Fleeing the city to seek a life in harmony with the land and nature, Latha Anantharaman on what she learned about building a home. And termites
It hurts to watch a front door frame being wrenched out of a wall. Fourteen years ago, the bricklayers staked all the door frames for our new house and then laid the bricks around them. Four steel clamps secured each frame to the wall and were fixed in concrete. It would be disastrous to have to replace one of those frames, we thought then, and we were right. Termites had reduced the massive front door frame to filigree and mud, but it held tight to the rest of the house.
The termites lived here long before Krishnan and I started calling this our plot of land, and after the initial dose of pest control was pumped into the foundation we did little to combat them. We demolished mud trails as we found them and spritzed those spots with kerosene.We patched damaged window frames and filled alarming holes with cement. As for the termite mounds far from the house, we considered them one of the beauties of our wooded landscape. All that may sound careless in a householder, but in fact we care deeply about our house and were closely involved in the building of it.
The seed of the house was planted decades ago in a rented room in Delhi, when we first read about Laurie Baker. It grew into a vision of a rationally built house using locally sourced materials on a small plot of land, with a mango tree, a guava tree and some shrubs. Every time we moved out of an uncongenial city flat, we packed that vision and carried it with us unscathed to our new uncongenial city flat. We ended up in Kerala somehow, and it seemed the right place to settle down. The plot we found was ten times the size we needed, but it was wooded, it had a slope and a rock pool, and we couldn’t bear to buy a portion of that heaven. We wanted it all.
For the house, we fixed on a spot where the rock was nearly bare and there were no trees to be cut down.We marked out and measured the space between the trees and drew a diagram for the architects of Costford, Laurie Baker’s organisation. We asked them to fit a house plan into its contours. We told them all about our way of life, because Baker used to ask for that kind of information. While we waited, months and months, to hear from them, we got acquainted with the land. We learned how to plant and harvest turmeric, ginger, pepper and elephant yams.
Building the house was not as straightforward as we imagined, even with ready money. Costford expected us to supervise. We read up on everything and put aside all other work for the duration, but at every stage we seemed to be out of step with some inscrutable rhythm of the place. Getting a plan out of the architects was like glaring at a planted seed. It was of no earthly use; the plan simply emerged when it was ready, and it was not at all what we had looked for. At the time we wanted rocks for the foundation, it was not quarrying season. When we were ready to buy bricks, it was not the season for baking bricks. The rain came down in torrents at the wrong times and the sun blazed when it was most destructive. Or so it seemed to us.
Our insistence on a house that would suit the landscape greatly amused our neighbours. Most regarded their sloped roofs, shaded courtyards and red oxide floors as a lamentable reality to be endured until they had saved up to build their real, “terrace” houses. Our own house-building became an entertainment for every local at a loose end. The morning after the foundation was dug, our bus conductor neighbour came by, toothbrush in hand, to declare it wasn’t deep enough or wide enough. He spat into the trenches to underscore his point. As each expensive load of sand was delivered, the children from next door slid down the heaps and ground the sand together with the clayey soil beneath. If anyone came to foretell doom after we had left the site for the day, some obliging neighbour reported their remarks to us the next morning, lest we become optimistic about our enterprise.
When the heavy work finally began, it was a relief to us both. We churned mud and dug out rocks along with the workers who were filling in the foundation. We carried bricks and tiles along with them. We lined up with them to pass cement mix to the bricklayers. Every morning we reported first to the site to set up drinking water and left last after cleaning up the debris. Krishnan ran around the wholesale markets arranging for supplies. I memorised the position and measurement of every window and gable and supervised a constantly changing troop of workers. Seventeen hartals were declared during the time our house was being built. Every holiday that could be celebrated was stretched out for weeks. Whenever we fixed on one competent mason to lead the next stage of construction, his “grandmother died” the next day and he disappeared. Then an actual death in the family took Krishnan to Chennai, leaving me to finish up on my own.
That’s when our hands-on experience worked to my advantage—I knew the cost of a load of bricks and what the loaders’ union would charge to bring them down individually. Any time a contractor attempted, “But Saar said …” I retorted, “No, he didn’t!” I knew where, how and why everything was. Naturally, the road to our new home continued to be rocky, and parts of the building seemed to get old before it was done. When they poured concrete for the roof, the assistants neglected to seal every edge of the wall with wads of newspaper, and the next morning we found leprous, indelible spills running down the living room wall. It was only one of many assaults on our beloved exposed brick. The masons had hammered nails directly into the bricks to hang their clotheslines. They had rested a cement bag against the wall, leaving a large grey patch that would never wash out.
And yet there was joy as I crossed each hurdle. On the day they were to pour the second roof, over the small attic room, I decided to seal the gaps myself. I intended to climb on to the steel grid of the roof and went early to avoid any officious worker who would stop a middle-aged woman from going up there, especially in a drizzle. That was the morning I got a bird’s-eye view of our land, my first and last such vision. I can’t remember now what I saw that morning, but I do remember that my spirit soared.
That was not the end, of course. The ceilings were to be plastered, the floor finished and the windows glazed. It took a year and a half in all. We never understood why it was so hard to build in harmony with the land. But when the house was done at last, life here was exactly what we had dreamed of, waking every morning to the sound of birds and the sight of trees out of every window. The house soon became a known space. We can walk every inch of it in the dark when the power goes out. When we need to move furniture we don’t measure anything. I know the scars and stains on the brick as well as I know the age spots on my nose and chin. The cracks in the floor, like the grey hairs on my head, are uncountable. They are all now facts rather than flaws. Outside, in our larger home, there are still surprises. We find a wildflower, a fern, or a beetle we’ve never seen before. Huge trees fall, bringing light where light has not been for many years. Soil moves around and seeds root where there was bare rock before. We rediscover it every day.
As our ecosystem became familiar, we evolved with it. We learned to live with curious neighbours until they finally got bored of us and we recovered some of the privacy we once knew. For years we planted seeds too early or too late, following the calendar of the east coast, but we are finally better in tune with the peculiar seasons of a rocky north-facing acre in the Palakkad Gap. We know more of the animals that inhabit this space. With the termites, we have had an abiding relationship since the very beginning, but we’re still learning about them.
We first met V. Ramakrishnan, who defends Palakkad householders from rats, roaches and other pests, when he sprayed our foundation for termites before the floor was laid. A few weeks ago, having replaced the front door frame and finding new mud trails every day, we gave up on our years of half measures and called him for help.
On D-day, we stood with him in the garden and watched his two men inject poison into our walls. He initiated us into the world of termites. Palakkad district is rich in termites, he said. He explained their habits, their queen, their workers, their association with ants, their trails formed of saliva and mud. Once the termite workers touched our foundation and died, the colonies would turn elsewhere in search of cellulose. He suggested I stop worrying about the many geckos that would perish during the week. All we’re doing, he said, is dealing with the insect and animal life that encroaches into the house. There’s plenty of space for them to live outside, he pointed out. Krishnan and I have a more diffident idea of who is the encroacher here, we or the termites, but we let it go and put our future and furniture in the hands of the expert.
Not many householders have anti-termite chemicals put in the foundation, according to Ramakrishnan. In fact, he feels that little forethought goes into building a house nowadays. An absentee owner often hires a contractor who shows him computer-generated 3D views. His chief concern is that the house should be showy and impress his neighbours. It’s all built in five months and painted before he ever sees it. Every year he and his family visit during a month-long holiday, and they don’t know which way the concealed water pipes run or where the earthing pipe is for the power. They can never find the blueprints when repairs are to be made. Decades later, when they resettle in Kerala to live in that house year-round, it is falling apart and has to be built all over again.
It used to be, Ramakrishnan recalled, that a householder would have logs felled and delivered to his site to lie around for one rainy season and one summer. He would buy bricks and leave them similarly to weather. Half-baked bricks would dissolve in the heavy rain, and the strong ones would survive. If the soil was excavated in April and the foundation built and filled in with mud, the rains of June, July and August would consolidate the fill. As the rain eased the brickwork would start, and the roof was usually poured in October. The October-November rains cured the concrete. The door and wood frames were made around then, and in December the walls were plastered.
They didn’t use to paint right away, either. Instead, they coated the walls in white cement. After the rains of May and June, they would know whether there were cracks to be repaired. In August they painted the house. There was no point in rushing any of it, nothing to be gained.
As Ramakrishnan told it, the process seemed as seasonal as sowing and reaping. It also cleared up for us that lasting mystery about the difficulties we had faced in building our own house. A house simply takes a year and a half to grow in this climate. Ready money and extra hands have nothing to do with it. Although the neighbours had asked us why we were taking so long to get things done, although we had felt like incompetent newbies, we noticed that each of them took the same year and a half to build their new houses. It was the stone cutters, bricklayers and carpenters who set the rhythm that every householder had to learn afresh. Perhaps they learned it along with their craft, from one generation to the next. Like the planted seed, these builders ignored our fidgeting and emerged when they pleased, in season. To us, what they built feels the stronger for it.
This article was published in the Jan-Mar 2018 issue of The Indian Quarterly magazine. The theme of the issue was “Home”.