Hopelessly Homeless

When my father came back to Mumbai for good, way back in the early eighties, he had to endure an exceptionally tough time on all possible fronts. Shunning the alluring prospect of a pension entitlement that was to mature in good time, he brusquely quit his government job, as a Deputy Director in the Department of Archaeology, to secure a better and more stable future for his children.

Shillong, the place of his posting, was ablaze with inter-ethnic tensions in the late seventies, and life in the heavenly hill station suddenly became worse than hell. The insurgency was a caustic blend of recurrent riots and agitations – ranging from the milder ‘Bengali vs Assamese’ tussles to the extremely toxic ‘Khasi vs outsiders' warfare. The state of Meghalaya was in dire straits and the streets of Shillong bore ample testimony.

My dad’s decision was definitively spot on, and yet he had to face the wrath of his family, primarily for having overlooked the hefty PF amount that remains unclaimed to this day. Worse, starting all over again in the big city proved an even bigger problem, albeit a place of pride was waiting to greet him in the years to come at the Nehru Centre, Worli.

For lesser mortals, renting a home in Mumbai was as unthinkable as it is now. (The option of owning a house in Mumbai was hopelessly out of question, as much for him then as for his son now. Few Greek tragedies travel across generations).

For namesake, my dad had a chawl in the Mumbai heartland of Girgaum to call his own, but it was already infested with some venomous parasites of the familial kind, who dreaded the very thought of sharing space with us as they feared we would stake a claim sooner or later. My dad chose the peaceful option rooted in safe distance. But in doing so, he was forced to drift towards two other options for seeking temporary shelter; sadly they made a permanent dent in the cocoon of his self-respect, one after another. Two landlords, one a ‘next of kin’ and the other an ‘in-law’ - as if for the sake of relational symmetry - extended 'timely' help in quick succession.

The former guy, a discernibly pompous fellow, allowed us to inhabit his vacant Ghatkopar flat for a couple of years. A top executive of a cigarette manufacturing firm in Kolkata, our aristocratic friend was in every sense a quintessential British officer serving the East India Company. He spoke English and English alone, but both the man and his language were far from chaste. To his credit, his nuisance value was minimal; the real snob was his wife, a pro at passing snide remarks but even her short-lived and remotely operated home rule was a breeze before the ordeal that we endured next.

Enter my dad’s brother in law, one of the middle rung real estate kingpins of suspect credentials in suburban Mumbai, who promised us a greener-than-green pasture and somehow convinced my dad of a fool-proof plan that was to eventually pave the way for a permanent abode at cost effective rates. This engineer-turned-developer belonged to a rare species. He perhaps loved the idea of helping his poor and deprived siblings if only to summon them on Durbaar duty at will, but he most definitely loved to fall short of the required help when it mattered the most. To help his twisted cause was his perennially grudge-bearing and supercilious wife who regularly fed him inventive ideas of enduring nuisance value; this nutritious diet made him perilously hen-pecked, and he left no stone unturned to hurl insults and scornful remarks at us to please the first lady.

Worse, he had us shift bag and baggage from one apartment to another on different floors - not once, not twice but thrice - of the same building that was one of his several prized constructions in the coveted suburb of Vile Parle. Even as a school kid, I could sense the sadistic delight he gathered from the sidelines even as we suffered blatant social ridicule at the hands of a few contemptuous co-dwellers. Having made us suffer the fate of hapless refugees to his heart’s content, he finally ‘helped’ my dad build his own home in the distant suburb of Virar. Needless to say, my dad repaid the loan in good time and severed all torturous ties with our friend once and for all.

Time flew like it always does. My dad moved up the value chain of good life, purely based on his scholarly bent of mind that was alert and active till the very last. His sincerity - the cornerstone of his intellect - fueled his multi-disciplinary voyage throughout: his PHD in History and Archaeology, his pioneering excavation initiative at Ita Fort in Arunachal Pradesh, the Gold medal he was awarded for meritorious service, his crucial excavation in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, his exhibition-centric theme titled “Discovery of India” based on Pandit Nehru’s vision of India, his painstaking study of rock cut architecture, his pithy newspaper columns, and his one-of-a-kind anti-autobiography in Marathi.

Needless to say, almost all our friends mentioned above have today been rendered hopelessly homeless in a seemingly ironic twist of fate, not in the literal sense, which is tangential although material in nature, but in the metaphorical sense, which is circumstantial although celestial in essence.