That Yellow House on The Hill
The paper calendar that hung on one of the bedroom walls became my seven-year-old brother Rajan’s best friend, as Delhi’s summer sun used to usher in the month of April. Every morning, Rajan used to snatch sleep from his eyes, and present himself in front of the calendar, as if paying obeisance. Armed with a pencil, with squinting eyes, Rajan used to strike the previous date, as if banishing a lifelong enemy into an oblivion of eternal darkness.
This was an annual ritual, as Rajan counted days to the start of summer holidays. Rajan, and I went to the same school, not far from our government colony in Delhi. Originally from Tamil Nadu, we, the sister-brother duo had now gotten used to the ‘Madraasi kids’ label at school. “They are innocent fools”, our father would say.
Summers meant that it will soon be time to visit Taata Paati’s (grandparents) house in the beautiful hill town of Ooty. Rajan started the countdown two months prior, as the now pencil blackened days of April and May on each year’s calendar told a grisly tale of decimation.
It used to take us four days to reach Ooty from Delhi. Two days on a train to Chennai; a day’s rest here, followed by almost a day long bus ride to our final destination. Rajan used to endure all that without much fuss, as he knew what was in store for him, when we would finally reach.
The lush hills of Ooty used to send their coolest winds to greet us miles before they presented themselves, first behind a thick haze, and then suddenly in a tight embrace.
Taata Paati’s was a two storeyed house, with an ever-smiling garden in the front. Nothing changed here ever. Time seemed to have promised this house eternal youth. This was Rajan’s moment. A garden with a swing set all to himself. Delhi’s concrete garden was no match for the playground of nature.
The surrounding landscape was hilly, with colourful houses dotted all across. Rajan, and I used to go for a morning walk every day. Our parents were happy to see the back of us to quietly enjoy M.S. Subbalakshmi’s morning raaga with piping hot Kaapi.
That morning was no different. We left the house for our stroll, when Rajan said, “Shobha Akka, let’s take a different route today. Let’s walk towards that hill.” I agreed. It wasn’t a harsh climb, but was enough for our stiff morning legs to groan.
“Let’s sit here for a while Rajan”, I said pointing towards a clean patch of grass. As we sat their catching our breath, Rajan suddenly shrieked, “Akka look there”. Rajan was pointing towards a small yellow house that shone from a distance cutting through the morning mist.
“I have never seen that house before Akka, have you?” No, I replied.
Both of us admired the yellow house from a distance. There was nothing extraordinary about the design of the house. Slanting tiled roof, simple white frame windows with light green curtains, a small courtyard with red boundary wall that did nothing to block the view of the house. Yet, there was something mesmerising, beautiful about that house that kept us under a spell until the local milkman rode past us noisily on his rickety cycle.
The mist was now retreating, and twitterati of birds was now being silenced by the day’s bustle.
“Let’s go Rajan, we are already late”. We started walking back home, still thinking about that yellow house on the hill.
“Taata, we saw a yellow house today, it was so shiny and beautiful”, announced Rajan as soon as we reached home. “Who stays there, can we see that house from inside.”
Taata’s expression changed, and after moments pause, he changed the conversation to the day’s breakfast menu. Rajan didn’t, but I noticed the awkwardness in Tatta’s voice. We went about the day lazing around, and there was no mention of that yellow house until next morning when Rajan and I left again for our morning stroll.
“Akka should we go towards the hill again; may be the house will be open, and we get to see it from inside”, said Rajan. I wanted to see the house too, but I was reminded of Taata’s tone from the previous day.
“Let’s go towards the market today Rajan, I hear they sell fresh flowers at this time.” Rajan nodded, and we walked down the slope from our house, while still thinking about the yellow house on the hill.
That afternoon, Rajan came to me and said, “Shobha Akka, I really want to see that yellow house again, it is so beautiful. Why don’t you take Appa’s camera along and we can take pictures of the house to show our friends in Delhi.”
I shivered at the thought of asking for Appa’s camera. He took great care of it, and didn’t let anyone else use it. Although a few months ago, he did give me tutorial into the basics of photography.
Nevertheless, I liked the idea of capturing that pretty house in a picture to show my friends. That evening, Rajan and I snuck out of the house with Appa’s camera tucked in my bag. I didn’t want to lose the evening light, so we hurriedly climbed the hill.
There it was, the evening sunlight hue gave the house a wonderful golden glow. “Akka, look the house is open”. Rajan ran towards the house before I could say another word. I ran to stop him, but Rajan was by then already in the courtyard of the yellow house.
I signaled him to come back, but he didn’t comply. I had no choice but to join him there. Rajan was now peeping in the house, with me pulling him the other way. Amidst this tussle, we noticed a large painting on the living room wall. The painting looked very familiar; we had seen this house in the painting somewhere.
After a few moments of staring at the painting, Rajan and I realised that it was the painting of the house we were in. It was most certainly painted by a child. There was a name scribbled on the bottom corner of the frame, and as we peered in to look at that, a voice boomed from behind, “Can I help you?”
Rajan and I turned around in a panicked state. There stood a middle-aged man in a cheque shirt and lungi. “Can I help you”, asked the man again.
“Sorry, sorry for intruding sir”, I stuttered. “Our Taata’s house is nearby, and we were out for a walk, when we saw this house. It is very beautiful, and my brother wanted to see it from inside. We shouldn’t have stepped in without permission. Please forgive us.”
The man gave half a smile, and said, “it’s alright, you may come in; I will be happy to show you around. My name is Arun Sadagopalan, and I work at the local tea estate.”
“My name is Shobha, and this is my brother Rajan”, I said.
The house was small, yet cozy. A single bed, chairs, a book shelf, and a small kitchen. There was nothing much to distinguish the interiors of this house from several others in the neighbourhood.
“Who drew this painting”, I asked. Mr. Arun gazed at the painting, before looking back at us. This was drawn by my daughter Rekha. She drew it on our family’s first visit to Ooty four years ago.
“You mean this house belonged to someone else, when you first came to Ooty”, I asked.
“No, this patch of land was empty then. Rekha liked the place a lot. She loved the hills, the greenery, everything. She then drew this painting of a yellow house that she imagined would be at this very spot, and where she would live forever”
“That afternoon, we went for boating in the Ooty lake. Rekha, and her mother took a two-seater boat, while I was in another single seater kayak. Tragedy struck, and Rekha’s boat overturned. I was far from their boat, and by the time help arrived, it was too late. Rekha and her mother had left me”
“Rekha’s painting of a yellow house on the hill was all that was left of her that day with me. I decided to fulfill her wish, and after four years of saving every penny, I built this house at the same spot, exactly how Rekha had imagined. Since then, I have been staying here close to the memory of my daughter.”
Rajan, and I didn’t move at all as we listened to Mr. Arun’s story. Now I understood, why Taata didn’t want to speak about the yellow house.
Mr. Arun showed us Rekha’s pictures. An innocent smile and eyes full of imagination.
We took Mr. Arun’s leave and walked home in silence. It seemed like Rekha was walking with us, thanking us for liking the house of her dreams.
No camera was needed to capture the house. The memory of that Yellow house on the hill stayed with Rajan and me forever.
Illustration by Dhanashree Pimputkar