As I was standing on the terracotta terrace, blinded by noon sunshine, the first flickers of memory licked my cheek.
I stood on this roof once, when I was way shorter.
“Let’s go see the bedroom,” I called to my father. I snapped a picture of a fronded tree with yellow flowers before retreating inside. The new tenant of the Palavanthangal house had graciously allowed us to invade his home, peering into bedrooms, into bathrooms, into the old kitchen. I took pictures of the old linoleum tile, the balconies, the dark and musty living room.
This was the house my father had grown up in. The lives of my family and this property intersected for 24 years, book-ended by its purchase in 1972 and its sale in 1994. I had learned to walk in this house.
Appa1 and I had taken the Chennai Metro Rail to get here. We paid 20 rupees—roughly 30 cents—for two round trip tickets from Nungambakkam, the center of town, to Palavanthangal, a suburb of Chennai. We stood in a relatively quiet compartment. There were no doors to enter the train, only doorframes. Young boys with impossibly sweet smiles held on to the poles as they hung out of the train. The train sped forward as the wind snaked up under their Barcelona jerseys.
We got off the train at Palavanthangal station.
We climbed the stairs to cross to the other side. We were the only ones. The other passengers cut across the tracks. This is India, rules are meant to be broken.
The road was narrow and winding. The houses were immoveable stones, painted in bright teals, pinks, and purples. Dust settled on the stray dog that paced the alley. It dirtied the feet and peppered the hair of a small child who was running down the street. It was whipped up by the dupattas2 of two teenage girls, walking arm in arm, giggling.
The three-story house was sold in pieces, the ground floor going to one buyer and the second and third floors going to another. The first and second floors had kitchens, bathrooms, and bedrooms. The top floor had a large bedroom, where I had slept with my parents, and a sunny terrace. The staircases that bridged the floors were all outdoors, as was the old custom in South India. We spoke briefly to the ground floor tenant, an older man wearing a lungi3 and an undershirt. He jovially pointed us upstairs when we told him who we were.
Ambuj, a native of Kerala, and his hospitable wife greeted us upstairs. My father, ever eager to talk to people, told Ambuj about our history with the house and where our family had gone since then. We sipped Tang (remember Tang? It’s really big here) as we talked, learning about the young family that had replaced us.
Soon it was time to leave. I could see the emotions creeping into my father’s face, an impossible mix of nostalgia, sadness, anger, and hope. We went for a walk down the street. A school that had once been around the corner was shuttered. The neighbors that my father had once known and played with were gone.
We stopped at a local snack stand to ask what had happened to one such neighbor. The shopkeepers surveyed us suspiciously. We were clearly very foreign. My father spoke to the shopkeeper in rapid Tamil. I marveled again at how natural he sounded. His personality seemed to shift ever so slightly in Tamil. I could catch a glimpse of the brazenness that he once had, the brazenness that has morphed into a calm confidence. His expression clouded when the shopkeeper responded, “Avo sethuh paita.” He died. My father nodded slowly, his face pained.
“You know, when I was growing up, I couldn’t even ask my dad for two rupees for lunch,” he said. Money had been tight when he was very young, but my grandparents pooled their funds and managed to buy the Palavanthangal house. They worked hard for many years to send their children to the best schools in Chennai. My father, being the dreamer that he was, saw more for himself than this house, this city, or this country. His itching foot led him the Merchant Marines at 17.
“It makes me happy but at the same time very sad and angry to be here,” said Appa. We reached the house once again, having walked in a loop. I took one last picture—one of my grandfather’s name, C.R. Sampath, still faintly etched in white on the front gate.
We boarded an impossibly crowded train back to the center of town.