Trees protect and shelter the quiet, tiled house from prying eyes. The 100-plus-year-old Shroff House at Thycaud has seen concrete jungles tower in the neighbourhood and box-like buildings sprouting in the place of greenery. But the house seems to be at peace within its own little world of tall trees, flowering shrubs and plants that have not been manicured.
Centenarian K. Ayyappan Pillai, freedom fighter and lawyer, guesstimates that the house must be at least 120 years old. “I am 100. It was built around when I was a boy. I know that this house was built by Nainadathu Kaimal, my wife’s grandfather. He was an official in the treasury of the erstwhile Travancore government. His designation was Shroff, a carryover from the days of the Mughal court. That was how the house got its unusual name. Over the years, there have been many additions and alterations to the original structure.”
Built on an incline that slopes downwards from the road, the split-level house used to stand on more than an acre of land. At present, partition amongst the heirs has reduced it to a little more than 20 cents around the house. The low tiled roof of the one-storeyed house cuts out the glare of the sun and also hides from view the massive sprawling, meandering structure that seem to go on and on. A cool, rectangular verandah with rounded pillars, enclosed with a grill recently, opens into a living room filled with old-world, comfortable furniture, paintings, bric-a-brac and antiques.
A massive sofa and a large Chinese urn with beautiful work on it catch the eye. “That Chinese urn was in the loft. We had it cleaned and gave it a pride of place in the living room. But it was my daughter who discovered the work on it while she was briskly polishing it,” says Geetha Rajkumar, Ayyappan Pillai’s daughter.
A polished, brass pallankuzhi board has a story behind it. Apparently, Geetha’s aunt gave it to a family friend’s daughter to play with. Years after the daughter became a grandmother and the family had relocated from the city, the daughter came back to return the board to its owners. Elegant wooden doors from the living room lead to two bedrooms and an open dining room. The high wooden roof and attic prevent the heat from seeping into the house and so the bedrooms are naturally airy and filled with light that filters into through the trees. Most of the rooms have windows or open verandahs that run around the rooms. A flight of steps from the dining room takes one to a vast space behind the house which used to have bathrooms, a well and a washing area.
“My mother, Rajamma Pillai, used to tell me that in her youth, there were a number of youngsters, all our relatives, staying in the house. They were in the city for their studies. A domestic help would keep several kindis (water containers) of water and paper packets of umikkari (burnt rice husk) with eerkil (split ribs of coconut leaves that served as tongue cleaners). Yet another domestic help would keep drawing endless buckets of water from a well for the bathrooms where the family used to take a bath,” says Geetha.
An assortment of grandmotherly trees, including an aged mango tree (the treasured ‘Chandrakaran’ variety), makes it a green oasis. Although the well has been covered, another still exists near the old-world kitchen, a good distance away from the modern dining room but near the granary and the store. A wooden pathayam (a cavernous wooden granary) with a space for storing coconuts as well still exists in Shroff House but obviously it has not been used for a long time.
“We had to build attached bathrooms in a couple of bedrooms. While we were doing the maintenance work, we found that some of the walls were built with laterite bricks while some were built with clay mixed with molasses. In those days, one did not go gathering sand and stones from other places. What was available in the area would be used to construct the house. Plastering must have been with lime,” says V. Rajkumar, Ayyappan Pillai’s son-in-law. The floors are a mix of red floor tiles and polished greenish cement, gleaming with the patina of age.
Most of the walls are adorned with charming sepia–tinted pictures of family members. In those days, says Geetha, elders and children would stay in the main structure of the residence while young men would invariably stay in a separate place, perhaps in the outhouse a little way from the house but in the same compound. Thus Shroff House has a delightful outhouse, almost a home in itself, which has been rented out.
Damson blossoms frame the outhouse while several jackfruit trees in the main compound are laden with fruit. “My mother was an avid gardener and we had a lovely garden. She passed away last year and since then the garden has been in disarray,” says Geetha looking around the unruly clump of trees that seem to have a mind of their own.
A bit of untamed nature in the midst of the concrete jungle, a rarity like the house itself.
(A column on houses in and around the city that are more than 50 years old.)