February 17, 2008


It is five months since I started my stay in this house here in Chennai. It is situated in one of the decent residential localities of Saidapet, my roommates have been staying here on a rent of rupees 6000 per month for more that two years. This rent was increased to 7000 one month before I joined them. Our house is on third floor of the second building in the compound, the owner and family lives in the ground floor of the first building. This is the history and geography, now to the present.

I first came here on a mid-night after my flight from Singapore and immediately slept off. On the next day (which was a Saturday) morning when I got down the stairs, I met Ammachi for the first time - an old woman in her early sixties, bulky in appearance with mannerisms of a typical tamil woman. She was staring at me from the moment I was visible from her verandah while I was climbing down the stairs. As soon as I reached the ground near to their Verandah and was about to open the gate to outside street, I heard Ammachi asking in Tamil. "Who are you?". That was a very shocking question, especially to me who had learned to say 'thank you' to all the strangers in those Los Angeles shops and malls who opened the doors for me or who asked 'how are you doing?' It suddenly reminded me that I am back in India and my polished manners wont help anymore. I managed to say in broken Tamil that I am a friend of her tenant and escaped the scene rehashing some of the Tamil words that I knew for my future use.

Later, when I met my friend and roommate he cautioned me about Ammachi, the wife of house owner who may ask about my whereabouts. My roommates were nice guys (like me!), and so did not comment much on Ammachi. So it was my turn to discover things myself. The house owner was a retired employee, they were living in that house with their son and family, and Ammachi ran the show in the household. She was weary of thieves, so kept the exit gate latched all the times and made all the tenants do the same. She locked the gate during day time and questioned anyone who came through the gate. She did not allow any maid inside the compound other than the one who worked in her house. This approved maid was the only option for all the tenants who wanted a maid, cook or helper.

Ammachi was usually present at the Verandah most of the times in conversation with some other old men and women who were their neighbours. When she was not and was without a company in the verandah, she would ask questions to her tenants if they pass by. It was not possible to collect all the information in one instant as the time she could see us from her Verandah till we reached the exit gate was very less. I some how did not like these conversations which were an intrusion into my privacy and managed to escape before many questions. Most of these questions were asked to find out how much I was earning, which religion I belonged to, etc. Moreover, information thus collected was the topic of discussion for Ammachi and company in their next meeting.

It was Ammachi who told my friend and told that the neighbours have complained about our unruly behaviour after consuming alcohol. (My friends are social drinkers if you know what does that mean. No, no, do not count me). She also told him that her husband was really angry for making this an issue in the neighbourhood and wanted us to vacate the house as soon as possible. My friends being nice guys, and me being a nicer guy who did not know the local history, we began to look for a new house. But two days later my friend again talked to Ammachi (apparently on the trajectory between stairs and the exit gate) and she came down on her terms. If we were ready to give a higher rent, she was ready to convince her husband to let us stay (whose agent is she?). So we finally decided to give that extra rent which we thought would be 8000 rupees, a 1000 extra. But Ammachi gave one more shock, she (her husband!) wanted 9000 rupees from three of us. Since this was a convenient house for me who worked near to LIC building and my roommates who worked near to Porur, we decided to stay back.

After paying the additional rent for two months we decided to find one more guy to join us since the expenses were going higher. We got a new guy who was colleague of my roommates, and my friend went to inform Ammachi. Before my friend could finish, she demanded another hike in rent to 10000 rupees. This was considered as a big insult by my roommates who were staying there for long, so we decided to shift. Meanwhile the new guy who joined us for time being was having a tough time. He has a bicycle which Ammachi made him to carry and keep inside our apartment on third floor. Her agent, our house maid complained to Ammachi that he keeps his shoes inside the house. So he was asked to keep his shoes in the shoe rack outside. He found a house near porur and shifted today with one of the roommates, in a hurry to escape from Ammachi. Me and another roommate will be shifting to a near by house in Saidapet itself.

There is one thing that all of us agree, that Ammachi is a misfit in the locality. She would have done better had she been a commander in the army.

* Ammachi actually means Mom in Malayalam, but is used colloquially as a reference to any old woman.

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