If hunting high and low for a place to stay on rent in Kochi is tough in 2020, it was no different in 1996 either – the year my status changed from Single to Married. Bachelor accommodations were a dime a dozen. But, to get a decent house that suited one’s budget, one had to have loads of luck. For a family, that is. I was a mere Subeditor then with a small pay packet.
Not that I did not have a house of my own. I had. Only, it was in the suburbs – far removed from my place of work. A distance of nearly 10 km. June, with its spell of incessant rain, was fast approaching. Neither my family nor my ‘would-be’ wanted me to commute on my two-wheeler in the driving rain through the potholed roads after the graveyard shift. There was precious little I could do but give in to their pleas to look out for a place to stay somewhere in close proximity to my office – till the two great rainy seasons, Edavapathi (South-West Monsoon) and Thulavarsham (North-East Monsoon), were over. ”Think of it as your extended honeymoon,” amma said. I nodded.
‘Mission House Hunting’ began as early as April. Three brokers and 12 houses later, I was still a ‘homeless’ man. Not one came up to my expectations. Two of them were a stone’s throw away from my office. Only, water entered the houses from the nearby Perandoor canal, the filthiest of the lot, during the rain. As for the rest, the less said the better. Either the plumbing was not up to the mark or the electrical wiring was in disarray or the roof was prone to leak in the rain or the staircase to the upper storey was too narrow or the terrace overlooked a slum.
I was about to give up when an advertisement in the local daily caught my attention: ‘Upper Storey of House for Rent at Palarivattom’. I dialled the contact number. A man picked up the phone. ”Kuttappan…..,” he said. ”I saw your advertisement in today’s paper. I’m looking for a place to stay. Can I come and see the place,” I asked. ”Sure, why not. Come around 4 pm. My wife looks after all these things. She’s a teacher. She’ll be back home from school around 5. Till she comes, we can sit and chat. Moreover, you can have a look at the place…”
I had all the time in the world as it was my day off. ”Will it be lucky #13?” I asked myself as I sped off to Palarivattom which was a mere 2.6 km from my office. I had no difficulty in locating the house. For, Kuttappan chettan had given me the route in detail. A few yards from the junction, down a long, narrow lane…..the double-storey house stood by the side of a huge pond surrounded by trees of various hues and sizes. A house nestling in the lap of Nature. Strangely, it had no gate. A man in his late forties was standing near the pond, smoking a bidi.
”Yes, that’s me. You must be the guy who called me in the morning. You can keep your scooter in the car porch. You must have noticed that there is no gate. I have an open mind on things. I don’t have a vehicle. The porch is all yours. Don’t worry. It’s perfectly safe,” he said. I liked the chatterbox of a man. Call it ‘like at first sight.’
Kuttappan chettan switched on the lights and fan in the living room. ”Sit…..sit…” I sat down. He went inside and returned with a bunch of keys. ”First things first. Come, let’s go upstairs and see the rooms. After that, we can have a nice cosy chat. By that time, Thankamani will come. She will tell you the terms and conditions. Ah…she makes very good tea. ” The more he spoke, the more I seemed to like him.
The stairs led to a nice, spacious terrace. Kuttappan chettan fumbled with the keys . ”I can help..” I said. ”No thanks. Just that I forgot to bring my glasses. Here…it’s open. Come….” He switched on the lights. We were in the living room. Yep, spacious. Good enough for two or more people. ”See, this is the bedroom. The toilet is separate – next door. In case you have a visitor, why should he/she walk into your bedroom to use the loo. My idea! Here, this is the dining room-cum kitchen. Next to it is the store room. You can keep your provisions and utensils there. Did you like the place?”
”Like it? I’m already in love with this place. Looks like I’ve already moved in…..”
”Good. Let’s go down,” he said while locking the front door. We hit the ground. I sank into the warm cosy sofa in the living room. Kuttappan chettan sat opposite to me.
”So, what do you do?”
”I’m a journalist,” I said and gave him the details.
”Ah….so I can say with pride my new tenant is a journalist in a leading English daily. You guys are a very knowledgeable breed. Let me ask you a few questions. You can consider it an interview. For the time being, I’ll be the journalist and you be the house owner or tenant or whoever. Is it OK with you?”
”Sure,” I said.
”Do you booze?”
”Yet you call yourself a journalist….” Kuttappan chettan guffawed. ”I do both….”
I knew he boozed. I’d got the smell. ”Just as you know how and when to say YES to things, you should know how and when to say NO,” I said. Kuttappan chettan was in no mood to let go. ”You are no ordinary journalist,” he said. ”This has nothing to do with journalism. It’s called will power,” I retorted.
”I love you, man.” He got up from his seat, shook my hands and returned. Suddenly, darkness engulfed the room. Power failure. ”It’s like this. Either it’s power cut or power failure. I don’t have either a generator or an inverter. Do you have one in your home? Bring it when you come.”
”No, I don’t have one at home.”
”Never mind. We’ll adjust with candles….” he said and guffawed. ”The problem with Kerala is we depend too much on the monsoon and hydel power. It’s high time we looked at other options. What do you say?”
I shared my views with him. ”Brilliant.” He rose from his seat, shook my hands and returned. For over 10 minutes, he kept shooting question after question and each time I answered them, he responded with a firm hand shake. ”You seem to have answers to all my questions. Let me see if you will answer this one. What’s the capital of Iceland?”
”You’re right. Pretty smart, eh?” Again, the hand shake.
”Ten to one you won’t answer the next question, the brilliant man that you are. Take it as a challenge. ”
”How is Fr Kuriakose Elias Chavara related to my wife Thankamani?”
The question hit me like a sledgehammer. How in the big wide world was I to know how the priest was related to Kuttappan chettan’s wife! The power returned just as it had gone out. I saw a triumphant smile crease Kuttappan chettan’s face.
”See…didn’t I say you wouldn’t answer it? Even when you think you know the answers to everything under the sun, there will still be some questions you wouldn’t have answers to. Makes you humble. Always be humble. I like you. You can have the upper storey. ”
The clock struck five. We were still laughing when Thankamani chechi walked in five minutes later.
”This is my wife. Thankamani, this is our new tenant. He’s the one who responded first to our advertisement in today’s paper. I liked him. He’s getting married by the middle of the month. The couple will be moving in by June 1. He wanted to know the terms and conditions and, of course, the rent. I haven’t said anything. He liked the place. ”
”Over a cup of tea and some snacks….” Thankamani chechi said.
Fifteen minutes later, we were chatting away ‘over a cup of tea and some snacks’ as chechi said. ”The rent is Rs 2,000 plus Rs 100 for water and electricity. Considering city standards, it’s pretty low. Monetary aspect apart, we were looking at real good tenants. Three months’ rent in advance. It’s the practice. Rent period is 11 months which can be extended on mutual agreement. ”
I nodded in agreement.
”You two seemed to laugh your heads off while I came in. What was the joke?”
”I was interviewing him,” Kuttappan chettan said. ”You know I love doing that to would-be tenants….”
”Did he ask you about Fr Kuriakose?”
”Oh no. This man is crazy,” Thankamani chechi said. It was now her turn to laugh her head off. ”I’ve told him umpteen times not to ask that question to people and he does the same to every Tom, Dick and Harry who comes in search of a place to stay. It gives him some vicarious pleasure. Sorry about that….”
”No issues. I enjoyed it. Great fun to last a lifetime. Er…is there any truth in it?”
”Some remote connection with the great man’s family. Nothing else……”
Kuttappan chettan sat silently, grinning like a Cheshire cat, while Thankamani chechi made the frank admission.
Within a week, the deal was finalised.
PS: Wife and I moved into our new home on June 1. We weren’t mere tenants. We were part of an extended family – Kuttappan chetan, Thankamani chechi and children Bobby and Shilpa. We so loved our stay there that the honeymoon of a couple of months got extended to three years! Much water has flowed under the bridge since 1999. It’s been 21 years since we bid bye to our stay at ‘Mukkungal House’ and returned to my own house in the suburbs. The school children of yesteryear are leading happy married lives. Once in a while we step into our ‘old home’ to swap stories with chetan and chechi over a cup of tea. Each time the conversation veers round to the ‘interview’ and suddenly the house bursts into laughter to echo and re-echo long after we have bid goodbye and gone.
Cover image: The plot was once a pond. A businessman bought the pond and converted it into a plot