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Shifting Houses over the Years

Traversing over 60 homes in the past 80-90 years is a record that will be tough to beat for anyone in this age and era

Afriend recently changed house for the 10th or 15th time and wondered whether it was something of a record. He is only 30 and just got married. At the rate he was going, he would be on his 50th or 100th house by the time he called it a day and put up his tired feet!

That set me thinking. I did some quick counting and discovered that I had myself changed house 60 odd times in the last 70-80 years, almost a new home every year, not just from one house to another, but often from one town to another, and often from one continent to another. Mine is perhaps an extreme case, but we are or have become a peripatetic lot, always on the move.

We first moved to a new house when I was a small boy, and, like most people on the move, we were moving from our village to a town, which had electricity, a novelty in those days, and there were horse-buggies on the road instead of bullock carts. The house was like a series of railway compartment till much later-but I had a room to myself, and so did my parents. The house was at the end of a road, more a muddy stretch than a proper road, but we had apparently taken the house on rent for three rupees a month, an amount so big that our relations thought we had gone mad.

Three years later, we quit the house for a bigger one-my father had gone up in the world-and the muddy stretch was now a proper metalled road on which the horse-drawn buggies clip-clopped all day long. I had a table and chair, and a teacher came every day to take lessons in Portuguese-we lived in Goa at the time-and sometimes in English too.

A year or so later, we were in another house, a proper bungalow with a veranda, and also a small buggy that took us to the market. I now wore a proper suit or uniform, and spoke Portuguese with my father and also my teacher, and often went for long walks along the promenade where I met other children and their parents.

Suddenly, my father decided to send me to Bombay, as it was then called, and my fortunes changed for ever. I now became an Indian, wore short pants and spoke Marathi, and lived, not in a bungalow, but a tenement, so crowded that we could barely breathe, and I slept in the veranda on the third floor, from where I could just see people rush past in crowded tram cars, and an occasional automobile carrying the sahibs to their clubs. Our room-my 16th home-was ten feet by twenty, a standard tenement, and I sat in a small corner and did my lessons. Since I did not have a light of my own-my uncle, with whom I lived couldn't afford electricity-I sat under the veranda lamp outside and pored over the books, until I dozed off while the city slept.

Surprisingly, I did so well in the board exam that I was awarded four scholarships and I thought I should now have a room of my own, though the smallest room cost ten rupees a month. A whole room to myself! I thought I was going mad, and so did my uncle, who had just lost his job and could barely pay his rent. But my room was my own and it was my 16th or 17th place, though I was barely sixteen myself.

I was now a proper Bombayite, with an address of my own and I thought I had arrived, until I decided to make a career move to go in for engineering, which guaranteed you a job, and that too in the PWD, and I could live in government quarters, and have a lot of money.

So I went to Poona, as it was then called, and enrolled myself in its engineering college, itself a big achievement, and was given a large room in the hostel, where we had gargantuan breakfasts and Sunday treats, and I put on so much weight my mother couldn't recognise me when I went home for holidays.

But the good time did not last long. Towards August 1942 things were heating up and we began having regular visits from the local police. One day, they came and told us to clear the hostel, threw our things out and locked the rooms. We spent the night on the tennis courts and started looking for a roof over our heads. The police said we were making bombs and perhaps had other dangerous things on our minds. We moved to a new hostel-like building nearby and couldn't have done worse even if we had tried. The place was a beehive of bomb-makers, long-haired types straight from Bengal, which was at the time full of dangerous revolutionary types specialising in bombs.

One fine morning, when most of us were asleep, a little tired from our revolutionary labours of the previous night, the police swooped on us, and before we could guess what was happening, we found ourselves face to face with an Englishman, who was as surprised as we were, and asked us why we were carrying so much instruments, his particular objection being to a pair of pliers, which apparently were used in tweaking wires in and out of bombs.

“We are engineering students,” I said, by way of explanation, but the kindly English magistrate would have none of it. “Ten days,” he said, and handed us over to a waiting sergeant. But apparently we were in luck and our principal took pity on us and told the magistrate we would be careful in future. We went back to our hostel, which apparently had been cleared of all bombs and declared fit for human habitation.

After getting my degree, I moved into new quarters, planning my next move. By this time, I had moved in and out of nearly 18 homes and thought I would take the PWD job, get married and settle down.

But that was not what fate had in store for me. Just when I was going to sign the PWD letter, I was told I had won a scholarship to a college in London, and would I please let them know what I decided. It took me only a minute and within a month I was watching the Big Ben in London and eating boiled potatoes.

The writer is a well-known columnist & economist.