Every once in a while—when deadlines have been met, and assignments accomplished, and podcasts listened to, and video games completed—I spend an hour or two on Google Maps peering at overhead satellite images of hostels, dormitories, flats and houses that I’ve once I lived in. Which might seem a bit pointless to readers who have only lived in a handful of places all their lives. But that is not the case with this poor peripatetic editor.
You see the longest I’ve ever lived in one building complex of any kind in the last 30 years is the four years I spent in engineering college in the splendid Tamil metropolis of Trichy. Really. It is quite shocking to me even as I type these words. And even in Trichy those four years were spent across three hostels. And then I lived in Chennai for three years across three flats, then Ahmedabad for two years in one room, then Mumbai for two and a half years in one flat, then two years in a flat in Delhi and then seven years across three homes in London.
These boots, as it were, are not for settling. I doubt if there are many “military brats”—are there any kids of soldiers who are not brats?—who have travelled as much as I have these last 30 years or so.
So unlike many people who have a certain idea of “home” in their minds—a certain warm, comforting agglomeration of feelings and emotions and memories —I just have a conveyor belt of fading images, one following the other.
Perhaps I am afraid that these images will fade away forever. And that is why I sit at two in the morning trying to locate that adorable little half-built house I used to live in out in the wilder end of Mugappair West in Chennai. It was small but very comfortable little one-storey house. A kitchen, a living room and a bedroom. In the middle of a small walled-in compound, with more or less nothing around it.
There was a tea-shop across the road, a mosque a short distance away and… well nothing at all really. It was cheap. At night I would look out of the windows and see nothing at all except for flickering streetlights far away. Initially the isolation was a bit scary. Especially when I came back one evening from the factory where I worked in and found that someone had stolen all the taps in the house. You see, this was my first job after graduating. I had very little money and owned nothing of value. So they stole the taps. It was very distressing.
I was so broke that my only source of entertainment was a small DVD-CD player that I used to listen to music. Which is why I had no idea the 9/11 attacks had happened until I went into work the next day and saw everyone in a state of complete apoplexy. That very evening I called dad, arranged for a Western Union money transfer and then bought a tiny little Philips TV.
The memories, you see, are quite fond indeed. Which is why I stalk that little house once in a while. I was astonished recently to find that it is now much bigger, and there are tennis courts and a swimming pool of some kind behind it. No doubt the rents are much higher.
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to go back to one of those places and see what people are up to in what once used to be my home. So, recently, I did. I went back to my previous flat to pick up a bag of old mail that still gets sent there in error.
It was quite strange. First of all, I forgot my old flat number and had to call up the missus and ask her. And then as I went up the lift and around the corridors and up the stairs... it was something of an emotional roller coaster. The paintings on the wall were still there. The stain on the carpet was still there. The dent I left on the lift door while moving my furniture into the flat all those years was still there. As I walked past the cubbyhole with my old flat number on it I grazed my fingertips over the flap, thinking of all the pleasant and unpleasant correspondence I had once found inside that little box.
As I stepped into the flat I was first suddenly overcome by a sense of joy—and then irritation. Joy because I suddenly remembered so many, many things. This was where my daughter walked for the first time. This was the where I sat and wrote my second book. That was where...
But then when I saw how much better the house looked under new management I was a bit miffed. Everything they had done to the place—the furniture, the rugs, the things on the wall, the minimal utensils in the kitchen—all looked so much better than what we used to have. But then, I consoled myself, they didn’t have as many books piled up all over the place in teetering towers as we did. Which is something.
Sometimes when I tell people that I’ve lived in 12 houses over 30 years they feel sorry for me. And then I feel sorry for myself. But maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe I should count myself lucky. I have so many memories about so many places. So many little repositories of emotions and hopes and joys and despair and triumph.
And that is a wonderful thing. As long as I don’t forget them. Time to open up Google Maps again.
Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.
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