Other People’s Houses

Unexplored territory

Across the road is a coconut grove, and beyond it, other people’s houses. They are dimly lit, or the light has been turned off in most of them, because it’s night and the women have finished cleaning the kitchen and gone to bed, stretched out on this warm night, weary and apprehensive about what the morrow will bring. More rain, or the comforting warmth of even a watery sun, which will drive the damp stains away from coloured walls and, importantly, dry the clothes that are making whole rooms smell musty?

I turn off all the lights and imagine their lives, create stories for people who live in these houses whose rooms I cannot see. Many of them are peopled by families from the Telugu movies I watched in the early 2000s, because that is the closest I can get to this Coromandel landscape; women who diligently place idlis and chutney on breakfast tables in the morning, running their fingers through the hair of sons whose college books gather dust in the corner, having the most inconsequential arguments with their husbands as they bring out some sambar and wait for the family to finish eating before they serve themselves. Then there are the houses where women finish their chores quickly before putting on their uniforms and heading off to their housekeeping jobs in the apartments nearby; or the girls who sneak a quick ride with their boyfriends before they take up their station at the supermarket or the vegetable shop, where there will be no sweet conversations until lunch again. Their houses wait for them, grandma napping, mother cooking, father reading the newspaper. The TV is on and the news seems to have turned into a 24-hour weather report.

When night falls, all is quiet — only crickets and the patter of rain, sometimes a police car. Weary bones rest in narrow beds, double beds, on printed cotton bedsheets, sunken pillows. How do they sleep and what do they think of when they sleep? What do they do if they can’t sleep — how long will one more video sustain them, or the memories of that last good night call made on the terrace or from the bathroom?

At dawn, a shirtless man creeps up to the gate, hoping to secure for himself a sheet of corrugated metal that lies just outside the boundary wall. He can take it with him, for all anyone cares, but he looks around furtively, then makes several recces, as if granting this act of pointless robbery the legitimacy of a grand heist. He approaches the metal sheet with the nimble steps of a robber in a comic book, prises it off the ground from different corners, then attempts to lift it — too heavy. He drops it, looks around again, and walks back to the road. He strolls aimlessly for a few minutes and returns for a second attempt. He succeeds this time. Perhaps this will be his roof for the next few days, or a means to secure one. He carries the metal sheet on his head and shoulders, but a couple of hundred metres later, drops it in some hedges on the side of the road. Will he return with an accomplice, or was the sheet too heavy for him? The man disappears into the distance, blending with the smoke rising from a bonfire in the fields.

Houses and homes fill with activity again. The lamps are lit and the scent of incense smoke wafts through the air.

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A woman from many places.

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Jaya Srinivasan

Jaya Srinivasan

A woman from many places.

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