The House that grandfather built (Part I)

Grandfather’s house on Harris Road in Pudupet, Madras (now Chennai) was called
SRI NIVAS, I was born in that house, as were my two sisters, Kanaka, a year older, and Shanthi, three years younger than I. My grandfather’s diary which has a wealth of information, meticulously recorded, has this one line entry : “On 8th October Sharada was born at Sri Nivas at 3.11 pm after a natural labour” My paternal grandparents and my father came to visit. Father wrote to me on my birthday years later, that on his 31st birthday, October 11th, my mother brought baby ME (I was not named until a week later at a proper Naming Ceremony), as her birthday gift for him. It was the season of the poojas, Navaratri, and it was natural that I should be named after the Devi.
I was named after my grandmother, Saraswati, then Sharada, then Lakshmi, then Durga, – all names whispered in my ear by my two grandmothers. Later, as I grew older, I desperately wanted to be called Saraswati, but Sharada was my registered name in the school records, and birth certificate and that name has stayed with me.

SRI NIVAS was a red brick two storey ‘mansion’ – for I remember it as being a large gracious house, always busy with family, relatives and friends, a hospitable place, a happening place. The gate posts were crowned by seated lions. The broad drive way led up to a covered porch with steps up to a verandah. On either side of the porch the verandah was shaded by tall palms. This space was the favored open space for family photographs, and our photo albums are replete with images of family and friends posed with a backdrop of palms, in sepia coloured photographs. Weddings, birthday parties and social events and grandfather’s professional meetings were invariably occasions for the group photos as the photographer, his camera box on a tripod and a black cloth over his head would raise a finger announcing the CLICK. A second picture – a fresh plate was inserted – and once more his head covering adjusted as we smiled for the photograph, our event immortalized.

On either side of the gate as one entered our compound were two buildings, on the left was the garage for grandfather’s brand new Studebaker sedan, a distinctive sky blue in colour, which drew admiring glances as we cruised down the Marina on our evening excursions to the beach. On the other side of the gateway was a small one-roomed house where Pasupati, our gatekeeper and general factotum lived. The driveway circled a central space filled with small trees and flowering bushes which shielded the view of the house from the busy road traffic.
Flanking the house on Harris Road were two compounds, on the left the large imposing house of Mr.Bhasker Rao Naidu, a prominent businessman and lawyer. On the right was an extension of the Presentation Convent whose property extended behind our house as well, but nearest to our gate were the living quarters of the lay teachers of this Catholic convent run by nuns of the St. Theresa’s order. Miss Alice Delcourt, a diminutive Anglo-Indian lady was one of the teachers in the Presentation Convent school, who lived in these quarters. She had been engaged by grandfather to tutor us until we joined the primary classes. In 1940 Kanak and I had joined school, but Shanthi was getting her first lessons in English and arithmetic from Miss Delcourt. Often when we played on the terrace above the porch we could look across and see Miss Delcourt passing from her room to her little kitchen and we waved shyly to greet her.

Grandfather was a pathologist in the British government medical service. In his career he had done considerable work in research laboratories on vaccines. As a young man he had gone to distant Kasauli, leaving his wife and children in Mangalore, to work on developing anti-rabies and anti-tetanus vaccines at the Pasteur Institute. From there he was transferred to Bombay and the Haffkine Institute where he worked on the anti-plague vaccine. Returning to Madras, he started his research on tuberculosis which was a major killer attacking rich and poor alike. He set up house, and educated his three children in that city. Being allowed private practice he had several patients visiting the house in the evening where he had a clinic on the ground floor. The clinic consisted of the two rooms on the left, separated, (but with a connecting door) with a side entry for patients to the waiting room. This part of the house was out of bounds for us children unless there were special guests in the front drawing room.
My grandparents abiding concern about protecting their grandchildren from infection made us, my sisters and cousins, constantly wary of the inoculating needle.

To the right as one entered from the verandah was the “gosha room” where grandmother socialized with her Muslim women friends who were “gosha” (purdah). These women arrived in curtain-ed cars and were always of interest to us, with their different style of dress – long sleeved embroidered blouses and bordered sarees with one end covering the head, something a married Hindu woman in south India would never do.
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The gosha room is linked with our memories of the Bazlullah family, good friends of my grandfather who visited us. Mr. Bazlullah was Commissioner, Madras Corporation, and has a road named after him in Chennai. Mrs. Bazlullah was a large lady, and we stifled our giggles, as we recounted the day when she was stuck in one of the armchairs as she rose to leave, extricating herself, with some difficulty.
We did not remember her sons, who we did not interact with as children, but both of the sons met us many years later in Delhi as distinguished members of the Pakistan Civil Service. The elder son, Justice Shahabuddin, an alumnus of the Madras Law College, passed his ICS and later served as a judge in Madras, and after Partition as Chief Justice of the High Court in Dacca, East Pakistan, before being appointed as Chief Justice of the Pakistan Supreme Court. My sister recalls the day when Justice Shahabuddin and his wife came to Delhi on an official visit in 1954 and contacted my father who was then Home Secretary, to enquire about my grandparents, who they heard were visiting us. They requested an appointment to come and meet them, following strictly the official protocol. My grandparents were greatly moved when the couple bent to touch their feet in true South Indian style, and recalled how the warmth of their relationship was not dimmed by the boundaries drawn in 1947. The younger son, Mohd. Karamtullah ICS, also joined the Pakistan Civil service after Partition. He came to Delhi as Commerce Secretary in 1952 to negotiate the Trade agreement between the two countries with his counterpart Mr. S. Bhoothalingam.ICS.
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SRINIVAS was really a new house built in the front part of the compound of an older house which was retained after grandfather purchased the plot The old house was a separate block at the back, connected by a short open passage with broad ledges on the walls where we could sit and spend much of our time during the warm part of the day. The rooms on the ground floor of this rear portion provided space for the women to gather, sharing household tasks, or chatting with visitors. The women folk, grandmother, aunts, cousins, spent the time during these chat sessions, cutting vegetables, preparing pickles or papad, or, stringing the fragrant jasmine flowers that the servant woman brought from the market in the late afternoon. We girls then had to sit down to get our hair combed, braided and decorated with flowers before we went for an evening outing.
At one end was a space where we would often find our tailor, seated on the floor with a hand-operated Singer sewing machine. Walking through the dining room, one reached a courtyard, storerooms and kitchen at the back, and outside near the boundary wall was the stone platform where the servant would beat the clothes to wash them.

In the new building that grandfather added in front, a staircase led up to the first floor bedrooms and a terrace. At the landing at the head of the stairs was installed the telephone on the wall, its trumpet-shaped receiver hooked on a side cradle. Connected to the new building with a short passage like the downstairs portion,, the upper floor of the rear block had two large rooms and a terrace which was our main play area when the sun was not too hot. These rooms with windows overlooking the compound of the Presentation Convent were the private space that we called grandfather’s “Dormitory”. Here, seated at his roll-top desk, grandfather spent most of his time when he was not in the clinic downstairs. He bought a small table fan which was an object of wonder and curiosity to us children as we stood at a respectful distance and watched it rotate, our eyes narrowed in delicious anticipation as it turned in our direction, exulting in the breeze that swept over our faces, blowing back our hair.

A fixed routine, strictly followed by us was writing weekly letters to our parents, then in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and our paternal grandparents who lived on the west coast in Mangalore and Kasargod where my grandfather had property.
This correspondence – our letters and our parents’ replies – have been carefully saved, giving me this opportunity to read and relive childhood events and write the first part of this narration. Birthday cards and drawings, stories and poems written by us, school news and jokes, all form a patchwork quilt of childish chatter to bring smiles and memories for the mind to savor.

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