09 March 2020

Is the old house still standing?

There are two kinds of old houses. Those we were once resident in, visited or knew of and those that are, well, old. The latter kind may kindle interest on account of being ancient or of historical value or for architectural signature that has over time become unusual. The former are all about nostalgia.

Not all places we’ve known make us stop if we randomly pass them. It’s those that have generated moments and memories that make for pause. If good or terrible times and lovely or horrible people were associated with some place, be it a house or a village or a school, things get etched into the memory chip. They get sparked by revisit. They inflame or warm. 

And then we go back to that time of that place. And remember. 

Last week my brother and I visited our ancestral home in Kurunegala. It was for us THE holiday home. Memory plays tricks of course but I will always remember that the day the school holidays began our mother would take us (our sister, him and I) to her parents’ house. She would go back, usually the same day, and return the day before school reopened. 

She would bundle us into a packed bus from Pamankada (Route 120), pay the fare (10 cents for each of us and 15 for herself, if I remember right). We got into the queue for the No 6 bus to Kurunegala. That’s Rs 1.75 for each of us, Rs 3.50 for her. The bus would stop for tea in Nittambuwa, just 24 miles from Colombo. It made sense back then because it took around three hours to get to Wehara, located just before the Kurunegala sign post but within municipal limits.

From there, a five minute walk on the Wehera-Malkaduwawa circular road, connecting the Colombo and Negombo roads. It was an enormous property fronted with a thick andara-weta running parallel to the road. The gate was enormous. There was a wide driveway, lined on either side with another andara-weta curving at the end towards an enormous house with an enormous porch.  

Everything about that place was of monumental dimension including our grandparents who actually were quite slim. There were two dogs, Fighter and Bruno, and they were huge. The kos trees and mango trees were huge. The coconut trees were tall. The wells were huge and deep. The love, affection and caring: unmatched. 

No one lives there now. No one has lived there in years. There used to be flowers and ferns in innumerable pots. The grass was neatly cut. The driveway, which was the ‘pitch’ for cricket matches between the team from ‘our part’ of the village and those from Wehera or Malkaduwawa, did not have grass on it. There was always fruit: mango, nelli, veralu, cashew, gauva and gooseberry. There were mid-morning and mid-afternoon treats like roasted jak seeds. There was always something on the hearth. We wafted into cooking smells and that was an appetizer. 

That was another lifetime. 

I remembered an old song. Tom Jones. ‘Green Green Grasses of Home,’ written by Claude ‘Curly’ Putnam Jr, first recorded by Johnny Darrel and turned into a world number one hit by Tom Jones.  This line came to me: ‘The old house is still standing, though it’s paint is cracked and dry.’

This was what it was. Except that it seemed to have shrunk. 

I took a picture and sent it to my sister who lives too far away from home. She wrote, ‘Ohhhhh! So small now. Aged.’ And I replied ‘that’s what I felt too.’

‘It’s the imagined powers of the adults in our lives and the imagined magnitude of their lives that make us think the buildings that house them are massive. School, too. Then we grow up and realize we are (and they were) particles in the scheme of things.’

Perspective. It’s birthed everywhere and in various ways. In this case, an old house that’s still standing though its paint is cracked and dry, yielded one interesting lesson, i.e. the one offered by my sister, who is actually a teacher. There are probably other lessons to be learned. For me, though, it was sad and yet wholesome to be there for a while. 

The boys came out to play. There was cheering. All of a sudden a play-house materialized by the jak tree which had shrunk but whose trunk suddenly fattened to amazing dimensions. My grandfather frail and yet strong in determination moved around gathering dung dropped by the three or four cows that grazed on his property. He collected it with a mammoty, went to the tree he had decided to fertilize and drop it neatly. My grandmother brought a steaming dish of kirikos to the dining room. 

And then it was night. And then it rained. And then there were frogs croaking. And then we recited the thun-sutra with our grandfather, said good night, worshipped him and went to bed.  

Old houses. They make us stand. In ways that make us smile. 

This article was first published in the DAILY NEWS [March 9, 2020]

Other articles in the series 'In Passing...':  [published in the 'Daily News' on Monday, Wednesday and Friday every week]