There is a modest house in a modest lane in Madras standing quiet and humble amidst peace-loving people and quaint old trees. I don’t quite know its size, though I have spent many summers and seasons inside it. I have seen it swell like a mushroom under rains, when it had to receive sisters, brothers and hapless souls seeking respite and temporary shelter. I have also seen it shrivel like a raisin under the sun when loved ones left its shade seeking other pastures. Like a beating heart, the house has contracted and expanded many times over to accommodate its residents, the number again which I am not sure of. Who can really tell how many people have moved in and out of a Banyan’s shade?The first room of the house has a simple bench and an easy chair opposite it. A man wizened with age and wisdom used to sit in it to receive guests with a smile and a verse in Sanskrit, befitting the person or the occasion of his arrival. He had a word, a glass of water or buttermilk, some wisdom and most importantly, time for anyone who arrived at his door. When he came to Madras from his humble village, he brought into the house the courteousness and simplicity of his village, and also a way of life. He had four cows in a shed adjoining the living room, a well, a clay stove and a variety of trees in the backyard and a huge haystack piled on the right side outside the house. One couldn’t open the window of the living room wall without scraping one’s hand against one of the cow’s horns and one couldn’t open the inner room window without hay falling in like rain. Many of his grandchildren learnt at as early as seven years of age to shovel and carry baskets of cowdung to the open terrace to be mixed with hay and made into pancakes. When dried they would be thrown into the claystove as fuel to heat the bathwater and when done, their ashes would be recycled as scrub powder for the vessels. The man was a master in thriftiness. But he had to be. Otherwise how could he have nourished and educated his 10 children and graduated plenty others who sought refuge in the house into more prosperous climes with his meagre salary? And how could he have accomplished all this without his wife whom he celebrated as a true illal (homemaker), because she never knew how to say illai (no). Petite, naïve and deeply attached to her husband, the lady came into the house at 14 years of age and quickly understood that her husband was like a large tree and many birds would indeed come to roost and rest in him. Soft-spoken and always cheerful, she learnt everything; from milking the cows, to making brooms and thatches from coconut fronds to cooking for tens of people, to not distinguishing between her own children and others’. Bending over the stoves, how many countless meals must this lady have prepared? How many children, grandchildren, grand nephews and grand nieces must have passed through her heart, hands and house in the 65 years of her married life? I don’t think she knows the size of the house either. But lately, she is insisting that the house be reconstructed before her time and be shared amongst her peaceable children. To me, it is like taking an axe to an ancient tree, but who knows what is prompting her eagerness? Maybe grandmother is curious and finally wants to know how much the house could really hold. Maybe she wants to quantify and measure her work of a lifetime. Maybe she sees no divisiveness in the act because her heart knows none.
Jaya Madhavan is a poet, an award winning children’s novelist, comic strip writer and lately an illustrator too. Her first book for children "Sita and the Forest Bandits" won the first prize in the Children Book Trust’s All India Competition for Writers of Children’s Books (2001). Her second book for young adults "Kabir the weaver poet" is a research backed novel published by Tulika, Chennai. Her short stories and poems for adults have been published in Unisun’s anthologies and in the South Asian Literary journal. Her passion includes traveling, visiting temples of antiquity and singing. The articles you see here are from the weekly column called "Loony Life" she wrote for the The New Indian Express. Jaya's Antidep comic strip (created alongwith her sister Bindhumalini) was published in The New Indian Express's Saturday Zeitgeist feature. Jaya is currently working on her third novel and is a certified Yoga instructor. She resides in Chennai with her musician husband and two children.
She is reachable at email@example.com