Saturday, November 01, 2014

Memories of the Ancestral House

By Shevlin Sebastian

My grandmother lived in a large house that her husband had built. And in this house, in Muvattupuzha, Kerala, which once housed nine children and was a babble of noise and activity, there is now a silence.

The children had grown up, taken jobs, got married, had children of their own, and moved elsewhere. And my grandmother lived a life of going to church, being active in social service organisations, and hosting her children when they came home, with their growing families, for the holidays. I, for one, came all the way from Kolkata.

There were so many memories of that house. I would wander up and down the empty hall, on the first floor, occasionally throwing a ball against the walls. Sometimes, I climbed over the balcony and walked on the outside, holding the railing, just to get a thrill. Cousins would come over. I played cricket with Joseph in the rectangular courtyard. The bat was made of a coconut branch, stripped of all its leaves, and we whacked the rubber ball over the place.

I also remember my grandfather, Abraham Vadakel. He was a short, broad-shouldered man, with white hair, who wore a white shirt and mundu.

He sat on an armchair, facing the door, which was open throughout the day. But he could not see because he was blind. In his mid-sixties, my grandfather, who had been a lawyer, was afflicted with glaucoma and gradually lost his eyesight.

He had two round boxes on the table placed near his armchair. One contained cigarettes, while the other had sweets. He ate them throughout the day. 

When I was a child, I would try to steal the sweets. But my grandfather was very sharp. “Who is there?” he would say. Inevitably, I had to say, “It’s me.” And he would smile and say, “Take a sweet.” He did not mind me taking them, but I had to tell him first.  So it became a challenge for me to take it without him knowing. But I doubt I tasted success more than once or twice.

My grandmother was his second wife. With his first wife, he had four children and then she died at the age of 30. At that time, people died early. If you had tuberculosis, you ended up dying. If you had too many pregnancies, either the mother or the baby died at birth. It was not an easy time: people were struggling financially, and the hospital facilities, especially in small towns, were rudimentary. My grandmother was only 20 and my grandfather 40, when they were married. They had five children, my mother being the eldest.

And during those summer vacations, I remember my grandfather sitting at the head of the table, in the dining room, and having porridge. And sitting next to him were my brother, sister, mother, along with my grandmother and two aunts who lived nearby. And all of us would eat and talk and laugh and enjoy ourselves. A moment frozen in time: it would seem as if it will last forever. But death was fated to come in and take away my grandfather and grandmother. But all that was way off in the future.

Looking back, this is what I have realised. Nothing lasts. Every moment should be cherished and enjoyed, before it vanishes into nothingness. 

(Published as a middle in The New Indian Express, South India)

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