Chandra Niwas is perched atop a small hillock; a narrow cobblestone road runs to the main entrance of the house. The house consists of two wings – the old and the new. The old is a two floor, wooden, ranch-style house built in the 1960s. The new block was added later in 1980s; this one is a two-floor structure made of concrete and brick. Both the houses have enough rooms, their own bathrooms, and previously, their own occupants. Grandmother stayed in the old wing. Grandfather lived in the new block.
Houses often reveal the minds, even eccentricities of people who construct them and live in them. Houses are like sponges; they gradually imbibe the owner’s likes and tastes, even attitudes and feelings. Thus over a period of time, they often become an extension of our own selves. Every nook of the old house reflected my grandmother’s tastes and every cranny of the new house bore my grandfather’s characteristics.
The old house was torn and tattered, but like a brave soldier, it still had the muscle and the grit to withstand many a nature’s wars. Completely made of wood, this house was the main house, primarily because it had the kitchen and the puja room. Grandmother’s things – her saris, sweaters, coats, jewelry, knitting yarns and needles laid all over the place. A display cabinet, stockpiled with a whole lot of “foreign” items, stood in the middle; this was the main attraction of the house. Things Phupuji brought from her England trips or gifts given by her now half-Brit daughter. Like us, local folks who came to meet granny were also in awe of those silverwares, lavender mists, potpourri, Scottish bagpipers in skirts, porcelain plates, and dolls. Those dolls always wore gorgeous attires, all thanks to Phupuji’s great fashion sense and her knitting skills. Black and white family photos adorned the walls, along with a wooden clock that rang every hour. Grandma rented out the lower floor to Lalit and Bharat daju decades ago; they still run a medicine and shoe shop respectively.
The new house, my grandfather’s station, was right next to the old house. Newspapers, men’s clothes, telescope, army trunks, world maps, globes, papers, and a whole village of books occupied the first floor. Apart from sitars, harmoniums, and other musical instruments, no one lived in the second floor; it was mostly empty. With a terrace built on top, house members had a free access to the lovely view of the village and the valley. The sunrise was an added bonus. A row of roses, marigolds, and orchids covered the verandah area, with a couple of hanging plants in the front and a big tree in the background. Doors and windows of both houses were always open for fresh air, warm sun, the street dogs, and visitors.
Every year we went to Takdah to celebrate Dasai (Dusshera festival). Along with my family, my “Baral” and “Karki” cousins also came and we all stayed together for four or five days; this trip was an annual ritual and something we have been doing forever. Dasai was a breather in our lives, like a picnic break from the rut and routine of the everyday life. Similarly, it was a welcome change for the house itself; from two, now a total of sixteen people (and their dogs) lived under its roof. Takdah vacations were pretty hard for my mom since she had to bear the responsibilities, especially of the kitchen department, of an army of people.
A state of utter chaos, confusion, and clutter, such was life for the rest of the stay. Because my grandparents stayed alone and also had two houses to maintain, thus things were a bit messy and disorganized. It was difficult to work out sleeping arrangements. There were enough beds, around five or six, but with sixteen people in the house, this was not enough. Things worked on a first come, first serve basis. Early birds, who reached Takdah early, chose the best bedrooms whereas latecomers slept on floors, few in the old and others in the new house. Fortunately, Phupuji kept extra mattresses, bedsheets, and blankets. Bath time was also rough because both houses had only two bathrooms and those were old-styled and without water heaters. Boiling, over the wood fire or gas stove, was the only way to get hot water. Mealtime was tumultuous, but definitely fun. For a very long time, Takdah house had only one matho ko chulha (mud stove); gas stove was installed much later. When organic vegetables, desi gheu (ghee), wood fire, and my mom’s hands worked together, the result was pure magic. The food was scrumptious, nutritious, and simply delicious. The fire from the chulha also kept the house warm. Afternoons in Takdah are normally sunny, but evenings and nights especially in the Dasai month of October can get really cold. An angithi (mud heater) also provided extra heat; drinking chiya (tea) and eating murai (rice puffs) around the fire was an event for a city girl like me. A jharna (stream of water) just behind the kitchen provided water for drinking and cleaning purposes. Shalu didi and I often helped mom wash the dishes and clean the messy kitchen. It took at least two hours for us to wind up everything!
Playtime was unique. With no toys in the house, children settled with stones, shells, told stories to each other, enjoyed the view from the terrace and occasionally went for walks. Himul dokan, a depot that sold milk, was one of the destinations. Adwitya, Bittu, Shalu didi, my sister, and me walked about two kilometers with empty cans to fetch that “pure” cow milk. Along with milk, we brought home bunches of wild ferns and flowers, our pick of the day. We also played dice (street gambling) in the bazaar and sometimes also in the house, at night.
Night was colorful, noisy, and truly sinful at Takdah house. Children and adults played cards all night long, mostly rummy and flash. Few folks, like Bhaiya baje (my uncle) always got rich and few wallets, like mine, were always empty at the end. Rakshi (alcohol) and pakku (a mutton speciality) was a part of the package, and the generous adults even allowed the kiddos to take a sip or two of those wines and vodkas! After a few hours of merriment, eyes reddened, mouths stammered, and people argued and tripped over each other. Inside, the climate was hot and intense. Outside, the night air was cool and crisp, with nature showcasing a Beethoven-like performance. Croaking frogs, buzzing fireflies, chirping crickets, and howling foxes provided a perfect background score to our performance on the verandah. We, children, sang and danced, and watched the sky. The night sky was always beautiful – a big moon and a million stars always smiled upon us.
After Dasai, people packed their belongings and kids, and left, one family at a time. The spare mattresses and blankets went back to their secret caves. Bedsheets and pillow covers hung up to dry in the sun. Extra plates and utensils, carefully tucked away in the storeroom. The kitchen and the entire house now moped for a final time. Group photos clicked for one last time. Hugs and kisses exchanged, and the vacation ended with promises to return to Takdah next year. Oh! dear, hellos are sweet, goodbyes, always bitter!
Promises were kept, and the following year Niraula, Baral, and Karki pariwar again met and continued the merry making with more rakshi and pakku. This tradition, of going to Takdah to celebrate Dasai, continued for about 30 years! Even after grandfather expired, we kept going to the house for grandmother up until 2011. She expired in 2016.
Chandra was the name of my grandmother’s mother. Niwas means a house where a family lives together. Today, Chandra Niwas is empty, with its kith and kin tucked away in various corners of the world and busy with their own lives. People may have gone, but a few things stayed back. The sounds of laughter are forever trapped within its walls and so is granny’s perfume; it still lingers on her sweaters and coats. The lovely dolls still wear her knitted sweaters. You may notice traces of footprints hiding on those aging floorboards. The wall clock may not chime every hour, but it tells time. The brown rarri (woolen blanket) on which we sat, year after year, for tika ceremony might have a few holes, but it will keep you warm.
And the two peas in a pod, Phupa and Phupuji, continue to live…in my heart, in my memory, and in my stories.