Monday, 16 May 2011

The House On Pillars

In the 1970s, after having lived as caretaker tenants for a few months in the quiet and unspoilt seaside neighborhood of Thiruvanmiyur, my wife and I made up our minds to put down our roots there. In those days Thiruvanmiyur was a suburb of Madras (as Chennai was then known) and most people thought that we were very daring and unwise to live in such a "remote" place. Although there were very few proper houses around, and an enormous amount of vacant land, it took us almost a year to find somebody willing to sell us a small plot. Land was not expensive then. In fact we paid only around US$ 350 for our plot. But the cost of construction was relatively high.

Although money, or more precisely our lack of it, was an important factor, there were a few other bigger hurdles. There were a number of permits and service connections to be obtained and, even in those relatively less corrupt days, it was a severe ordeal to deal with a very large number of minor and major bureaucrats. To add to our problems, those were the days of cement and steel shortages. In fact the cement scarcity was so severe that its supply was controlled by the Indian Government and rationed to consumers. And this of course brought a whole new set of bureaucrats into play. The shortage of materials and the consequent delays in the delivery of the materials made it very difficult to keep to construction schedules and stay within budgets.

Since steel and cement were the two major "problem" materials we decided to minimise their use in the house construction. We went in for a variety of roofing techniques, such as sloped clay tiled roofing, and hollow clay tile roofing, left our walls unplastered on one side, and went in for clay tile flooring. In addition to this we also decided to use pivot hinges for our doors and do away with door frames, had smaller but strategically placed windows, and reduced the floor to ceiling height, all in a bid to reduce costs. As a result we were able to keep to both the construction schedule and our budget. It also allowed us the luxury of building the entire house on stilts.

Since there were very few built houses around, our house was now visible from quite some distance in every direction. And unlike other houses which rested solidly on the ground the first level of our house was left entirely vacant. As a result our house came to be known in the neighbourhood as the "thoon veedu" or " house on pillars".

Some years later, when we had a few more neighbours, Chennai experienced particularly severe flooding, and the locality where we lived was also flooded. Although we had water in our plot, under the house, and all around us, we were unaffected by it. A number of people thought that we had been very wise to have anticipated this event and planned for it. Actually it had never occurred to us that the area could be flooded since that had never happened within living memory. We had built our house on stilts because it was located a little further away from the sea than what we would have liked, and we wanted to ensure that we had a good view of the water.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Thiruvanmiyur Beach

When we first moved into this part of Chennai we lived in a newly built house right on the seashore, as caretakers for the owners who were living abroad. We had one elderly lady living next door, and a locked up empty house on the other side as our immediate neighbors. There was also a fishing village nearby and much of their daily activity took place on the beach right in front of our home.

The access roads to this area of the city were not well developed, and the entire area used to be desolate at night. Many of my friends and relatives thought that we were mad to leave "civilization" so far behind, but my wife and I loved living here.

Originally the house owners were supposed to come back to India only several years later, but suddenly their plans changed and we had to vacate the house for them. It was then that we decided to build our own home in the same area. We were sort of pushed into taking the plunge a little earlier than we otherwise might have, but in the end it proved to be a good thing for us. Land prices and construction costs suddenly soared, but only after we had bought our land and built our house.

Today, over thirty years later, this part of the city is very much sought after as one of the nicer communities to live in. The high cost of land has resulted in most of the housing being in the form of apartment buildings. As a result, although the beach is relatively unspoiled, it is very crowded in the evenings.

Another big change that I notice is in the type of fishing vessels. In the 1970s the local fishermen went out to sea in catamarans. The word catamaran comes from the Tamil "kattu maram" which means tied wood. The fishermen used to go out to sea on raft-like boats made by tying a bunch of logs together. You can see what these catamarans used to look like in my sketch painting. But now, most fishermen use fiberglass boats, and quite a few of them even use mechanized boats.

The fishing village has grown and therefore there are more boats beached up on the sand these days. And Chennai being a very hot and humid place the beach is an extremely popular open space for the entire community.

Unfortunately this beach is now threatened by an unwanted development. There is a proposal to run an elevated roadway for many kilometers over this beach. The objective is to cut the driving time for people going from the city to the southern suburbs of the city and to a tourist destination to the south of Chennai. The fishing communities, the residents of many of the affected neighborhoods, and environmentalists have all protested but is so far unclear whether these protests will even be heard.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Breaking the silence

Every New Year I make a few resolutions. I write them down on a piece of paper and at the end of the year I check to see how many of them I have actually managed to keep. At the end of 2009, amongst other things I resolved to post to my blog more frequently than I had done in 2009. Although, when I checked at the end of 2010, my success rate with the rest of my resolutions was reasonably high, this was one resolution where I had failed miserably. I had managed to post only twice during the entire year.

Meanwhile my wife, daughter, and a few friends who had been following my posts had all been at me every now and then asking me why I had stopped posting stuff. The point was that through my blog I wish to share not only my thoughts, opinions, information & trivia, but also at least one of my sketches with every post. And unfortunately, during the first half of 2010, as it happens to me during the first half of every calendar year, I had not found the time to do much sketching. By the time I was back at my hobby, it had already been many months since I had posted anything, and inertia had set in.

Re-activating my blog and posting regularly were therefore on my list of resolutions once again, this time for 2011. But again, a third of the year 2011 went by before I have finally got down to it. Hopefully I will be able to sustain it this time.

During my extended period of blogging inactivity my daughter tried to nudge me back on track with a Brahma Book which is the Indian version of a moleskin sketchbook. I started using it promptly and I carry it faithfully with me every single day. The sketch that I am sharing is one of the first that I did in this book. It shows my home, located in a quiet seaside community in Chennai. Unfortunately there is a distinct possibility that it may not remain calm and quiet very much longer. More of that in a subsequent post.