1. A one-storey house, sometimes with an attic 2. (in India) a one-storey house, usually
surrounded by a veranda [from Hindi bangla (house) of the Bengal type]
My father built our bungalow in 1961, the year I was born. It’s impossible to forget the square courtyard of our Chennai home. I was dropped head down on it as a baby of one, from a height of about three feet, by my sister who was twelve years old at the time.
My father, my husband and now, my children, maintain that such a fall so early on in my life might have had much to do with my skewed perspective of the world. So it wouldn’t be wrong to say that our bungalow had a profound impact on me.
The idea of the “bungalow,” a word first used in 1676 according to the Merriam Webster, originated in the Bengal region of India. In Urdu, bangla means, literally, a house in the Bengal style. A bungalow is a comfortable abode with high thatched roofs and overhanging eaves shading a single story house. It is a house having one and a half stories and a front porch, or verandah, another Indian word absorbed into English which will be the subject of a future column.
The bungalow has a central living area with the kitchen, dining, bedrooms, and bathrooms clustered around it. Used in reference to the spacious homes or lodgings of officials of the British Raj, the term and the concept caught on in the late 19th century in Britain, its colonies and America, as large country or suburban summer homes became popular.
Our home in Chennai’s ancient suburb of T. Nagar was a typical “first-time home owner’s bungalow.” My grandfather gifted his son teak and hardwood worth about 10,000 Rupees from land that he owned in Kerala. “I bought the plot of land for 3,200 Rupees and it cost me about 30,000 Rupees (current evaluation: about $608) to build that one-story bungalow with a room upstairs leading out into the terrace,” my father says. Then, on a salary of 600 Rupees a month, my dad, a “penurious” accountant as he calls himself, built his 1100 square-foot bungalow.
In present day Chennai, the prime plot of land on which our bungalow once sat—it was approximately a tenth of an acre—is worth about two crores ($400,000). Consequently bungalows like ours have been razed to the ground to make way for four and five storey buildings housing several apartments with rapidly ballooning per square-foot price tags.
Of the few bungalows that remain in Indian metropolises, many are crumbling relics, waiting to be gobbled up by greedy realtors. In a few instances, owners of bungalows in India are old parents who are waiting to get the best deal so they may divide the money after sale among their children. Some sprawling bungalows of yesteryears have been converted into stately heritage homes. On my last trip, I stepped into one such spectacular bungalow in Chennai that now houses, amid glorious antiques and artifacts of pre-Independence India, the sari store Sarangi and the jewelry store Rasvihar.
The word bungalow spells nostalgia for those of us who grew up in post-colonial India. I recall long summer days on the red mosaic bench of the verandah of our bungalow. I lay basking in the tepid breeze while my grandfather read TheHindu by my side before and after lunch, badmouthing, as he read, the third-rate blackguards who ruled the land.
I nodded absently as he chided Mrs. Gandhi and the “scoundrels” in her cabinet; I preferred, instead, to watch the lizards that plastered the ceiling. They fascinated me on those humid days when the knife man walked down our road shouting “Kaththi kaththi” while my mother’s favorite Muslim vendor, the man who brought her mirror-faced stainless steel vessels, traded his wares for her old saris. The ice-cream man clanged by at teatime every day, ringing his bicycle bell for all kids to hear. There was the newspaper buyer, the jasmine seller, the fruit vendor and the spinach lady. No one ever really understood the curly cries of the spinach lady who sold Melbourne kirai. In those days Indians loved foreign goods and perhaps my mother too felt the pull of the new, even in spinach? That bungalow era has been locked away forever now. Apartment buildings now have security guards and elevators. Unsolicited vendors, mendicants and hermits don’t color residential courtyards anymore.
I still remember the bogeyman who rattled into our porch, the bearded soothsayer dressed in bright, tattered robes, a gudugudupandi (a terrorising mendicant) with his symbolic white cow. He cursed until my mother came out into the verandah. We parted, quickly, with a few coins for no one ever wanted a blur marring the bliss of the old bungalow.