Monday, July 13, 2009

Empty Nests, Empty Chairs

My bookshelves are all covered with dust. The windows open outward and they are gathering all the dust that arises as laborers hammer down the house alongside chip by chip; bit by bit. Eventually, the house will be all gone, and the sun will shine through the gaping hole for a while. Eventually, after a sabbatical of barrenness, a new group of masons and laborers will arrive and construct an ugly concrete monster that we in Delhi delicately term as “builder’s flats”.

This is the third housed that I have lived in this area and they have this one thing in common – they have had no landlords and the monthly rent has always been handed over the widowed land lady. Most of the properties were constructed by the refugees who migrated into Delhi at partition time and subsequently purchased plots in what was then considered an area in the back of beyond. Now the land lords are largely dead and the few that are left are old and infirm. But the new trend of demolishing houses indicates that now perhaps the land ladies are beginning to disappear.

Most of these families had one or a maximum of two children. And in these days of mobility, those children are no longer around to live in these houses. There was a time when boys were meant to be there for the parents in the old age and thereafter look after the ancestral property, even though the girls would get married and go. But today, boys or girls, sons or daughters, it is all the same now days.

Houses and nests are emptier these days and getting so faster. Looking at the hammers bringing down walls and roofs with each blow, and eventually leveling the ground, I wonder what it must have been 20-30 years ago, when these houses were getting built, spacious houses with two to three floors , possibly meant to accommodate not just the children , but even the children’s’ children. But it never happened. Even the children did not choose to live there; and a house bought or built with so much expense and longing was inhabited for perhaps two decades, the last of them by lonely widows finding kinship in their tenants because their own family was so far away.

Things are moving much faster these days, a lot is happening in a far shorter time. The house that my grandfather built in Kolkata still stands; crumbling away to its inevitable doom no doubt, and yet it has sheltered four generations of people who have lived and played and mourned within its walls. I am not sure if the house will be around twenty years from now; but if eventually it is torn down as many houses in the vicinity am; it would after embracing four generations be good return on my late grandfather’s emotional and financial investment.

My thoughts drift off as the dust from the crumbling walls wafts into my room and coat everything in sight, I think of my own current land lady. Her nest has long been empty and an empty chair at the entrance is potently symbolic: that there is more of furniture in the house than people; and then wistfully I think of my own modest flat. In these days where everything is so fast and so uncertain, there is possibly no assurance that even I will come to live there sometime, and for the moment, there is no saying what my child will do. Empty halls and empty nests are the markers of tmorrow.

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