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The front veranda of Pullickal House. Photographs by Kaushik Ramaswamy   (The front veranda of Pullickal House. Photographs by Kaushik Ramaswamy)
The front veranda of Pullickal House. Photographs by Kaushik Ramaswamy (The front veranda of Pullickal House. Photographs by Kaushik Ramaswamy)

Kottayam: Her Ammachi’s house

A 200-year-old house, named Pullickal, in Kerala, with a patriarch’s chair in the veranda, antique Chinese jars in the basement storeroom and rats in the attic

I have been trying intermittently to persuade my mother to leave Kerala, where she lives alone, and move into my apartment in New Delhi. The biggest temptation on offer is her two granddaughters, and unlimited time with them. Unsurprising, though, is her resistance to the idea of not being the mistress of her own home. Among the many reasons she has for continuing to maintain Kochi as her base is that my sister, who lives outside India, “should have someplace to come home to".

I have a sense of what she means. I was part of the generation for whom summer breaks did not mean “destination vacations". Year after year, we—my mother, a schoolteacher, thus blessed with the same deliciously long vacations, my sister and I, along with my father, who would be dropping us off—would sit tense as our cab crawled through the tough Calcutta traffic towards Howrah railway station and then make a dash to clamber on to our train; we never learnt our lesson, so we never left home any earlier. The destination was almost always one of two: my Ammachi’s (maternal grandmother’s) home in Visakhapatnam, where we went annually, with the exception of those years when we visited my other Ammachi’s (paternal grandmother’s) house in Kottayam—our five-year plans, as the family joke went.

The days at Vizag, where all of us cousins, similar in age, would reunite, consisted of unlimited fun. Plucking mangoes and stealing the sour pickled ones drying on the roof; going on hikes to a hill nearby and rushing back before the 4 o’clock showers; watching Valliya Ammachi (my great-grandmother, who had been widowed with one son at age 17) hail passers-by and hand them cash, telling them in whispered Malayalam, lest her daughter-in-law catch her in action, to buy her a train ticket to Kerala; realizing in thrilled surprise one day, years after we had established the place as our regular vacation spot, that Vizag was a sea town.

Kottayam was different; Pullickal House was more solemn, and with fewer cousins around to distract me. In retrospect, the relationship I established here was with the house, now almost 200 years old, which Ammachi, the sharpness of her eyes seemingly undiminished by the cataract of her later years, valiantly saved from termites and other marauding pests. The crosses carved on the attic ventilators, shaded by a tiled, sloping roof, identified Pullickal as a Christian household; most in the family, though, fell vastly short in the piety department, especially in this Christian-majority district where social gatherings mostly take place in the form of prayer meetings (weddings, funerals and christenings being other social occasions).

Ladles made from coconut shells.
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Ladles made from coconut shells.
Rice and fish being prepared for lunch on the firewood stove.
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Rice and fish being prepared for lunch on the firewood stove.

While we are known in Kottayam as the Pullickal folk, we are in fact part of the Chemarapalli family, and the “homestead" bearing that name is a distance away. It so happened that my grandparents had cared for an aged aunt and uncle, and this house passed down to them. A wall in the dimly lit drawing room—filled with exquisite antique wooden furniture, especially a central table whose beauty remained hidden beneath piles of my uncle’s dusty law books, case files and cigarette and beedi packets—respectfully held two black and white portraits: One was of my great-grandparents, a photo I would see displayed in other relatives’ houses too; the other of the uncle and aunt the house belonged to.

This uncle was a forest officer; ironically, proof of this lay on the wall of the front veranda, regally lined with hunting trophies—deer and wild buffaloes. Legend has it that he owned an elephant. I spent hours wandering the overgrown grounds, past the chicken coop and the cow shed—now filled with firewood gathered from fallen branches, coconut leaves and husks—scratching and slapping my calves as I was bitten by mosquitoes when I passed the nutmeg trees and pepper vines, towards the deep end where the foot sank into inches of fallen leaves. Here, I feared encounters with snakes and hurried back, wondering where the elephant had been tethered.

We Pullickal folk are a grim lot, certainly not loquacious. So what I knew formed merely the framework of my family’s story, the rest I filled in in my own head. My grandfather, a well-regarded lawyer in Kottayam who died before I turned one, continued to have a stately presence in the house in the form of a chair he was partial to. The only one in the front veranda, this plantation chair had arms long enough to stretch one’s legs up on and thus bestow upon the seated person a position of feudal power. It continued to be known as Appachan’s chair, but through some unspoken agreement, it seemed that the man of the house had first right to it. So, in the mornings and nights, when Appappa, my father’s younger brother, was at home, this was where he sat, reading his newspaper, sipping on his kattan kaapi, smoking his beedis and speaking with the many friends, colleagues and hangers-on who gathered around him. It was only during the long, hot afternoons that my sister and I would get a chance to fight over it.

The deep end of the house, where the kitchen and the well were, was a place of equal action, and the domain of Ammachi, a tall, dignified and authoritarian lady who had married, I believe, at 16, and lived till 96, extraordinarily content to be within the boundaries of this house. The world would come to her; I only ever remember her stepping out (I always felt reluctantly) on the days she would take us “visiting", changing out of her everyday white chatta mundu into a clean one that was kept locked inside her cupboard, a kavani draped around her chest and kept in place with a gold brooch. This traditional Syrian Christian woman’s attire has now all but disappeared, and everyone would cackle on the days I chose to wander around in one borrowed from my grandmother.

Like in old houses, the toilets and the bathrooms were constructed outdoors. But on the grounds that stretched upwards in two levels behind the house, there was a fascinating remnant of a patriarchal tradition. I am told this brick-walled enclosure was for the use of menstruating women, presumably considered unclean during those days. Last year, when I wandered through the grounds, the walls of this enclosure had finally given way, though the ruins remained as a reminder.

A reminder, though, only to those of us who have spent time in the house, and that will likely end with my generation. My grandmother, for whom the house was literally her world, died a few years ago. My uncle and aunt, two siblings, live there now. When any of us in the larger family goes to Kottayam, this is naturally where we stay.

The house is now waiting to be sold. When that happens, there will be one less “home" to go to.

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