My first memories in this house are not my own. Nimitalayam is where my grandparents live. They’ve been there since mom began college and absolutely nothing has changed. They still have the black marble floors they got because they were afraid that three kids milling about all day would ruin any other color, especially with the unaccustomed Kerala mud. Whoever said that black attracts heat has never been to our house because no matter how hot it was outside; the house was cold enough to drink hot chocolate all year round. This monotony was only broken by Mamma occasionally making cutlets or pazham pori for our evening tea, the warmth seeping into the rosewood furniture and hiding under the table. I wonder if Gigi and Didi ever felt the incompetence of never having a house named after them.
Mamma loves telling me the story of how she used to feed me lunch, especially when I acted like a high-strung teenager. I never ate lunch without feeding the crows in our garden first. When I was 2, I used to make small balls out of rice, ghee and okra – throwing it at the birds and yelling ‘Itha’ (here). And then we would swing for a while in the swing-set by the porch, waiting for my grandad to come home so he could put me to sleep.
Mamma and her sarees still walk with the proud secrecy of a woman who knows things and Paapa’s soft sandpaper voice could still put me to sleep if he counts back from 500- sitting on his rocking-chair.
There was a mayflower tree out front that Chechi hated with the same passion that I adored. It only bloomed in May and every day of that month – the front yard was showered in red. I thought the tree was made especially for me because my birthday fell on the same month and I just knew that god had a special place in his heart for me. Chechi always complained about the abhorrent amount of sweeping she had to do – and in the end, she won.
Something was said about how her back problems were more relevant than my obsession over a tree. After this, I had no reason to stay in the front side of the house so I made my way to the back, like Chechi did every morning. I’d make juice out of all the powders I found in the kitchen and wait for her to wake up and find me. After she had finished acting like she loved my masala water, I would follow her around, mimicking her languid walk and mumble things about the inability of this house to stay clean.
I was heartbroken when Papa said we had to move. “It’s close”, he said. “We can still visit every day.” I’d gotten so accustomed to the no-smell smell of the house, which was cheerfully interrupted whenever I took my socks off after school. I had my friends and a swing set and Mamma buying me and Tanu whatever we wanted. With too many Bollywood movies in my head, I drew them everything they could miss about me and told them to look at it whenever they felt like they were forgetting me because they ‘were old and could forget things’.
The subtle Palmolive-soap smell the small house acquired got more potent as we grew up with it. The celebrations began with my body’s newfound ability to bleed once a month. I remember being very confused when my relatives began calling me up to congratulate me. Why was this an achievement? The only good thing that came out of it was that I got a few days off from school and could binge on whatever I wanted without Umma’s eyes glancing over to my growing tummy every three seconds.
But it appears that all the big things in my life have happened in this house. My first smoke was on the roof with my friend. As I took my first puff, I looked over at the water tank by the corner and thought about the time when my friends and I climbed up to drink water. We believed it tasted like French water, although none of us had ever been to France. We acted like we knew what we were doing and sat on the red tiles in the safety of the mango trees that surrounded us. “K, do you know how to make smoke rings?” “Of course, I do. I’ve been smoking a month longer than you have. I’m an expert.” *cough*
On days when Umma ran late in school, my sister and I experimented with weird food combinations and pretended we were in Masterchef Australia. Although like all siblings – we behaved like we hated each other, we knew that watching TV wouldn’t be half the fun it was without our fight for the remote. Somewhere along the line of coconut sprinkled Nutella-bread, we developed a bond which helped us cope with Pooka’s and Rafeekka’s death. Without this house, she and I wouldn’t have realised that we were each other’s built-in best friend.
Although it seems like Nimitalayam and Palmolive house were the only structures I oscillated between, I frequently changed course and swung over to Ammai’s house near the beach also. For a long time, it was Ammai’s house more than anyone else’s although Papa and Moothaapa also technically owned the place. For my sister and I – the house would always belong to Ammai.
The house with concrete lacy roof hangings was painstakingly close to the beach and Ammai would carry me to the gate as we waited for Umma to get back from college. Her silk blend sarees were of little comfort but they would carry residue smells from the kitchen. Papa’s Papa watched over us as we watched copious amounts of Malayalam serials with Ammai and stuffed ourselves silly with her biriyani. The red oxide floors were always left discolored by muddy cat paws and I think that at some point she just began painting it red to get rid of the marks.
Nothing deterred this woman. She could record an interview with the BBC as quickly as she wiped the floors with its ragged cloth, smiling and without a single hair out of place.
Her shrill voice would remain the same as she argued over tomato prices with Koyakka, the caretaker of the house. “Ente cooking classin vendi polum ithra munthiya thakkaali vaangoola. Pinneya”, she would say. (Even for my cooking class I don’t buy such expensive tomatoes.)
This never-ending squabble between the two is what makes Moonalingal, Moonalingal. On days that Koyakka mysteriously disappears to places, Ammai seems sort of lost. She has no idea who or what to scold and the cats and the onions end up getting most of it.
After my tenth grade, we moved again. Papa bought a flat 15 minutes away from Mamma’s house. He knew that none of us would be able to bear living far away from Mamma-Paapa, even though our excuse was that school was closest from there. It sat on the eleventh floor of a twelve- storied building and it blended in with the white skies and green coconut tree heads. My best friend lived in the flat above mine. Towards the end of twelfth grade, she and I had a brainwave. It was before our Chemistry exam and we were bored out of our minds. We were sitting in my living room, wondering what to do with all the time we had left, when it struck me that Papa hides his liquor in the cabinet above the sink. We took out his bottle of Absolut, poured ourselves a little bit in a glass and drank. And spat. Safe to say our plan of drinking the day away was quickly overtaken by us stuffing our mouths with ice cream and spraying our hands and the general air around us with perfume.
Although I’d “grown up” in all the other houses, I learnt to live here.
However much I will grow, intrinsically I will remain the same. I will always revert back to the girl who moved out of her house and into the swing set at the age of six because she wanted to be independent.