The earliest memory I have of my ancestral house in Kerala, my ‘tharavadu’, is me asking my Umma for the candies my Uppa had brought me. She beat me. I cried. I was three.
The next memory is of me falling off my chair (which my sister had been sitting in and which I forcefully took from her) from a raised back verandah to a rocky backyard. I was injured, my shoulder dislocated a bit. I was three and a half.
In both the incidents I was fighting for what I believed was rightfully mine. Perhaps the fire in me to fight for what I want, even when adversity hit me right in the face, was kindled right here. This house had been my home for the better part of my childhood and it is here that I have lived and re-lived some of the best memories of my life.
This house has witnessed many families forming, bonding, un-bonding and leaving.
When I was three, there were four families in this house – the four daughters of my great grandmother, their children and grandchildren had made their homes in almost all the nooks and corners of this house. Gradually, one by one, people moved out to begin life anew, in their ‘own’ spaces.
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Living in a joint family has its disadvantages. Space was a pertinent issue. A little bit of space was what everybody wanted. But on the bright side, you got to be in the life of others; you got to witness their happiness and sorrows; you got to be a part of their life; and most importantly, you never went to sleep hungry (if you did not like what was made in your kitchen you could always count on their kitchen).
I got to be a part of four different households under the same roof, eat from four different kitchens, get influenced by four different tastes and sets of lives. I felt at one, yet distant, at the same time.
Now, this house has all the space one wants. There are more than enough free rooms and corners. To see this house almost empty, startles me. All these uninhabited spaces intimidate me.
Though I moved out of this house to a new one, I was fortunate enough to live closest to it. In the initial years in my new house, I spent most of my time in this house. But as I grew up to be a teenager, I stopped being a part of the lives of people in this house and chose to be an onlooker.
In this house I have witnessed the lives of some of the strongest women in my life. Muslims in our part of my district, Kannur, practice the ‘beena marriage’ wherein the husband joins the wife in her ancestral home but holds little to no power in the household. Thus female children were never made to feel as if they were going to be “married off”.
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Nonetheless, the house reeked of patriarchy as well. Men became the explicit practitioners of it and women became the implicit ones. When male members were squandering money and flaunting their toxic masculinity, it was the women who held the house together. I have always admired the elegance and dexterity with which the matriarchs kept this house intact.
My favorite thing about this house is the attic which used to be our play area when we were kids. I was told that in the old days (when the attic was still in good condition) when the house used to get flooded people would go up to the attic till the water came down.
This attic holds a special place in my heart for one and only one reason. From its half circle paneless windows, you got to see the entire neighbourhood, a portion of the village, a bird’s eye view of the river and the luscious green around the house.
Now the attic is a storehouse where old and unused brass utensils collect rust. Its wooden floor is damp and can collapse at any point. When I come from Hyderabad to visit my village, one of the first things I do is to run to this house and climb those old, crippled, damp, wooden stairs which lead to the attic. I stand there and take a moment to process the changes it has endured. I slide my fingers along the cracks and crevices of its blackened wall. Once this was the only big house in the neighbourhood, now I see few others which stand taller than this one. None of them can equal the majesty of this ancient house.
On the outside it looks dilapidated now. On the inside this house has a mesmerising eeriness to it. This is our very own ‘bhargavi nilayam’. This has survived almost everything. Though the front roof tiles have gone completely, though the insides leak, though there is decay, the house is still grand. It is damp but it oozes warmth.
This place is the bearer of all my secret wishes, dreams and fears, this place keeps my nostalgia ignited, this place holds all my memories.
This place keeps me rooted.
Noora Ashraf is a Research Scholar in the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. A village soul trapped in a city, Ashraf loves beaches and mangoes.
Featured image: Author provided