House of Rice
The house stands on the downward slope of a hillock, only partially visible from a distance, its red tiles forming asymmetrical patterns in a kaleidoscope of green stretching across the horizon. Each summer, right before monsoons ravage the baked countryside, we loyally return to our family home in this hilly hamlet called Thiruvilwamala.
In order to reach the house, which will be our home for the next two months, we’d trek across the terrain, a cracking landscape of red clay bristling with dried clumps of paddy waiting in suspended animation, we’d walk over bunds criss-crossing the fields, and side-stepping any supine snakes crossing our paths. Paddy workers carry our suitcases, and hold-alls on their heads, nimbly running back and forth across the bunds, their mood celebratory due to our arrival from the far off northern plains. A pastoral life briefly interrupted by our entry. For my brother and me, the next two months will be spent in much indulgence, and incredible gluttony.
The house is large, dark and cool, with many little rooms, some private, some shared, and some hidden. I loved to spend time at the top floor of the house, in an open annex next to my parents room. A hard wood staircase, made of flat beams took one right up into this large and roomy annex. There was a rickety Singer sowing machine right at the center of this room facing a window overlooking the fields. And in a far corner sat two weathered boxes, one made of tin and the other of leather. Each contained yellowed out pages from my father’s growing up years, teenage angst and desires etched into caricatures, half formed emotions, scrawled on the margins of moth eaten Tagore or Shakespeare, like red ants that swarm without warning and sting with an aggression that baffles you momentarily. Once done with my father’s books, I would take to looking outside the window, fingers curling around the grill, the breeze from the coconut palms and paddy, softly caressing my face. Looking out across the bunds, from between the gaps of the green kaleidoscope I loved to see passersby.
Apparently the voyeuristic thrill of seeing without being seen came early to me. Some of these people would be heading our direction, the wind would carry their voices first, some words, some lofty claims, then another voice in agreement, and reassurance. Dark bodied farm workers would approach our house, but I knew before anyone did that the gate would creak open and footsteps will be heard climbing up the black stone stairs.
On some mornings my grandmother would make kanji - porridge made out of broken bits of red rice. We’d know its kanji for breakfast when we see our aunt, plucking large, ripe leaves off the jackfruit tree. These leaves were fashioned into a spoon – and that’s the only way we had kanji. We grew our own rice, we drank fresh milk that had been taken from cows that had names, and had calves that had names as well. My paternal grandmother a feisty lady with lustrous knee length hair, and a tongue as sharp as the Urumi, would churn butter from the curds, soon the smooth, and mellifluous fragrance of ghee would permeate through every pore of the house. Dollops of ghee, forming golden pools in bowls of pink porridge (kanji), scooped up in a leaf spoon, accompanied by licks of chammanthi - a thick paste of roasted chilly, coconut, tamarind, and curry leaves, is the tastiest, and the most lucid of my taste memories.
In the afternoons, some workers would gather at the backyard for lunch, some lunched at their own homes located in the neighborhood. My grandmother would have boiled large batches of red rice, and buttermilk (which we never ran out of) would be seasoned with turmeric, coconut and cumin paste, a simple mor-kootan (buttermilk curry) comprising of all the yellowey goodness so redolent of summer – mangoes, yellow cucumber, drumsticks, pumpkin – and then more buttermilk, infused with crushed lemon leaves, this time to cool down the body. After lunch, hot bodies, scatter languorously on cold black-oxide floors waiting for the palm trees to sway just a little.
I used to love such hot afternoons when the grown ups will be too numb to move, explorations into the secret chambers of the house awaited my brother and me on such days. We’d climb up a rickety bamboo ladder, into the attic which housed many large and small earthern pots, some used to store pickles, or grains, some had moldy secret letters stuck deep inside them, or a saucy magazine someone had hidden and forgotten about, the attic was also home to our family cats, generations of house cats have lived and copulated here in the attic. My brother and I loved to play with the kittens, sometimes we would bring them down with us, only to be shouted at by someone or the other. One of the most shocking discoveries was a hidden room behind what I thought was a wooden wall. I knew we stored rice in the house, there were tell tale signs everywhere, the hay mounds in every free square inch space in the yard, the sounds of threshing, always chancing upon my aunt in the corridor, carrying a large moram (winnow) filled with rice, and when I asked her about where the rice was kept she would cackle away, her mouth glistening with paan, revealing stained teeth, never answering, like a mad, yet silent character from an Adoor film. Then on that eventful day when my silent aunt was silently removing the rice from the granary, I silently descended from my haven upstairs, and saw a gap in the wall in the corridor. I yelled for my brother, and together we approached this new place in the house. The gap in the wall was a dark room, and inside it standing between mountains of rice was my aunt holding her winnow, her mouth agape at seeing us, but the cackle had been crushed.
In June, rain clouds gate-crash the summer binge, the swollen atmosphere bursts and douses the earth with the first spray. The fields of malabar soak in the downpour till they can no longer hold it in. The fields overrun with red water, and from the upstairs window of the house the fields or the bunds that separate them, are no longer visible, only a giant muddy stream swirling its way towards an agitated river. Not much can be done at this time, and local farmhands take to fishing in the paddy which are swarming with fresh water fish and water snakes. The house is cool now, and at night the rain clatters on the red tiled roof, a sound strangely comforting to me, as I cuddle deeply into my black, military style, wool blanket.
It has been over a decade since I have stayed in this beautiful house that was. Uninhabited since years, its inmates having migrated to their eternal homes, or to greener pastures elsewhere, the house lies blistered, and bruised. This week my father took the difficult decision to break down this house of his childhood, that holds so many secrets of my own childhood within its bosom. As I write this post, the house has been brought down, what remains are just washed out photographs bearing mute testimony to a time that was, termite ridden pieces of furniture once regal and conspicuous by their presence, some ancient urns still unbroken, containing some grains of rice, untouched and untarnished with the passage of time.