Some time ago I had written about old Tamil Nadu Housing Board HIG (high-income group) flats in KK Nagar being demolished by private builders to make way for new apartment blocks. Most of the residents in these colonies are old-timers with the children either abroad or staying elsewhere. For the elders, there’s a lot of sentiment. They bought the flats in the mid-1970s or so, and paid probably Rs 60,000 then, including registration. Over they years, these colonies have exuded an old-world charm that is difficult to describe.
The colony where I stay is one such, with huge space in the front and trees and shrubs all around the rear. Indeed, for nature lovers, it is an ideal place – it’s beautiful early mornings as all kinds of birds twitter and coo and crow; towards afternoons, it is quiet, so quiet that you can almost hear a pin drop if you are seated on a low branch in one of the tress. I often think of Ruskin Bond when I take a walk behind and gape at the tall trees or scatter food crumbs for the crows and ravens and a couple of dogs.
Soon, it will be a very different picture with many of the blocks getting set to invite the demolishers in. Financially, it’s good, but on the emotional front it’s a battle. Quite a few old couples are loathe to leave, even if it is only for two years, the time the builders will take to produce the new apartment blocks. They are in their 80s, not quite the right time to shift houses, houses that have been their homes for about 30 years. Anything can happen in two years and for some not in good health two years is a very long time.
One such neighbour is Mr Selvaraj, I never can get his first name. He’s been a resident in the colony for about 30 years; he’s seen his peers grow old and die, he’s seen children grow to become adults and leave, he’s also seen the death of his eldest son. Everyday before that death, Selvaraj would walk briskly down the colony early morning. It was a habit for years – first to the church nearby and then to his son’s for breakfast. His full-sleeve short neatly tucked in, his shoes gleaming black, his eyes hit the ground as he purposefully surged forward. It was like a morning walk for him, doubled by the happiness of meeting up with his son. But God had other plans. Selvaraj stopped the practice after his son died all too suddenly. Although he would come outside his home later, only with banyan and mundu, he was somehow not the Selvaraj of old. He would still smile and chat up people he knew closely, but deep inside he must have been grieving.
To add to it, when subject of demolition and re-building came up, he had no choice as the rest of the owners in his block had agreed and he didn’t want to say no. His heart was not for it though. This was his home for years where he was used to walking in the space in front, waking up at 3am and making coffee, waiting for the newspaper and looking out through the windows behind, and listening to music, which he loved. It hurt him so much that he once entered a friend’s house and told him that he preferred dying in his own home rather then elsewhere.
As it turned out, Selvaraj’s wishes came true. A couple of days ago, he died. He knew he was leaving. My pulse is going down, is all he said. The whole day he was up and about, walking restlessly, inside his home and outside. I saw him cross the road to go to a shop. Somebody else saw him standing still for a few seconds, moving forward, and then standing still again, on his way back. He just did not want to be taken to the doctor. The end came the same day evening. It was almost like a samadhi.
Today is his funeral. As I’m all set to leave on a pilgrimage to Sabarimala, I could not go and pay my last respect to him. But I heard that they had dressed him up, complete in a coat and tie and trousers. That’s the way he would have liked it. I remember seeing him so attired at a family function he had organised a few years ago.
Selvaraj never involved himself in politics or petty talk of any kind. He always had a smile and would come running to greet people he liked. He would clasp your hands tightly in his and give it a vigorous shake. At times, it was difficult to let him go. He loved talking about old times. He was said to have had a bad temper but he hardly ever showed it outside.
Earlier this week, everyday on my way to the Ayyappan temple nearby, I would bump into him early morning. And we would chat, sometimes joined by another old friend. Today, as I walked the same way I noticed a shamiana had been erected and visitors streaming into his home. I found it difficult to swallow and my eyes grew moist.
Thank you for being my friend, Sir, and may your soul rest in peace.