Sunday, 3 August 2014

If we had a washing machine...

The family of Chakkathotil, according to them, was called so because of the numerous varieties of jackfruit tress that populated their grounds. The aroma of jackfruit, chakka as it was called in the lingua franca, hung constant in the air even when it was not jackfruit season. Another story about the origin of the family name talks about an unlucky patriarch who found himself at the exact point where the trajectory taken by a ripe chakka detaching itself from one of the higher branches of a tree met the ground. The second story was more popular among the peasants of the area.
The family grounds also had a lot of other kind of trees: papaya, mango, lemon, pomegranate, and slender coconut trees that seemed to touch the sky. The house, built at the very center of the grounds, was like a pulsating organ, teeming with life inside its ancient limestone walls and red roof tiles green with moss. No one, not even the oldest members of the family, knew when it was built. It grew slow and unrelenting like a creeper, room by room, after every marriage or kitchen quarrel walls taken for granted were torn down and new rooms were built. The big labyrinthine corridors that branched to new hall ways and rooms back to kitchens and corridors and back to hall ways, bannisters and dark niches, were too complex to be memorized by anyone. It was common for them to get lost in the house and then end up meeting relatives they had not met in years.
In a house so ancient it is only natural that the most trivial things took on relic like importance. Because everything, bronze ladles, necklaces in sharapoli design, even small hooks on the wall used to hang clothes were handed down from oblivion to great grandmothers, to grandmothers, to mothers. But the most precious things were the ones with a story to tell. Like the teak divan with an exquisitely caved lions head at one end which was always used by the oldest patriarch of the family  or the golden spittoon which was used by the kings and princes, who visited the family often before democracy, to have spitting competitions. These stories every child, spirit and mite that lived in the house knew, for they were repeated so many times, told and retold by old women that these lore like the smell of jackfruits were always present in the air. If a stranger were to step into the house and take a breath then he would at once know about the majestic past of the family, he would not doubt it, he would know it like the air he breathed.
 For the children there, the house and the grounds around it was heaven. They played games climbed trees, shouted and quarreled all day till dusk when their mothers came to drag them into the house by their ears. But that day they came back very early, this surprised their mothers, who were astounded by what their children told them next ‘There is a big house being built on the other side of our east wall. It is big’. They didn’t believe it at first, but then the men who went to supervise the peasants near the east wall told them the same thing when they came home for tea in the evening
They tried hard not to be bothered by it, but they were, realizing which they tried even harder to hide their uneasiness. Even then, all over the house questions were asked in hushed tones accompanied by a clandestine stoop of the neck.
 ‘Is it really bigger than our house?’
 ‘I heard they were building five separate kitchens’
 ‘Who are the people building it?’ The new house was being built twice, one across the east wall and other in the collective consciousness of the Chakkathotil family and this second house, built in their minds and whispers, was already more magnificent than what the architects of the first house had in their blueprints.

One day there was talk of another house being built on top of the first one, a second floor. This was unheard of, a disturbing novelty to the family who till now had never felt the need to extend their home in the vertical direction. For them there was always enough land around to extend to, to build on.  The masons of the family were summoned immediately and were asked about the possibility of extending the ancient house skyward. The masons shook their heads and shrugged their shoulders, the old house would never be able to hold that much weight, they explained.
‘Ah, no need, we have enough space’
‘Our house has been like this for centuries, the newly rich with no history can build whatever hideous things they want ’
 ‘We respect our culture’
‘Two stories? I don’t see the need really’ said the family.

In the following days, old furniture was treated with more care, grandmothers told the kids previously unheard of stories about the family grandeur and all around extra caution was taken to do things in the old and right ways and not to succumb to petty novelties. But curiosity is an uncontrollable feeling, it knows no master nor does it submit to any restriction. The curiosity caged inside the mind of the family found ways to manifest itself in seemingly random choices of the family members. Everything they did pulled them closer to the eastern wall. Children now played there more often, women inadvertently developed a liking for the flowers that grew near the eastern wall, and old men who usually suffered from the lethargy of old age became enthusiastic about overlooking peasants but only those who worked near the east side
This went on for many months, two more stories were added to the house which now could be seen from anywhere in the Chakkathotil property from where it was often observed with indifferent intent. ‘They are moving furniture into the house, TVs and lots of other things’. When a boy came running from the east, shouting this repeatedly, they couldn’t hold it in any longer, something inside their hearts bust like a dam in an earthquake. Every one ran out from the house towards the eastern wall to watch the spectacle and, perhaps for the first time since it was built, the Chakkathotil house was completely empty.
Men were carrying big brown boxed in to the house in an antlike fashion, with synchronized and measured steps.

 ‘What is in that box?’
‘It is a TV grandpa’
‘What are they going to do with three washing machines?!’
‘Pah! Who needs bath tubs? Don’t buckets and shower heads work fine?’
‘Radio? What for? Don’t they subscribe to a newspapers?’

Time passed. It became evening. The family was still peering over the wall like children who didn’t get tickets for a football game. Sunlight became sparse and the crowd soon dwindled with it, making their way back to the house at a slow pace, still mumbling rhetoric under their breath.
The Chakkathotil family were proud of their traditions but they were no obscurantists. Even in their invariable existence they were aware of the technological advances happening in the world outside. But they never felt the need to resort to these advances, to overcome their cultural inertia. There were always enough women around to wash clothes, more than enough children to keep other kids engaged, and a constant supply of fresh groceries, so the idea of buying a washing machine, a TV or a refrigerator didn’t cross anyone’s mind, not until now

Things once seen cannot be unseen and when they bury seeds of wanting deep within simple minds then it is only a matter of time before these seeds sprout, grow and eventually bloom with sentences that start with dangerous phrases like:
‘It would be nice if we had…’
‘This would be much easier if we had…’
And the simple ‘I want….’
The kids soon wanted to see cartoons as they became bored of their games. Old men thought it would be nice if they could listen to the news four times a day rather than reading it just once in the morning. The adolescents announced that they couldn’t live anymore without internet. Slowly things trickled in. Televisions, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, radios, they felt lighter now, they felt brave, they saw that buying these things weren’t as cataclysmic as they initially thought, the sun still rose in the east and the universe around them pulsated with the same familiar tones, so they went and bought more, bath tubs, water heaters, air conditioners, microwave ovens, computers, mobile phones, now they felt invincible, they bought even more, plastic water bottles, self-cleaning toilets, tread mills, books that read out loud, robot parrots, artificial milk powder, digital clocks, digital clocks that looked like antique pendulum clocks, and more, and more.
Sometime was spend in using the new luxuries with care, plastic covers weren’t removed and dials were turned with care. There was awe all around at the ease with which things were now being done and soon the plastic coverings gave way and the buttons were pressed with carelessness stemming from habit. With time the TVs, the radios and the automata became integral parts of the great family, inseparable but sticking out in contrast like zombie limb grafts. The family did feel that something was lost, yes they did in fleeting moments, nanoseconds after their whims were pounded into switches and before the complex electronics hummed into life, they felt emptiness, they felt lost, but then the lights would blink and come on, the machines would beep and they would forget all about it. Even then the past, with its incorruptible memory chased them. They bumped into old furniture in the dark and pulled out timeworn jewelry while they rummaged for their earphones in their drawers.

The kids, who now spend their time alternating between recliners, couches and lounge chairs carefully arranged in front of their television, found something shiny lodged between the cushions they were sprawled on them. It was the golden spittoon. They looked at it with alien curiosity and then ran to find their grandmother.  The old lady took it in her shivering hands and told her grandchildren the story that she had heard and breathed so many times when she was their age. But the story also had changed, its tone was no longer the eloquence of past grandeur but was the melancholy of an unknown loss. When she was finished with the story, she said ‘In those days things were different, there were no machines. Everything we did back then we did with care. Your generation will not understand’. The children went back to the television, perhaps a bit disillusioned. Their grandmother watched them go and thought about the shallowness of the new generation. But in her single minded devotion to such  faux nostalgia she had forgotten some things that happened many years ago, the day she peered over the wall to see the new house, the joy she felt when she saw a TV for the first time, how relaxed she felt when she immersed herself for the first time in a bath tub and a cold night when she snuggled close to her husband and whispered into his ear the word ‘Dear, It would make our life much easier if we had a washing machine’. She had forgotten all of that.


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