A smaller house makes a better home

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Published: Thu 20 Feb 2020, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Fri 21 Feb 2020, 1:00 AM

"When I grow up and start earning, I will live in a small but cosy apartment," my son maintained during his growing up days.
"Why do you aim downward?" I tsk-tsked every time the boy brought up the issue, mostly when we shifted houses in Dubai and elsewhere. I opted for large houses because we both were so claustrophobic that we got the jitters in small lifts, planes and even on train berths. He once got off midway on a train journey to Delhi and took a flight to his destination because of acute claustrophobia.
But when it came to living space, he stuck to his theory that small is beautiful. It never occurred to me until I happened to rent an unusually spacious apartment belonging to the Presbyterian church on Mount Sophia in Singapore. If not for the recession following the dotcom burst, I could not have dreamed of renting a property just off the fashionable Orchard Road.
Despite its pastoral ambiance, where birds and squirrels residing on overgrown trees offered a round-the-clock orchestra, and despite its proximity to cultural, culinary and haute couture hot spots, the walk-up house ostensibly failed to offer a soul-filling familial experience. Neither the bucolic mise-en-scène of a compound littered with half-eaten mangoes nor the morning constitutional around Mount Emily Park behind our house calmed me down. Schools and offices were just a short drive away, temples and churches were just a stroll away, yet I was as restless as the wind.
It took a long while to crack the mystery and realise that the property we were living in was just a house, not a home. What played the villain was the humongous space. Bedrooms tucked in the farthest corners of the house acted like different continents, with the master bedroom like Down Under. "Are you there?" People shouted in full throat for answers. We made many enclaves under one roof. Lack of physical proximity blew a vacuum into our lives. No one knew what the others were up to. I was aware of the aphorism love makes a house a home. The Mount Sophia experience taught me yet another lesson: a smaller house makes a better home. In other words, space depletes love. The bigger the house, the weaker the bonds of love between family members.
Most of my old friends back home were farmhands working for our family or fishermen who lived in small thatched huts. I defied parental controls and visited their homes where abject poverty and darkness lurked round the year. But love was in abundance in their little homes and big hearts. I joined their children who studied and ate their meals in the soft light of a kerosene lamp. If there was a wedding or a function, I worked in their homes like a family member. There was no gender or caste discrimination. Their sisters and mothers loved me like one among them. I am still one among them. The other day I received a friend request from a lady who introduced herself as the "daughter-in-law of Jayan".
"He told me to search for you on Facebook. He said there could only be one Jayan in your life." She was surprised her father-in-law still owned me.
I felt the sudden shock of love. It jolted me out of my 40 years of urban existence. She took me back to a life that I desperately yearned to get back. Jayan was a headload worker who lived in a swampy colony where people believed love and I had no business. She narrated incidents from our life that age had long buried in the backyard of our minds. She said I would forever have a big place in their small life.
My experiment with a "studio life" a few years ago reinforced my theory which a few of my colleagues condone. I wrote the best of my articles in that little space. I was in the midst of people, and hence in the thick of ideas. Life in a small space was more inclusive and transparent than in a larger home. People were closer than earlier; things were at an arm's length. You could hear everyone's heart and calls and everyone could hear you, too. Having no Great Wall of China between lives, you could read your loved ones' emotions from a closer range. You learnt to live without disturbing others. Television and laptops were switched off on time because others wanted to sleep. You saved a couple of hours every day by not searching for things that you normally do in a large house. Your likes and dislikes no more mattered. It's always others first. You were in love.
Some time ago, my daughter-in-law called to complain. "I told him to upgrade to a larger apartment. He said he is more comfortable with a small house but a powerful car."
"Good for you," I said, "Love in a small home is like a drink on the rocks. Like music unplugged."
"Like father, like son." She hung up.

By Suresh Pattali

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