October 06, 2007


He is standing in a familiar lane. There is a building ahead, and a door on the ground-floor landing. A faded plaque displays a well-known name.

Through sheer force of habit, he presses the thumbworn doorbell. Faithful still, it rings out from within. He pauses to absorb the echoes of a sound that has become for him the very definition of a belltone, an acoustic model of how a good chime should sound.

But there is nobody inside, he remembers. There hasn't been for years. He takes out a rusted key and, after a brief struggle with the padlock, enters a musty living room.

Shrouds. A number of shrouds, grotesque and misshapen, cram the modest space. It is a while before he realises that they do not cover corpses, but furniture. The ancestral heritage underneath is a proud, antique mahogany, distinctly colonial in design, perhaps a century old. The sheets have tried valiantly to protect it from the dust, but the dust, after years of laying siege, is winning the slow-motion battle, smothering the wood in painstakingly uniform confection.

These are the same sheets that served as indoor tents many years ago. They were good tents. They could be military shelters, or Red-Indian tepees. Or imaginary havens of protection from an irate uncle. Or secret hoards for the precious chocolate visitors sometimes brought from abroad.

He moves forward in the dim light, picking his way through the eerie shapes to the big glass door that leads to the garden.

The garden is no more. It was filled in with concrete a decade ago, to create a sort of extended porch, after everyone realized that a lawn was too difficult to maintain. But if you stare long enough, and it's the right sort of day, then the concrete melts away and you can see the grass underneath, a resonant, freshly-watered shade of green, just like it used to be.

He makes his way back in, stepping briefly into the kitchen. Some of the old utensils are still around, steel tumblers and plates, the sort that used to be given as gifts and had an illegible name engraved near the bottom. But the glasses are empty. No Rasna or Rooh-Afza or Gold-Spot or Thums-Up for him. For once.

The bookshelves in the study look forlorn and somewhat smaller without their payload. Most of the books have been carted away by eager cousins, others nestle in neem and mothballs in an old trunk in the loft. He finds the spot where a floor tile had chipped, making a little cracked pattern. He'd always say that the crack was shaped like a seahorse, although he cannot honestly find anything seahorse-like about it now.

The ceiling fan looks down from above, incongruous in its perfect stillness. He does not remember it ever being still, even in the middle of winter - it would always be humming its way round, rattling away to itself, never tiring, never breaking down. And it is so close - he can touch its blades without too much trouble. It used to be a distant, divine windblower, reachable only by tall grown-ups. The whole house, actually, is a lot smaller now. It used to be a giant labyrinth of secret pathways, of great halls and corridors, of hideouts known only to a select few.

But it is already late. He makes his way back to the front door. After a few minutes of fumbling with the padlock and a spot of obsessive-compulsive checking to make sure it is secure, he heads back.

He might wear the vagabond tag as a badge of honour, might pride himself on his adaptability, might claim to be well acquainted with, and rather fond of, dozens of countries. But, in truth, there is a place that means just that little bit more to him than other places do. The place that he grew up in. The place he calls home.