, as if Frank Lloyd Wright had somehow taken a wrong turn on Deccan soil. The insides were unremarkable and a bit of a hodgepodge — the floors a mix of grey shahbad and ugly mosaic tile; the ceilings not particularly high, and dark interiors such that we had to keep the light on (white tubelight) on all day in the dining room. In other words, it was no architectural marvel. As I recall, I don’t even think it had an architect. There was an engineer, to be sure, Veera Reddy, which probably explains its functionality but lack of fine form, its steel girded narrow windows, its asbestos (asbestos!) false ceilings, its dank kitchen, its weirdly placed sinks (4 of them!), all of which drove my mother crazy when she moved there in 1976. The only thing commendable about the insides was the huge verandah behind the kitchen, with old rectangular jhaalis that looked out on to the yard. It was here that we spent most of our time, on the wooden swing that hung off enormous chains, on an ugly orange easy chair that bounced up and down in the corner, on aaraam chairs next to the khas-flavored chilmans that released their earthy scent when water was thrown on them.  (yes, it was a long time ago, when water was not as scarce). The verandah was in fact the only respite from the house’s insides.

But its outsides, oh its outsides were magical. What gave the house charm and made it home for us was the enormous grounds, the terrace upstairs, the trees, the pond (with the koi? and the sometime tortoise), the water-well, the sandy yard at the back where we played hide and seek, then pittu and cricket, the garden. The garden. The beautiful, unplanned, wild garden ; a return to the land of sorts for our grandfather and his family. To be sure, they were not farmers by any stretch of the imagination – even though we would joke that, like Jimmy Carter, we were essentially peanut farmers! But they certainly knew their food and their flowers. There wasn’t a living thing planted in that garden – other than the bougainvillea and the fleshy japanese jade creeper -that was merely ornamental, that they didn’t actively consume on a daily or seasonal basis – whether it was fruits, vegetables, puja flowers, soft medicinals, neem leaves.

And so, more than anything else, this is a botanical goodbye, a horticultural farewell  … to a beloved garden of memory … as they don’t make gardens like ’em any more. If you had visited the house in the early 1970s, here is a snapshot of what you’d have seen: From the front gate, a long concrete portico framed by fuschia bougainvillea tumbling over terrace walls in careless abundance. A large bed of the ‘tropicals’, hibiscus, crotons, cannas, growing equally furiously in front of the mailbox. Ashoka trees all in a row, like sentries, behind round ixora bushes that were always brimming over with orange, pin-cushion like flowers. A lone coconut tree at the far end around which we learnt how to do figure-eights on trainer bicycles and skates (for we learnt both essential life skills on that portico). And from which, occasionally, coconuts fell – thunk thunk thunk – causing much excitement among cousins reading comics upstairs on lazy summer afternoons.

As you wound around the house from the side, concrete-framed vegetable boxes full of greens – thota kura, sukkura and palak – and gourds of all kinds, ash, bitter, snake, threading their way through the flimsy tepees that the maali built, and the snakes loved. The puja flowers came next toward the back of the house – and our grandmother (the only puja-doer in that household) was convinced that the neighbors, or their minions, stole flowers by the bucket while we slept! Delicate fussy parijatas, our mother’s favorite flowers, and apparently (from the mythological stories she told us), Satyabhama’s too. Clumps of gorgeous red and white champas (frangipani), holding their own as they dominated the smellscape and looked as if they’d stepped out of a Deccan miniature painting. Ganer-poovulu (oleander) towering over little bushes of the most divine double-petalled jasmine sambuca flowers. Little mutyala moggulu, pearl-buds, that spilled out from our baskets and made their way onto our wrists, our hair, even strewn on our bedsheets so they’d stain us with their showy perfume.

Last but not least just behind the tiny garden swing, the fruit trees. Such a variety. Nellikayas (gooseberries), jamun, guava, sapota, and chakotram-pandu (the citrus giant, the Indian pomelo). Melon runners near the water tank being fodder for grandfather’s silly jokes about the fattest watermelons being the sweetest. And reigning supreme at the epicenter, the navel, of the garden: a bounteous mango tree, under which were buried our two little dachschunds, Chutney and Sheba. (RIP, dear doggies, sob).

The ripe mango fruit from this particular tree were not spectacular. But its raw green unripe kairi were absolute stars. Tart, firm, easy to cut, and pucker-worthy sour. Worth all the tree-climbing we learnt to do. Perfect for avakai pickles and mamidikai chutney. And most importantly, for aam panna, which was, ironically, not a home-grown favorite, but a new Hyderabadi discovery for this Rayalseema family. Cool, pale-green-colored aam panna, or mango phool as it was called if you added a dollop of cold milk. Ambrosia in a lota. We’d come back from outside, my sister and I, hot and brown and thirsty from the blazing pre-monsoon sun. We’d rummage in the fridge. Aha! we’d say – finding and then pouring ourselves a tall glass of freshly made, jewel-like aam panna. One sip, the customary sigh, and we were home.

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Next post: Act Two. The Ghost in the Machine

8 thoughts on “Death of a House: A Forensic Tale

  1. A bygone era, where do we even hear of such like parijatha and aam panna from our own gardens these days- relegated to shadowy corners of our memories of a time gone by, when life was far more innocent, and no builders made five and six storey apartments.

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    • Truly bygone, Meena! A fossil. I should have called it an excavation, not an autopsy (which implies illness!). But you see why it was so hard and also where the garden madness comes from?

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  2. Sitey! My hair are standing on end, I’m shivering with delight as I read your words, your descriptions, the pictures that your words evoke……I loved your Forensic tale…

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  3. Sita, such a deeply felt piece! So much raw emotion expressed with beauty and touches of whimsy. It’s hard to bring an inanimate object to life, to imbue it with feeling and loss and happiness that was. You do it very well. Apart from your talent as a writer, here we see also your professional training in museum studies where you go beyond just the object and look at history and meaning. Thanks for sharing this, Sita!

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  4. I’m reading this for the second time and feel as though I know the house and its feeling well enough to experience the loss myself. This is gorgeously written, and expresses such beautiful emotion. So meaningful, so lovely. XXOO Meg

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