Our family lived in an ancestral house owned by my grandfather. The house was built, as was the case with most other houses in the village, according to the ancient science of ‘Vastu’. It was an East-facing two-storey building with tiled sloping roofs to let the rain water to drain away completely. It had white-washed walls of brick and mortar with uneven finish. The doors of the house were placed in such a way that from the main door at the entrance you could see right through the door opening on to the backyard. The steps leading to the main door were flanked by open raised platforms sheltered only by an overhead roof. The idea was to provide shelter to any lone wayfarer who wanted to rest his weary limbs there without disturbing the inmates. Entering through the main door, one stepped into a narrow passage-like room with a door leading into the central area of the house. The room had a ceiling of wooden boards.
Adjacent to the passage, to the North, was a room used as a granary for storing paddy. On the side facing the passage it was covered by wooden boards up to a height of four feet. Above that were wooden boards moving vertically in grooves made in the wooden frame. These boards could be removed when required. The ceiling of the granary was also of wooden boards. For taking out the paddy one had to slide the removable boards in their groove, lift them up and put them aside and get down into the room from a height of four feet. The removable boards would be put back after taking out the paddy. The granary was completely weather-proof. I remember an occasion when, during an unusually heavy monsoon, the rain splashed the open rooms around the nadumuttam. These were the rooms where we slept in the night. The downpour had not left any area inside the house dry. We opened the granary which was weather-proof and all of us huddled together in that small space and slept there for the rest of the night oblivious of the fury of the rain outside.
Adjacent to the above granary, to the North, was a store room. It was pitch dark inside as there were no windows. One had to carry a lamp into the room to take out things when needed. An year’s or six months’ requirement of Items like edible oils, jaggery, pulses and spices were bought and stocked in this room when the prices were low after the harvest. The room was closed most of the time and was opened only for periodical replenishment of the stock in the kitchen. Some times I used to sneak into this room to pinch pieces of jaggery which I used to share with the other children.
As one entered the central area of the house there was a rectangular depression or trench in the floor. This was known as the nadumuttam and was five feet long, four feet wide and two feet deep. The bottom and the sides were lined with rough-hewn granite slabs. Parapets had been built on three sides with one side open. A bucket of water and a mug used to be kept at the open side for the inmates or guests to wash their faces, hands or feet. The nadumuttam thus functioned as a wash basin. It was a standard architectural feature in almost all the houses in the village. It was built open to the sky and during the rains water poured through the opening above. Occasional heavy downpours splashed the surrounding open rooms. One could bathe in the nadumuttam on occasions when one could not go to the pond or river for bathing. One had to stand in the nadumuttam and pour water on oneself after applying soap or rubbing the body with a wet towel. Hardly a house in the village had a separate bathroom the need for which was seldom felt as every one including women bathed in one of the village tanks (ponds) or in the river a few kilometres away.
Adjacent to the nadumuttam, to the North, and separated from it by a wooden lattice was the main hall of the house. On the North-West corner of this hall was a built-in cupboard in the wall where the sivalingam, saligramam and idols representing the gods in the Hindu pantheon were kept for worship. There was, in the hall, a triangular opening in the common wall with the neighbour’s house. This facilitated communication between the occupants of the two houses without one having to go out of the main door. In the South-East corner of the hall, under the stairs leading to the first floor, was the place where my paternal grandfather slept during the night. My paternal grandmother slept in the space adjacent to the nadumuttam, to the East. Others slept in the main hall on mats woven from palm leaves. Pillows filled with a cotton-like substance obtained from a tree were used for resting one’s head. Cotton sheets were used as bedspreads and also to cover oneself in winter and during the rains. The mats were spread on the floor; cots were not used to avoid cluttering the space. Moreover, in the hot summer, a few preferred to sleep on the red-oxide coated bare floor that was cool and smooth, with only a pillow to rest the head. I was among them though my grandmother used to dissuade me from sleeping on the bare floor. We had no electricity in the village and only hand-held fans made of palm leaves gave us relief from the heat. After we woke up early morning, the mats with the cotton sheets and pillows were rolled up and stacked away in a wooden loft in the main hall. Those sheets and pillows were not to be touched after you have had your morning bath. They were retrieved only in the night when one wanted to sleep.
Adjacent to the hall, to the West, was the kitchen where food for the family was prepared on mud ovens using firewood. This was no mean task especially when the firewood was not dry as usually happens during the rains. My mother or the aunts often choked from the smoke emanating from the oven. The smoke also hurt their eyes. My mother used to blow into the oven through a cylindrical hollow metal pipe to ignite the firewood. Many times this was quite an ordeal for the women of the family. Attached to the kitchen was an open well from which we used to draw water using a rope- and- pulley system and a bucket or a pot of copper or brass. The water from the well was used for cooking as well as for drinking. There was a window opening out to the well which was closed during the night. This was the only window in the entire house. Glass panes had been fixed in a couple of places in the roof to let in sunlight into the main hall.
Adjacent to the nadumuttam, to the West, was a small room for the women to stay during their monthly periods. They were not allowed into the other parts of the house until they bathed and changed into freshly washed clothes after three days.
The main room upstairs was used as a bedroom by my parents during my father’s visit. My uncles, with their wives, occupied the upstairs room when it was their turn to visit us. At other times every one slept in the main hall. A small room upstairs was used by my grand father. He kept his personal things in the room. These included books of vedic mantras in grantha script and hymns like vishnusahasranama. His clothes, mainly dhoties and angavastrams, were also kept here, neatly folded, in a wooden box. He used this as a reading room and also took rest here on occasions.
The backyard of the house extended to about forty feet. The neighbouring house to our North had also a backyard of equal length. There was no fence between the two backyards. Adjacent to the backyards, to the North, was a pond which was used by a few villagers for bathing and washing clothes. We could from our backyard get down to the pond for bathing but we preferred the other ponds in the village which had better facilities and better water quality. There were a few coconut palms in a row in the backyard. Once in a while we engaged a person skilled in climbing these trees and plucking the coconuts. The coconuts from these trees were used in making delicious sambar and other vegetarian dishes.
Vastu did not approve of toilets inside or in the proximity of the house. Makeshift, primitive toilets were located away from the main house. They were nothing but pits dug in the ground with planks placed across the pit for people to squat. The place was curtained with cotton or sack cloth tied around four poles driven into the ground. One had to carry water in a bucket or other vessel to the toilet in order to wash one’s behind, hand and feet. Children relieved themselves at the far end of the backyard which was fenced in by thorny bushes.
The house had already started showing signs of crumbling about the time I am talking about. During the rainy season, the roof used to leak and we had to keep pots or similar vessels to collect the dripping water from the roof. The plaster on the walls was peeling off and the stairs were creaking. All this bore eloquent testimony to the straitened circumstances of the family.