by Tirumal Mundargi
got a wicked, wicked sense of humour that even shines through the story's
darkest moments. Her prose is effortlessly elegant and her characters are
interesting and life-like, warts and all.
the veil on an elegant writer whose only curse is that she may be called
upon to repeat the performance."
of what lies unsaid in family narratives is told in this multi-layered
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"We must build a house," Anand said.
His wife Nirmala sipped some steaming tea from her cup, perched atop the parapet wall of their rented house's terrace. She was wearing a blue cotton sari with matching blouse. Anand, reclining in an easy chair, had on striped pajamas. He had applied Bhringraj oil to his black curly hair that glistened whenever the sun's rays struck it. They went up to the terrace with tea and biscuits every Sunday, partly to enjoy the cool morning air and partly for the privacy. Also to dodge the stink that drifted toward their house from nearby bushes in the mornings. They sat like that for hours in the shade of a tall neem tree that arched high above. Before settling down at Mr. Nandimath's house, Anand and Nirmala had rented nine other houses.
Anand got the idea for their own house during his buddy Mohan's house- warming ceremony the previous week. He and Nirmala had examined every nook and cranny of that dwelling, taking in every detail, so much so that afterwards he had heartburn and insomnia and Nirmala had yet another headache.
The house they'd been living in lay in the 'heart of the city,' as they thought of it. Anand's office was three kilometers away, his children's school within walking distance; the bus station two kilometers, the railway station three. Fruit and vegetable pushcarts abounded, and it was just a short stroll to the marketplace.
“But think of the money. Where would we get that much?" Nirmala said with a frown.
"We could take out a loan."
"How much can you get?"
"Just over two lakhs."
"Can we build a house with two lakhs?"
"A small house is possible."
"We'd better put it off till you get your promotion. We can build a nice house then."
They had been living in their present rental for more than three years. The owner and his wife, Nilamma, reminded them of this fact whenever they met, especially in the mornings when she drew Rangoli patterns out front on the wet earth with white quartz powder and colorings. Nilamma even bragged, "Whoever stays in our house only leaves it after building their own." Their house-pride irritated Nirmala, although it was the only aspect of their landlords that did.
Anand considered her carefully, his wife and companion for the past seven years, mother of his two children Rohan and Rohini who both resembled her. He often teased, "You're an expert copier," to which she responded with a giggle, highlighting her dimples and jasmine teeth and pink cheeks.
He was determined to build a house, come what may. He was tired of renting. Like it or not, you had to appease your landlords, laugh at their silly jokes, laud their little achievements, by whatever possible keep them in good humor. He was even more tired of the present rental. Although the owners had never suggested they wanted him and his family out, a gnawing fear always troubled him. Besides, living close to a busy road, inhaling toxic fumes and all the dust it stirred up, was a health hazard. Every month one of them had a cough, a cold or a wheeze. And the stink from the nearby bushes, from open drains and leaking underground drainage, was disgusting. For clean surroundings and fresh air, he had no choice but to move to the suburbs.
Mohan arrived promptly for their Sunday-evening outing. He and Anand visited temples and parks or just took quiet strolls by the side of highways. They had recently discovered a newly built culvert in front of Ram Mandir where the ring road joins the Bidar-Srirangapattana Highway. They went there on Mohan's motorbike, where they sat for hours smoking Gold Flake Kings and munching flavored peanuts they bought at a nearby kiosk.
Nirmala wanted to talk to Mohan about Anand's latest plan. If anyone could dissuade her husband, he could. Even on Anand's current salary they had to struggle to make ends meet. If it was reduced further by loan repayments, they would be hard up. Finding a way to pay the milkman, the housemaid, the newspaper agent, and the cable TV operator, these were all her respon- sibility. Moreover, the children needed Bournvita or Horlicks to go with their morning milk and the pretty dresses they wore on Wednesdays in place of the usual school uniform.
But she knew the two men wouldn't listen to her, so she said nothing.
After finishing his tea, Anand went to his room and got dressed while Nirmala gathered up the cups and took them inside. Mohan kick started his motorbike and Anand climbed on behind him.
They rode all around Gulbarga, on the Jewargi and Sedam roads especially where much of the building activity was taking place. They finally settled on Sedam because most bore wells on that road yielded potable water. Then they rode to Laxman's house at Vardhaman Nagar. Laxman was a realtor who had a layout at that location. Mohan told Anand that the land actually belonged to a villager from nearby Turpur who happened to be Laxman's relative. Laxman conducted the real estate business on the relative's behalf. He also told Anand that Laxman only returned a small amount of the income to the relative, keeping the major portion for himself.
On seeing Mohan at his door, Laxman showed all his tobacco-stained teeth and welcomed the two men into his house. He looked solidly built beneath the white undershirt and loincloth he was wearing. His moustache seemed to defy gravity, rising precipitously on either side of his mouth toward the ceiling.
"My friend Anand wants to buy a site on Sedam road." Laxman responded by joining his palms together, and Anand returned the salute with a bowed head.
"Just one minute, sir," Laxman said, went into another room and came back with a stack of papers one of which he removed from the pile. "This is the original map of the approved layout," he said, spreading a blueprint on the table. The map had a number of signatures on it as well as the purple seal of the Village Panchayat. Mohan nodded approval as Laxman indicated the sites still unsold.
"Only five sites are available in this row. The main advantage with this row is you've got a vacant space at the rear where we are planning a park with a Hanuman temple in the middle. So, nobody will bother you from the back,” he said, mixing in his hand a little tobacco with a pinch of lime and then rubbing it vigorously with his forefinger.
How nice, thought Anand. A Hanuman Temple just at the back of the house! His father, a staunch devotee of Lord Hanuman, would be delighted. He examined the blueprint carefully and finally selected a site that had access to roads heading both north and west and consequently open on three sides thanks to the rear garden. He gave Laxman one thousand rupees as a down payment, and the developer asked them to come back on Sunday, when he would be able to show them the site.
It turned out there were currently thorny bushes all over the property, but Anand decided they would disappear once houses were built. Laxman said there'd be a Bhima water connection in a year or two; in the meantime Anand could use the bore well. He took them to it to have a taste. The water ran crystal clear.
The roads were still just cobbled paths with green grass sprouting in the crevices. Laxman had put in cornerstones to indicate each separate site and a stone one in the middle of each site bore its individual number. Anand used a tape to measure the dimensions of the site he was going to buy.
"Within few months a tar road will be coming up," Laxman said. "I've been in touch with the municipal authorities. I've told them it is an old layout and needs the roads. But they say it actually belongs to Turpur Village Panchayat. In a couple of months, the whole area will be taken over by the Gulbarga City Corporation. Then they'll be asphalting new roads."
Anand nodded. So did Mohan.
"I've also met the with the Social Forestry authorities. They've promised me they'll plant as many saplings as they can once the rains come," Laxman said. As he spoke he continued to chew tobacco paste, spitting the crimson juice out as need be, the rest of what was in his mouth oozing from the sides of his lips down his cheeks.
"I've already paid the full amount to the Karnataka Electricity Board.
You can see electrical poles all all over the layout. By the time you start
your house, the transformer will be here and all the poles will be connected.”
That night Anand described the building site to Nirmala. They were so excited about their prospective new home, they were unable to sleep. He began thinking of a suitable name. Names like 'Laxminrisimha Krupa,' 'Guru Krupa,' 'Mata Krupa' or 'Pita Krupa' were too old-fashioned. Newer names like 'Garden Villa,' 'Gulab Baag' were all the rage. Though not in favor of traditional names, he was not inclined towards modern names either. It was essential that the name please his father, Hanumantayya, without whose financial help his housing project would never take off, and his father would naturally insist on a traditional name.
Both his father's and his mother's, Sundrabai's, names were out of the question, because both of them were still alive. His father would doubtless prefer a name like like 'Hanumant Niwas,' 'Anjaneya Nilaya,' or even 'Sundara Nilaya', but they sounded archaic. His grandfather had the same name as himself, and his own father's name would certainly please his father. 'Anand Villa' it would be, then. He would have the name etched on a big stone and get it fixed just above the porch so everybody had a clear view of it. His decision gave him a great sense of relief and he slept peacefully the rest of the night.
Before registering the project officially, Anand made several visits to the site, first with his wife Nirmala and then with his father and mother. His father even consulted an acharya to see if the site gave off any evil omens. The acharya flipped through the almanac on the spot, and after tallying everything with Anand's horoscope he strongly recommended the site. But he told Anand to consult him later to be sure that everything was in total agreement with Vaastu.
Anand was still a bit nervous because most of his small savings had already vanished. Sensing his friend’s anxiety, Mohan tried to encourage him. He took him out and and bought him a beer. He told him how anxious he himself had felt in a similar situation. "I'd risked all my savings just like you. In addition, I also entered the debt trap. You should feel good about that at least—you haven't had to take out a loan. Anand did feel a little better as a result. And, unlike Mohan, he did have his parents to look to in case of emergency.
They went to Turpur Village Panchayat to get the mutation document that replaced the previous owner's name with the new one's, paying a five hundred rupee bribe to do so. Anand regarded each note wistfully, knowing he would never see it again. Mohan said, "It's common procedure," but Anand wondered why it should be common to bribe scoundrels for their signatures. "You've got to put up with such things," his friend reasoned, "because building a house involves so many people, so many greedy middlemen!"
They also visited the offices of the Sub-Registrar, the Government
Summer passed and the rains came and with the rains Anand's first loan payment of one lakh rupees. On an auspicious day a bhumi pooja was conducted. Anand bowed low before the framed picture of bow-wielding Lord Rama, praying him and his consorts to look kindly on his project. He felt a rare sense of generosity as he paid the presiding acharya a blue one- hundred-rupee note.
That same night Anand lay awake past midnight talking with Nirmala. What would their house be like? Well, they knew it would be made of black stone, two stories high. The living room would be large enough to hold a small feast. Two bedrooms and a kitchen and dining hall would make up the ground floor. A large hallway would be used exclusively for the TV and other home entertainment. That left two other bedrooms, one for his parents and one for guests. A small garden in the front, with a balcony above laden with pots of ornamental plants. A gulmohar tree just in front of the house under whose shade he would recline and read the Samyukta Karnataka. There would also be a neem tree behind the house to shield it from the scorching sun. Finally he pictured a black tar road leading from his house to the Masurpur Village road, lined all the way with trees.
Right after bhumi pooja Mohan took Anand to the contractor's house, the same who had prepared the building plan. The contractor presented Anand with his rate list and the conditions of his contract. Afterward, Mohan and Anand discussed the rate list. After some telephone consultation with someone in the business Mohan knew they decided it was acceptable.
Next morning they drove to the contractor’s house to discuss terms. "I want it to be built in stone. Black stone," Anand told him.
"But that will add twenty-five to thirty percent to the cost,” Ravindra replied.
"That's how my father wants it. I've been hearing him say that for many years. I can't ignore him."
"All right, but these days nobody's building stone houses. Very difficult to get skilled workers. I'll get some masons from Turpur or Masurpur. Gulbarga masons aren't any good. They're supposed to chisel the stone all around, but they don't do it."
"And I want a big hallway on the first floor."
"Why? You can have an exact replica of the ground floor on the second story so you can rent it out if you want. A hallway would be a waste."
"I don't want to rent my house. I'll have a home entertainment space and a reading room in the hallway above."
"Providing building materials, getting a temporary power connection and drilling a bore well are all your responsibilities. I'll start work whenever you have them ready," Ravindra said in a firm, formal tone.
Next Mohan and Anand went to the Karnataka Electricity Board. "We provide electrical connections only to buildings, not to open spaces," the clerk said. They returned to Ravindra and told him what the clerk had said. He agreed to build a shed and asked Anand to buy concrete blocks, cement, sand, a door frame with shutters and galvanized iron sheets.
Thus began the construction of Anand's dream house. He spent the next several weeks scurrying back and forth to quarries, cement vendors, hardware stores, brick kilns, carpenters and, when totally stressed out, to bars for more cold beer. The house rose stone by stone and, by the end of the winter it stood at its full height. People came to have a look: co-workers from Anand's Telephone Exchange, Mohan's friends, Ravindra's potential clients. Some came to look just out of curiosity. Most placed fingers over their lips in awe. Anand was exhausted and had lost weight. As the work progressed Mohan's visits had become less frequent, and Anand had been left to fend for himself.
He bought saplings and fenced in the open space surrounding the property with barbed wire. He placed pots of ornamental plants at the entranceway, along the staircase and on the balcony. Soon the house was green with vegetation. At the housewarming ceremony the guests exclaimed, "What a house! A masterpiece!"
It cost him more than what he had budgeted. Though he had got a House Building Advance of two lakh, and with the lakh his father Hanumantayya had given him, the actual expenditure amounted to four lakh rupees. During January, when the house was only half-finished the cost of steel and cement had suddenly risen, and he had to wander from one bank to another, and even pawned his wife's jewelry for petty sums, entering into the debt trap he had avoided for so long. "I should have listened to Nirmala," he sometimes lamented.
After two years almost all the other building sites were filled. But the trees planted by the Social Forestry Department were either consumed by buffaloes and goats or dried up in the intense heat. Anand couldn't save even the gulmohar sapling he had planted. The asphalt roads remained a distant dream and people started dumping garbage in the open space behind the house and using it for a latrine. His neighbor bought two buffalo calves, then two months later two full-grown buffaloes and tied them to stakes by the roadside. Their smell filled the neighborhood. Then a barber set up shop in the 'garden' just behind Anand's house. Pigs followed soon afterwards. One by one, Anand's ornamental plants vanished, and one day he found black hair from the barber's dump scattered over the white roses on his balcony.
Not long after, Anand and Nirmala started using their rooftop where the staircase cabin provided them shade in the mornings for their morning tea on Sundays and holidays and they could avoid the nasty smells at the ground-floor level. When the sun became too hot they moved to the balcony. Often they recalled the big neem tree at their last rental that used to give them shade till noon. They also thought about the kindly landlord whose bene- olence they had taken for granted and whose petty tyrannies they would now willingly have tolerated. And Anand recalled Nirmala's initial warnings about his house-building project. In the past, if one rental didn't suit them they would simply move someplace else. Now they had to live in 'Anand Villa,' their very own place, for better or for worse. They had no choice now. No choice at all.
(Tirumal Mundargi lives in Bangalore and works near there. His work can be found in Long Story Short, May 2008 issue. More is forthcoming inBoston Literary Magazine and Niteblade.)