verandah-noun (vuh-ran-duh)-a large, open porch, usually roofed and partly enclosed, as by a railing, often extending across the front and sides of a house; gallery.
Origin: 1705–15; < Hindi baranda, baramda < Persian bar amada coming out < Portuguese varanda, Spanish baranda railing, balustrade
The year we moved into our current home was the most difficult year of our lives. We set up our home at a time of deep uncertainty. Two close family members were battling a terminal illness. Our happiness at finding a place that met most of our requirements was marred by the sadness of our imminent loss.
Our children were unhappy at deserting the only home they had known since birth. The stone floor in the new home didn’t have the bounce or the warmth of the wood in the old home. My husband complained about the two-car garage because “it wasn’t bigger than a loin cloth.” He informed every first-time visitor about the absence of a walk-in closet in the master bedroom of a home that had cost him his lifetime savings. I whined about how we now needed a bouncer to open and shut our massive Sub-zero fridge.
Furthermore, the living room in our new home was so tiny that on first sight it was not obvious what in the world it was. Was it an anteroom at the doctor’s office or the beauty salon? Was it a coat closet? Or a newspaper reading room? Or a waiting room at an Amtrak station? Still, everyone who trooped in said, at least out of politeness, that the living room was a cozy and happy place. A warm place it was. It still is.
The day I drove up to see the house, it was early March. Our white cherry blossom splashed the sky. The house lay in the center of a wide front yard with a circular driveway. It seemed to speak to me. Its broad porch was, in truth, a little verandah on which we could place a love bench and another chair if we ever wanted to. It whispered to me about a sprawling verandah of another time that now lived on only in memory and in photographs.
The word verandah originated in the Sanskrit word varanda that meant portico or colonnade. It seems to have existed, independently, however, in Portuguese and in Spanish (vara, in Spanish, means rod or rail). A third meaning, the literal meaning, is “coming forward” and it is attributed to the Persian “baramada.” A verandah is a roofed open gallery or portico attached to the exterior of a building.
In the India of the sixties, every bungalow opened into a verandah with a bench; its most prominent cultural significance was in the way it connected the house to nature and its surroundings.
In my parents’ bungalow, the verandah was a glorious, welcoming space. When my father led me to a planetarium years later, I was not impressed. It was never that much different from standing in the middle of our verandah at night, right after dinner, when all of us, my father, my mother, my grandparents, my sister and I relaxed with all the lights off inside the house.
In the dark warm night, cooled by the zephyr from the Bay of Bengal, I would step down from the verandah onto the courtyard, hold out my arms and look up at the infinite awning. I would pirouette until the sky swam rapidly over my head and I fell down. The skies glittered and sparkled with possibility. In the dark, conversation seemed to assume color. Our verandah was privy to secrets, gossip and laughter. It played sentinel to the foolishness, the romance and the eternal hope of our immediate and extended families in a life defeated on and off by disappointment. Cousins, aunts and uncles crossed our verandah and entered our home for countless things: to secure a job, to find a mate, to buy a trousseau, to get treatment for an ailment or, simply, to chill. Some, like my father’s mother, came there to die.
On long summer days my favorite spot was our mosaic bench on theverandah-it was eight feet long, two feet wide and about four inches thick in pink with white spots. I sat on it, leaning my head against the massive concrete pillar painted in red oxide, the design of an engineer who lived on North Usman Road.
In 2004, the white colonnade of the home I saw took me back to the red oxide pillar of my memory. In the second I saw the home from my car, I wished to buy it. I prayed that my husband too would buy into the idea of living in it. When we finally moved in I had almost given up hope; my husband would not compromise on his expectations for over five years. If he were to spend the money, curb appeal was important. He wanted a home that people could look at from the road and walk into just as easily. He wanted nothing up in the hills-not that we had the money to afford one in the hills-and would consider nothing that would be a trek for us or for our visitors.
His long list of other specifications frustrated me. It made realtors sigh and sweat. The first realtor stopped calling us after a few outings. Another realtor took us on. When we purchased the property one year later, she said she counted my husband among her critical conquests. Even though Carol had been in business for decades he had been her toughest customer-“a demanding client and a real tightwad but lovable all the same,” she said with a tight hug after we closed the deal.
Our bungalow here in California faces a southerly direction, just like the one of my memories. It was built in 1963, right about the time I began running up and down the verandah of our old bungalow built in 1961. In a town not lit by streetlights, the same skies shimmer over another verandah in another time and another space sending the same message our way: it takes love, warmth, laughter and hope, infinite amounts of it, to make a home.
Kalpana Mohan writes from Saratoga. To read more about her, go to http://kalpanamohan.org and http://saritorial.com.