I don’t remember the house I was born. It was in a Railway quarter in the hot sweaty town of Titlagarh in interior Orissa. It was in the height of Summer and the Hailey’s comet had just passed us by a month earlier. My grandfather even joked about naming me after the celestial visitor, but his mother, our matriarch (who supposedly sat next to my mother during labour with a HMT watch in hand to record the time of my arrival) who put her foot down and dictated that I be named after the Lord of the Seven Hills. That scotched the matter.
All I know that it was a large quarter close to the station and closer to the local temple. Fleeting memories visit me when I think of Titlagarh but they are too scant and too hazy.
My first concrete memories are my ancestral homes, in Rajahmundry from my maternal side and Berhampur on my paternal side. The Rajamundry house, nestled in the delta of the Godavari, was a large three storeyed building with a mango and guava grove where a majority of my summers were spent.
Dad’s place in Berhampur was more of a farmhouse. Straddling the border of the Telugu and Orissa cultural spheres, the village where the ancestral farm essentially meant large stretches of paddy fields and banana plantations. Winters were spent here, trying to play with kids who knew little or no Gult and older cousins who teased the city kid.
Home in Vizag was a large government quarter in the Railways. A modest quarter in the Gurkha Lines was our initial residence but a promotion to the grandfather landed us pretty early in a large bungalow. That was where a large portion of my childhood was spent and my formative years were developed. The bungalow had five bed rooms and my grandfather had the walls between two of them knocked down to give me an extended room. I enjoyed my life there. A servants quarter and a cowpen were the added advantages of that place. Flowers grew in abundance, large parties could be thrown, we made a rainwater harvesting pit, and a cousin even got married there. I graduated from a tricycle to a bicycle to moped to a motorcycle in that house. Its not surprising that I still dream about it at night. It was home for me. The mango trees and the jasmine flowers and the dogs we had.
It was 2003 and my grandfather retired. After 37 years of serving faithfully the Indian Railways, we moved to a plush 2BHK house in an upmarket area of the city. 1200 sft of space is a large space for three people but the joy of a bungalow is a pleasure within itself. This house was in the heart of the city of Vizag, and any family would be more than happy to live here. But my grandmother never got over the downgrade of her lifestyle. She had lived in bungalows the size of small palaces when my grandfather was working, supervising vast vegetable fields and cattle herds, and lording over a small contingent of servants and maids. Unable to abandon the city she loved for the wide open spaces of her village, but incapable of making a transition to this bookshelf (that’s what she called our house), she passed away in a few years.
I mourned her death and mourned our shared misery silently. I hated the small place myself. “Where is the room for the dog to sleep in?” had been my innocent question when I was first shown the apartment. I shared her passion for the great outdoors. But I had begun to resign myself to a smaller lifestyle. The days of large houses are over. Those houses are extinct now.
When I was packed off for training to Mumbai, I shuddered at the thought of a hostel room. But I was lucky to have been given a single room in the officer’s hostel in Bhandup East. Even though it was only a small room, the fact that we had a huge lounge, a large cafeteria, a gym and a billiards room, a badminton court library and a fine lawn made the campus look comfortable and comely. It couldn’t come close to my earlier homes though. I still hated the fact that I could see my entire residence within my field of vision.
Now I live in a 1BHK Hall Apartment in Bandra, falling back on savings to pay the hefty rent. It’s a pleasant locality in the middle of Kalanagar, within walking distance from the Bandra station and biking distance from my office in the International Airport. I live alone. But its still not big enough for me. The 1 BHK opposite mine is shared by 4 girls. I don’t know how they manage to adjust. I could never live with three more folks in a house like this.
Claustrophobia sets in. Walls seem to close in on you. You need to open your windows and attempt to claim some of the world for yourself. You need to drown yourself in your work, in your tears or in alcohol. Or else for a person like me, who has spent childhood in large houses and with an army of servants, this transition is extremely painful. But we have to shrug it off. We say it’s the Bombay life. We unwillingly admit that this is the reality of this cosmopolis. Bombay tends to do that to its citizenry. Space is a constraint of this city. People born here have grown up used to confined small spaces and frequent intrusion of privacy or a complete lack of it. But for a recent implant like me, someone reading your whatsapp chat over your shoulder in the local, or the neighbor aunty coming over asking about your friends isn’t acceptable.
But what can we do? When my brother asks the reason for the expenses, I reply “This is Bombay”. Why haven’t I made substantial savings? “This is Bombay”. Rents are exorbitant and homes as big as matchboxes and, if lucky the size of shoe boxes. I know friends who inhabit houses that were smaller than the kitchens of my older homes. It’s been two years in Bombay and I still haven’t been able to get over the fact that I live in a much smaller house than all my life. The floor space just isn’t enough. I love the peaceful view though. That’s the only advantage of this home.
The walls seems to be winning the war on me, closing in slowly as I grow older.
Call me old fashioned. Call me princely. Call me spoilt. Call me fastidious. But this is me. Claustrophobic in the Cosmopolis.