Blue Walls

The house I was born into was built in the year 1954, when my mother was two months old. It was a two-storied bungalow, in keeping with my grandfather’s status as a middle-class general physician. The man who designed the house was friend of the family, and a civil engineer. In his infinite wisdom, he gave each room a mosaic floor of a different colour, determining forever the colour of the walls. Thus it came to be that the master bedroom of the house, on the second floor, had walls in the most comforting shade of pastel blue known to mankind.

The furniture and fittings in the room haven’t been changed, to this day. The focal point of the room was a teak bookshelf that ran the length of a long wall. A small portion of my grandparents’ enormous book collection was arranged on the three top shelves. The bottom shelves were concealed by sliding doors, and held all the important documents of the house. At the end of the bookshelves, one panel opened down to reveal a “pigeon hole”: a warren of tiny box-like shelves where my grandfather kept his correspondence. The panel that opened down served as his desk, and I am told that this is where he would sit at 5 am each morning, writing his letters. He had a phone extension put into the room, so he could take his calls there.  The ceiling fan was large and heavy, emitting low hum when it was turned on.  The room also had two beds, made by an anonymous carpenter to my grandfather’s strict specifications. There were no spring mattresses to be had in India in those days, so he had the frame of the bed fitted with springs, and regular mattresses were laid on top. My grandfather died in one of those beds, on a January morning in 1982.

When my parents and my sister moved into the house that year, they couldn’t dream of displacing my grandmother from the master bedroom. So my parents took over another equally large room, where the yellow floor unfortunately meant that the walls were also yellow. My sister was assigned to sleep in the blue master bedroom, with my grandmother. My family saw nothing strange in this: when they were children they never had rooms of their own. Even after I was born, I slept in one room, but my clothes were in another, and my books were with my sister’s in a third room.

Things were beginning to change, however. When she turned sixteen, my sister felt she’d had enough, and demanded a room of her own. This in itself was no problem, for the house was a large one. But my grandmother probably felt a little betrayed: for the first time since her husband’s death, she was faced with the prospect of sleeping alone. I was offered up as a substitute, to appease her. So, at the age of 10, I moved into the master bedroom of the house.

Ever since I was a small child, I had been fed with stories about my good and upright grandfather. Everyone said that I looked exactly like him, and I felt bound to emulate his high standards. In some odd way, I felt at home in that room where his presence was so heavy. His bed became my bed. I got used to the hum of the heavy fan, to the point where I couldn’t fall asleep without it. The “pigeon hole” became my study table, and when my attention wandered from my school books, I’d rifle through the contents of those little shelves. Occasionally I’d find an old greeting card, or a notepad with my grandfather’s name, “Dr. P. S. Viswanathan,” printed on each page.

Gradually I made my own memories in that room. It became my sanctuary, where I’d be lost for hours with a book, until my mother yelled for me from downstairs. When my friends called, I would rush upstairs and pick the phone up. None of my other friends had a phone in their rooms. Initially, my grandmother and I would go to bed at the same time, but I began to stay up later and she began to sleep sooner. She’d already be asleep when I walked into the room, but she was such a light sleeper that the click of my Anglepoise lamp would cause her to stir and drowsily wish me good night. On some nights, she would ask me what I was reading. “David Copperfield? Nice, but a little dry. Read Tale of Two Cities next.” Soon I began to stay up late on Saturday nights to watch the late night classics on television. When I tiptoed in at two a.m., she’d invariably be awake, ready to tell me about the time when she went to watch Ben Hur with my grandfather. I gradually discovered that she had seen even the most obscure films: we spent one late night discussing George Cukor’s Gaslight. I remember thinking that those conversations were my deepest connection with my grandmother.

Each time I go home now, I don’t immediately go to that room. I wait, until the first day has passed, and the time comes for me to go to bed. Then I walk in and turn the light on. The colour is the very first thing that greets me. After a string of alien white rooms in faraway cities, the blue walls are my first true homecoming. I feel the warmth in the room, from the grandfather I never knew, and the grandmother I still miss. It is captured in the gleaming teak, in the scent of the fresh sheets and old books, in the glow of my Anglepoise. Then I turn the light off, and wait for the hum of the fan to lull me to sleep.

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