Hostels and Homes

I saw hostels close by when I went to the C.M.S. High school and my father arranged for lunch in a mess. So many classmates stayed in the hostel, and I thought they had an exciting life. But, unfortunately, I had to trudge a weary road every day to come to the school.

My genuine hostel experience began when I went to Trivandrum to join the University Intermediate College for the Pre-University class. The University hostel where I got a room was a grand building, which housed more than 300 students in single room luxury. The University Library was next door, where I had managed to get a membership. So I had a decent roof over the head and the luxury of all the books I wanted to read.

In contrast to this, the next hostel where I stayed, the St. Joseph’s hostel at S.B. College, was minimalist in comfort. The warden had strange concepts in sartorial propriety and objected to my wearing a lungi. Too many such restrictions made me a rebel, and I decided to leave the hostel. This strangely coincided with the decision of the college to ask me to leave the hostel. My preferred destination was Keshavamangalam, a lodging facility where many friends stayed. The freedom from mindless rules and restrictions made lodge life very pleasant. Among the friends I remember was Mallappally and Gopi. When I went to the U.C. college for my M.Sc. studies, I stayed at the Holland hostel, which was also quite liberal. Again, there were many friends from Kottayam.

After the M.Sc., I did a short stint of teaching at the Mar Athanasius college at Kothamangalam. I stayed in a small lodging facility near the college. The fellow residents were Elanjickal, who taught English, Daniel sir, who taught mathematics and David, who taught Physics in the Engineering college. The liberal atmosphere and the occasional ‘spiritual’ journey made the lodge gather by other staff members. There were delightful discussions with Prof. K. C. Peter and Prof. K. M. Tharakan, who would drop in once in a while. I idolized Prof Peter because he was already an established writer.

I spent close to five years as a PhD student at Aligarh, where I stayed at the Akbar Hall first and later shifted to Suleiman Hall. Aligarh was a cultural shock. My inability to understand Urdu, the exalted forms of addressing, and the exaggerated ‘Tehzeeb’ were alien. The food, consisting of tandoori rotis and mutton curry, though delicious, was also unfamiliar. But the accommodation was quite luxurious. The new buildings of the Kuwait House and Kashmir House were well-designed with single room accommodation. After marriage, I started looking for a house, and through my friends, I located one on Marris road. This belonged to an old Bengali gentleman who ran a contract supplying locks to railways. His son is in my student made the dealings with him effortless. The strange condition was getting my electric connection from the power company. My neighbour was Prof. Ganguli, the head of the Physics Department in the Engineering College. He had worked at Harwell and was fond of telling stories of discoveries in nuclear science. Within a year, I got one of the houses built in the medical college campus, allotted to a Reader who had gone abroad. My wife, little Joseph and a maidservant had a great time there. My friends from the Kerala mess would drop in once in a while.

In 1972, I went to Ahmedabad to work at the Physical Research Laboratory (P.R.L.). After drifting from one rented house to another, I started to think of a home of my own. At P.R.L., the staff members got together and started discussing the prospects of building a housing colony. The cooperative housing movement was strong in Gujarat, with accessible financing facilities. We gave a grandiose name, The Space Colony” to the venture, evocative of the research interest of P.R.L., founded by Vikram Sarabhai. Unfortunately, this never took off because of the eruption of serious conflict between the staff union and the management. As a result, the Space Colony failed from launching.

Much later, I came across a housing development in Bopal, a village on the city’s western edge. The remote sensing satellite data had found underground water in that area. I managed to buy a piece of land here in 1987. I had great fun designing the house thanks to a young architect Kandarp, and I managed to squeeze a studio into the design. Building the place was like chasing a dream. Raising the walls brick by brick, adding lintel and roof, finally done, perfectly meeting my modest expectations. It was far from the city and crowds we detested. Those who saw the house said that we would be lost to the world in this barren patch which we called home. Instead, the bare earth bloomed into a garden with time, and the speckled sunlight played on the verdant lawn. Flowers nodded to the passing wind, and the house slowly turned into a home. Sitting by the garden in the gloom of the dusk, I would reflect on the changes that Bopal has seen. No longer the distant nowhere, but bursting with life and nesting by the city, restless in its growth.

I had always thought that I would spend the evening of my life in Ahmedabad. This is a working city and has all facilities for a comfortable life: good shops and malls, cinemas, and restaurants. Gujaratis appreciate business-like dealings. Institutes like P.R.L. and S.A.C. are closely connected with my work. Good roads, airport connectivity, Internet access: everything denoted good urban existence. Then, why leave Ahmedabad?

My concern was Minnu’s growing sense of insecurity, lacking close family nearby. Our family was made up of my cousins in the Ahmedabad branch of the Pucadyil family, who were close to us and helpful. But she missed her close relatives and cousins, and I missed my brothers. So while Minnu’s reasons for moving to Kottayam got stronger, my justification to staying on in Ahmedabad weakened after my retirement.

The conferment of Padma Shri had revived many dormant contacts and connections from my early days. Going back to Kottayam would allow me to refresh and re-cultivate these connections. Children took the idea of moving in their stride, insisting that we do what would work for us. Our being in Ahmedabad had seriously deprived them of family contacts. However, people we discussed the moving idea tried to dissuade us. They cited cultural conflicts coming in the way of happy resettlement. My answer to this was not to have great expectations.

Life takes a full circle when we move back to Kottayam, where I was born and had spent the early years. I was an avid learner and found myself as a postgraduate in 1962. Two years at Kothamangalam found me impatient to pursue higher studies.

A desire for a PhD took me to Aligarh in 1964. An offer of a faculty position at the University detained me in that small town until 1972. My actual research career started when I joined P.R.L. in Ahmedabad that year. Shorter durations of separation had happened earlier, when my father was transferred to Trivandrum and when I joined the Athanasius College at Kothamangalam in 1962. We came back to Kottayam by the end of 2012. I could find pleasant accommodation in the town. My membership in the Senior Citizens Forum has given us social interaction, friendships and close fellowship. I have been able to develop associations with the M.G. University. Much of my time goes into watching movies and reading books. My professional interaction with the Institute for Plasma Research continues long distance. So, moving back as a whole was a satisfactory experience.


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