Most ancestral houses in Kerala have an open courtyard which essentially gives the house its unique stature. This open courtyard is always built with either four, eight or sixteen pillars surrounding it. Thus was born the name Naalukettu ( Naalu is the number four in Malayalam ) Ettukettu (Ettu is the number eight in Malayalam) or Pathinaaru Kettu ( Pathinaaru is the number sixteen in Malayalam). Whether it likes it or not , this courtyard is a partaker to many important and unimportant events of the house. Be it a wedding, a demise , a family get together, a dance performance by the women or a game of hide and seek amongst the children. It clearly preceeeds in importance compared to the other sections of the house.
Such Naalukettu houses are many in number in Kerala though many a time, they do not live long enough to narrate their stories to the future generations. When owners can no longer bear the burden of maintaining these large houses, they are usually sold off to private parties. They in turn renovate them and convert them into boutiques or coffee shops to attract the tourists.
It is in one such Naalukettu where my father and all his siblings were born. It is also the house where his mother and all her siblings were born. I do not know the year it was built, but I sure know it dates back to the 1930s. I remember it from the time we moved into my hometown.
Whenever I set foot inside, memories automatically rush in. Those were the days when all of us cousins would huddle around one of the pillars of the courtyard to listen to the stories of the eldest grandmother. Even the youngest of the uncles loved to boast about his adventures as a teenager and we would listen, totally awestruck. When it rained, each of us would try to outdo the other with our paper boats. There was a small room in the house which was used by my grand uncle and right above his room was the attic. We would empty numerous Cutticura powder tins on our faces, smear our eyes with my aunt’s kaajal pencil and hide in the attic. The sole aim was to scare the poor soul. He used to get livid every time. “Naashangal” he would mutter under his breath! One day our plan backfired and we were locked inside the attic for two hours. To everyone’s amazement, we brats explored every corner of the attic to discover old books, expensive artifacts and abandoned photographs. We became self proclaimed heroes!
Even after many years, this house is still a class apart from the numerous houses and apartments that have sprung up on all four sides. There are no permanent residents apart from the caretaker. Yet, it is amazing how this Naalukettu continues to boast of its acquired lineage and magnificence. The photographs of the our grand fathers and great grand fathers still adorn the walls, unscathed by the sands of time.
Though relationships may have strained, this house continues to bring us together on all happy and not so happy occasions. After all, this is where it all began.