This is my old house. I was born here and lived in this house till I was nine and went off to boarding school. Thereafter, I’ve only been a visitor, for a few days, weeks and recently, for a few hours everyday.
It is a house that grew with us, little parts being added or renovated as we grew, as our needs increased. The cracks of this haphazard growth adorn its many walls and she wears them proudly, like an irreverent old lady who has seen her fair share of life’s uncertainty.
I eat my lunch in this house everyday, an hour between the hustle and bustle of the hospital. On most days, I barely even notice the house but today, as I climbed up the unusually steep staircase, I was ambushed by a smell so reminiscent of my childhood that it made me stop, a nostalgic, anxious punch to my stomach sent me hurtling back a couple of decades.
In boarding school, we had two vacation periods every year. Three months in the summer and a month in December. The summers were arid and dry and went by rather rapidly. We were back in school just as the monsoon was finding its feet back home. It was the winter holidays that I remember more fondly though. They were too short to plan a trip out of town, so most of that month would be spent at home. Being tucked into bed by Mom at night, drinking tea with my father at breakfast (and dipping the hospital jeera puri in it, which was the standard patient breakfast till not long ago), laying around in the living room with a book, sitting in my Mom’s home office, reading comic books as she worked, sitting next to my grandmother as she watched television or embroidered covers for our throw pillows, they were simple times. Simple but incredibly special. Despite the euphoria of being home, I always had this anxiety lurking just beneath the surface, knowing my time at home was limited. This smell of home would soon be replaced. Dorm mates, mess food, homework and exams were always round the corner.
I live in a town where winter usually means a low of about 12 degrees Celsius early in the morning, at the peak of winter. So it’s never really cold-cold. But this house, with its closed doors and grandmotherly mustiness, traps in the cold, sneaking up on you when you least expect it. And in this vault like chilliness, I learnt to find my comfort. I would drown myself in my book, feet tucked under pillows, hiding from the inevitability of having to pry myself free from what most kids take for granted.
In school and so many times after school, I’ve been ambushed by this haunting concoction of sensations. Even when I’m not at home, sometimes even when I’m nowhere near geographically. The temperature and the smell of old upholstery, of fine dust glinting in the stray sunbeams which filter in, the smell of old wooden doors, the smell of a time which birthed this permanent vulnerability.
As I bounced up the stairs today, I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up. A reminder of a precious time. A reminder that no matter how old we grow, our weaknesses remain the same. A reminder that being enveloped by the cold, can be comforting too.