Home is where the colors are

All it takes is shiny happy things

By the age of 18, I had lived in eight different homes. In the years that followed, there were three more with my parents, two hostels for working women (in which I had to change my room every year, making it six more homes; for me, every new room was a new home), three more as a free-spirited singleton who had moved up in the rent market and who wanted a posh Bandra pin code all to herself, and four more post marriage. And I’m not done yet.

I wasn’t born into real estate. I didn’t marry into it. It’s not that my father was in the services, or had one of those posh government or bank jobs where they transferred you every two years. My parents just never cracked real estate, so we never really owned anything (oh yes, my father did jointly own a home with his brothers when I was four, which they sold for a princely sum of Rs.36000 or some ridiculous amount for their sister’s marriage).

My mother, in an attempt to maintain her work-life balance and provide adequate care for the three of us, moved closer to her place of work every few years and my father followed. While the rest of my family moved up in the real estate ladder, filled their walls with white goods, my father gave us real adventures.

I always dreamed of a place where all our stuff could be found, where we had a room to ourselves. I often pretended to my friends that I did, and that my cats slept in a bunk bed and we wore night suits and that my mother baked scones and gingerbread (she baked other things, but Enid Blyton made scones so exotic!). But I never invited them home, for then my bubble would be busted.

Our real estate was memories.

I remember the home in which my father taught me the famous Jim Reeves song, “But you love me daddy”. My father is not a singer; my mother is a trained one. But the songs I remember from my childhood were mostly sung by my father (my mother was busy just staying afloat with three kids, hard times, the tyranny of her mother-in-law and other travails of the time).

I remember the home where I broke my nose, got my first stitches, the home in which I got hit by a swing while my babysitters (the neighbor’s children) were busy chatting. I remember the home in which my father made pav bhaji for the first time, the home where my mother made coconut cookies with cherry toppings (the cherries had to be cut into neat, square bits and we got to eat the leftover cherry bits that didn’t make the cut).

I remember the home where we walked half a kilometre to the nearest home that owned a television, to watch the Sunday movie. One day, they told us we would have to pay 50 paise for it. I remember then, we found another home, which was further away, where we wouldn’t have to pay, as our friend lived next door to it. I remember someone filched my brand new rainy sandals in that home and I walked home barefoot.

I remember the home in which my brother swallowed a nail, in which my sister fell from a slide and hurt her head, in which the nanny escaped by jumping off the balcony as she couldn’t bear my grandmother’s constant jibes.

I also remember our homes by the cats and other animals who adopted us. So there was one home of Kimi and Kallu and Pushpi, their proud mother, who gave birth to them on my ankles, there was another home where Tipu Sultan (my most handsome cat of all) died in battle and his mother Chinki was bitten by a snake. And where Millie rolled herself in rangoli on Diwali day and came to us, all multi-colored and we had a harrowing time washing her to get the color off.

My father eventually cracked real estate when I was 18 and we had a house with a garden, mango and guava trees, front and back entrances and all of that. But it wasn’t meant to be. That home resulted in a legal battle that took the rest of my father’s youth. That home also broke us as a family.

Meanwhile, I watched friends dating preapproved men on the EMI market, marrying into real estate, divorcing with real estate. I saw them upgrading to house number two just before they had a baby. To house no. 3 before they planned the second one. I saw their homes, immaculate and perfect, their walls adorned with art that never reflected who they were.

When I was pregnant with Re, I wistfully thought of myself as an ill prepared parent. We didn’t have a house, I couldn’t visualize a permanent address; I wondered what kind of security could I possibly offer him. It’s been five going on six years, and things haven’t been bad. Re has moved homes thrice already. He is magically Zen about it. Between home two and three, there was some turmoil, but then help came in the form of a kitten we rescued on the road and our transition got diffused in kitten care and all was well. Home three to four was smoother than I ever thought. It helped that it was on a hill.

But I never flinch whenever there is a “permanent address’ column in any form that I have to fill (and I still end up filling a few of them). I just smile and write my mother’s address. It’s a place I still go to when I feel impermanent.

And it no longer bothers me when I have to move. I just gather my best art, curtains, a few cushions and Re’s castle. I put them up. And it becomes home, so effortlessly.


(The above post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 16th March 2015)


A lost home, a found home, and a kitten that made the difference

I think Re has had a whiff of the last post. Driving him is now easier, since now, instead of directing our energies at each other, we collaborate against the traffic.  So now, when we venture onto the road, it’s us against the world. “Bad traffic, go away,” we scream in unison. “You are a bad boy,” I declare, at no one in particular. And then Re corrects me. “Mamma, traffic jam is not a bad boy. Traffic jam is a bad car.” True that. Lateral, but true. I am already excited about deeper conversations I am going to have with him in the future.

But there’s been too much else happening in our lives, which I wanted to process before sharing with you.( I think I am somewhat ready now, but I am still unsure).

It has been a tough month. We moved house a few weeks ago and I think Re’s world fell apart. It was his first real move (the last time we moved, he was barely seven months old).  I did prepare him weeks in advance by pointing him to the peeling walls, and that we needed to move so that someone could put ‘stickytape’ on it.  It tore me to say this to him about a house that I introduced to him as ‘the one with our own mango tree’. He seemed to nod in agreement. I thought I was making progress.

I worked slowly, but steadily on the transition. Every evening , for a week before the move, Re and I would walk across the road to the new building, climb three flights of stairs with his pick of toys for the day, spread them all out, play with them, while I talked to him about the new windows, new birds that would come visiting (we spotted a sparrow on day one, that made my heart sing with joy) the new coconut tree that peeped into the house, new corners Nadia and Bravo (his feline siblings) could hide in, new cupboards to keep his toys, and new friends he was on the verge of making (a little girl who sat by the window on the ground floor and waved to him every day helped). Also the new building had a park with a ‘baby slide’ and a ‘dadda slide’ as Re referred to them, and that, to me was a huge draw.

Soon, his trampoline was re-homed as was his car track and kitchen and he didn’t seem ruffled by the thought of leaving them behind, knowing he would come back to them soon.

The move happened over a weekend, and things seemed okay on the outside. The OPU and I orchestrated it well enough to not cause a carton overdose, the unpacking was not too chaotic, the cats didn’t seem visibly traumatised, and Re looked happy that his world was replicated in a new setting.

Or so we thought.

The school week began. The OPU went to work. I dropped him to school as usual. I picked him up, parked the car and walked him to the new building. He dragged me to the old one.

“Mamma, I want to go home.”

“But this is our new house, Re. Your toys are here. Nadia and Bravo are here. Your books are here. Mamma and Dadda also live here now.”

“No mamma. I don’t want to go to the new house. I want to go home.”

And he bawled his heart out.

My world came crashing. My child was displaying a deep sadness about being uprooted from his home. And I hadn’t seen it coming.  Perhaps I should have done something differently. Perhaps we didn’t say our goodbyes well enough to the old house. Perhaps there was no closure as far as he was concerned.

I took him to the empty flat, showed him the empty rooms, the missing cats, TV, food, music, clothes, furniture. He still wouldn’t yield. “I want to stay here mamma,” he said. “I don’t want to go to the new house.”

This continued until day 10. And then, Vinci walked into our lives.

She was a little kitten, smaller than my palm, scurrying across the road in peak traffic. I screamed in fright, anticipating a run-over, picked her up and placed her on the pavement. She made a dash for the road again. I had to take a call quickly.  We had just moved house, things were still work-in-progress, my child was unsettled by the move, we already had two cats, and now this.

I called the OPU. He gave me the nod I needed. “Bring her,” he said.  “We are ready for child 4,” he said.

Something changed in Re in the next few days. He became an older sibling to someone. A kitten.He picked her up, petted her, cleaned her with cotton swabs, lined her litter basket with paper, was in charge of guarding her pellet tray, so the older cats wouldn’t eat from it, and he also made her bed by lining a small cane basket with an old towel. Vinci, spunky as she was, milked all the attention she got from Re. He also played a little game by placing her on the top of his curly mop and letting her slide down his neck, something that seemed to give both of them intense joy.

Coming home from school was now about finding out “What must Vinci be doing now?” Would she be sleeping or playing? Where would she be hiding today? Would Bravo be licking her? Would Nadia and she have finally become friends?

Suddenly, the new house became a house of belonging. A promise of new beginnings. A house of hope and love.  A house he could make his own.

Drives back from school now ended with, “Mamma, there is nothing in the old house. We haff to go to the new house because Vinci is waiting for us. Vinci haff to eat kuku” (Re’s expression for food).

And just like that, a kitten helped me through one of life’s tough transitions. But it was as though she was sent to do just that. Within a week of her moving with us, Vinci died. Of a cardiac arrest. In her sleep. It’s all still a mystery, but it appears that her deworming medicine had an adverse effect on her heart.

The OPU was shattered.  The cats were confused. I had to be in control, and not let Re know about my grief.  My tears had to be muted. Vinci was quietly buried in the garden and Re was told that her mamma had come to get her, and since she was a baby, we had to give her to her mamma. He seemed convinced. “Oh, Vinci haff to go with her mamma, yes!”

Perhaps someday, we will talk about love and longing. About suffering and pain. About finding and losing.  But until then, I will have to protect him, or hope that life does.

But amid all this grief, the new house had become home. He still talks about Vinci,  but now, the new house is not just about her. It’s also about what he wants it to be.