A house without doors
Hailing from Kerala, where during the monsoon, it is quite common for the rains to pour down non-stop for one or two days, I have seen more than my fair share of rain.
Like a familiar visitor, the monsoon would arrive very punctually1 each year on the 1st of June, the day the schools reopened in Kerala after the summer break. The rains were accepted almost as a part of life, something that you got used to and even planned around, not something that you dreaded or feared. True, there were inconveniences - we had to wade through knee-deep water on most days, electricity outages were quite the norm and as school children, we hated missing out on games periods. But there was also the fun of getting drenched, seeing upturned umbrellas striving hard to face off against the wind and the charm of those paper boats bobbing in the breeze; little boats pushed out gently into the water by the tiny hands that carefully created them. A hot cup of tea with some sizzling snacks, lazing on the easy chair on the veranda, watching the rain fall down through the leaves and then following the streams of water as they snaked their way out to the drains - this was a more "mature" way of enjoying the rain as I grew slightly older. One of my fondest memories though, is of waking up early on a Saturday morning, getting out of bed for a minute or two and then cuddling back under the sheets, hearing the pounding of the rain outside. Pure bliss.
It was anything but bliss though, last week in Chennai.
I happened to be there when the heavens opened up and the rains came down. It was fear and panic all round, with people on the street anxiously looking up at the heavens and at each other, desperately praying for some respite. I had read about cyclones and hurricanes elsewhere but had personally not seen lives being affected in such a manner. Schools and offices were closed due to the floods. Life came to an almost complete standstill; it was almost as if the whole city was paralysed. Entire homes were submerged under water with many people having to be air-lifted to safety. And these were not just huts or temporary homes in the slums, these were regular apartments, with water levels reaching up to the first or even the second storey in some cases. Roads were completely under water and boats took over from buses in many places. I heard people talking of seeing fish and even snakes in their living rooms! Chilling and terrifying scenes of utter chaos, disaster and destruction - it was in many ways, a city under siege.
But amidst all this news of doom and despair, a post on Facebook caught my eye. It was about a young man who through an update of his FB status, opened up his home to anyone whose own homes had become inaccessible because of the rain and the floods, welcoming them to come by and stay at his place. I also had a couple of my friends, whose own homes were under water, come over and stay at the guest house where I was put up; but these were guys that I knew very well. This young man's open invitation though was quite remarkable, to say the least. I learnt that a few more kind hearted souls took their cue from this young man and opened up their own homes too.
It is wonderful how adversity often brings out the best among most of us. We see these little gems of human kindness shine through the darkest gloom and despair. Not very different from the way salesmen in a jewellery shop display their brightest stones in a flat box with a very dark velvet background; for it is only against the dark background that the true beauty and lustre of the gems shine forth. These homes being opened up was a small but beautiful act that reminds us that all is not lost, that there is still hope for civilization.
I recollect with much fondness how, almost twenty five years ago, one such home was opened unto me too. It is something that I will never forget and will ever be grateful for.
The year was 1992; I had set forth on a long journey from Kerala to a faraway town in North India. The purpose of the trip was to try my luck at getting enrolled into a college there. I say "try my luck" because by the time I received the interview letter from the college after almost a month's delay because of a postal strike, not only had the interview been completed, but classes had also started! So I was not going with much hope, but since I had nothing to lose, I decided to try anyway. It was a journey that should have normally taken around 50 hours, but ended up taking almost three whole days; long distance trains running late by 10-15 hours were (and still is?) not uncommon.
By the time we reached our destination, it was getting close to midnight. As luck would have it, I learnt from conversations among fellow passengers that a bandh2 had been called in the town that I was heading to and it would not be easy to find a means of transport from the railway station. In my mind, I decided that the safest option would be to spend the night in the station itself. By then, I had made friends with a few people in the compartment travelling with me. Travelling together for three whole days, lends itself to the formation of such friendships, I guess. Sharing food, playing cards, singing songs and talking about most things under the sun, you almost invariably end up with at least four of five friends more than you started out with. One such friend that I had made was a young bearded man, whom I shall refer to as Rchayan3 for the rest of this note. He was working in a big hotel in the town and seemed to have lots of contacts and connections. Realizing that I was unfamiliar with the place and especially considering the bandh scenario, he invited me over to his home. In the desperation of my situation, I did not need much invitation and literally jumped at the offer.
So, before long we were at Rchayan's home, where he lived with his wife, Vmama3 and their little son, Jmon. Their home was a nurses' quarters in the compound of one of the leading hospitals in the town, where Vmama worked as a nurse. This was not yet the age of mobile phones and there was no way for Vmama to know that Rchayan was coming home with an unexpected guest. Her lack of surprise and her genuine happiness at seeing me, gave me the impression that this was not probably the first time that their home had given shelter to a complete stranger.
It was a very modest flat at best, in terms of space and convenience, consisting of one living room, a small bedroom and a tiny kitchen. One of Rchayan's uncles was also with them at the time and with my unexpected addition, it was more than a decent crowd for that small flat. We sat and prayed together as a family that night, and after one of the tastiest dinners I have ever had, I remember lying down, looking up at the ceiling and thanking God for these kind hearts that spread the fragrance of love all around them.
Early next morning, Rchayan dropped me off at the college to "try my luck". It ended up being a full-fledged adventure and after three days of constant visits to the admission office, relentless persuasion and some absolutely divine intervention4, Mr G C Singh, the Admissions Controller conceded to arrange an interview. On each of those three days, I was dropped off royally to the college on Rchayan's scooter. What more could I ask for? The interview went off well; I ended up staying at Rchayan's home for almost two whole weeks and only left when the college hostel arrangements were completed. In the meantime, since winter was almost upon us, Rchayan got a razaai (quilt) made for me and arranged so many other things that I did not know I needed, but realized very soon how I would have struggled without. For most of the first semester, I spent my weekends at their home and they became very quickly, my family far away from home.
Theirs was a house without doors, and many were those who experienced the selfless love and care of that family.
I was in touch with them for a few years after college - they even came down and stayed at our home in Kerala. Then they moved to the middle-east, I moved on to where my job took me; and inexcusably and unpardonably, I lost all contact with them. But their names would often come up in conversations at home. My kids know them very well; I have talked to them at length of how a house without doors provided so much comfort and solace to me; of how a couple of hearts that knew no bounds, became a blessing to me and indeed many others.
And then one night, a few months ago, their name came up once again in a conversation. And even though we had called it a night, something made me reach out for my laptop and look them up on FB. A few permutations of name and place searches later, I had Rchayan and Vmama smiling at me from their FB profile. A quick message on FB, and an even quicker reply; it was almost as if we were never out of touch! Talking about those days, Vmama recollected how she was not sure if the few chapattis she made would be able to satisfy the appetite of this "huge boy", who she thought must have been used to eating so much more at his own home. Little did she know, that those were some of the heartiest dinners I had ever had till then or since. Little did they know that the small house with open doors, where you would practically bump into each other when walking, was to me more than a palace all those days.
A small house, maybe; but people with hearts as big as any I have seen.
1 I hear the rainman has been slightly less disciplined of late!
2 A tool employed by political parties in the opposition to basically protest against anything that the ruling party attempts to do. It is also called a "hartal" and if exhorted by the right parties, has the potential to bring a whole state or even the whole nation to a complete standstill.
3 His name started with R and chayan is an endearing Malayalam suffix used while addressing an elder brother - hence Rchayan. Similarly, the suffix -mama is used to lovingly address an elder sister; her name started with V.
4 The story of my admission is a very long story and nothing short of a complete miracle, one which I hope to share some other time.