Friday, April 25, 2008

The red brick house

In my childhood, a red brick house near my house held a great fascination to me. Its inhabitants _ father, mother, a son and two daughters _ were all that my family and I were not. They were the kind of parents I wished mine were: sophisticated, suave and very demonstrative. The children in that house, unlike my brothers and me, were allowed to do whatever they wanted. I had wished _ in vain _ that my parents would take a leaf from our neighbours, and stopped being the disciplinarians that they were. My secret wish was to trade places with the elder daughter of the red brick house who was my age.

She had always been an object of envy for most of us kids in the neighbourhood as she was the only one who was blessed with such progressive parents in the uninspiring mofussil town where we lived. Not only that, she was being trained in vocal and instrumental music, which made her a favourite with the nuns of the convent school where we studied together. The fact that she did not fare too well in studies was never a consolation, as it never stood against her in the school.

Rani _ let’s call the object of my envy that _ was not the only one in her family who held my fascination. Both her brother and sister were also being trained in instrumental music and dance. As evening descends, sound of music and dance will waft across from the red brick house. At that time, my brothers and I would be sitting at our study table doing our day’s work under the ever so watchful eye of our mother.

Of course there were occasional sniggers at Rani in the school. With the unkindness so characteristic of children, students used to target her whenever possible. If I refrained from joining them, it was was purely out of fear of my parents and not out of any neighbourly consideration.

A few years later we shifted residence to another town, and soon the red brick house and its inhabitants were forgotten. Twenty years later, on a visit to Kerala, I was passing through the same old town where my brothers and I used to be so envious of the children of the red brick house.

On an impulse _ probably spurred by a faint hope that I may be faring better than my childhood bete noire _ I decided to visit our one-time neighbours. Yes, the red brick house was there, but bereft of the old charm it had held for me. The bricks were moss-laden and no longer bright red; the compound was strewn with dry leaves and litter. It was obvious that no one lived there anymore. Unable to contain my curiosity, I walked into the neighbouring house _ the house where we had lived for many years _ and asked about the inhabitants of the red brick house.

What I heard was like a tale from the macabre. It was as if the collective envy of the children of a whole neighbourhood had brought the family misfortune. Or was it the unconstrained existence the children of that house seemed to have enjoyed? The elder son had taken to drugs while in college. Some years back, following a showdown between him and his father, the latter died of heart attack. The son shifted residence to their rubber estate in the mountains, and never came back though he regularly sent money to the family. Rani, who was very close to her father, refused to live in the house where he died. For the last so many years, she was staying in a convent which looked after mentally challenged children. The mother had turned to some cult figure, apparently went overboard, and ended up in a sanatorium. The youngest girl appeared the only one who escaped the curse that seemed to have befallen the family and was well placed in the US.

I wished I had not stopped to inquire. I felt ashamed at my own pettiness which had prompted the stopover. The red brick house should have continued as the blissful, idealistic place in my mind. I wished it had remained as the happy home of my dreams on which I wanted to model my own family when I started one.

Shaken, I drove back home to my parents. As I hugged my bewildered parents tight, I promised myself that never again would I make unfair comparisons and would accept people as they are.

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