Windflowers, Housing First by Ranjit Narayanan








It was one of those times when phone calls meant hope and the caller a messiah. I was waiting for almost six months to receive a call that mattered more than anything in life. This Sunday was no different. I was there at the dream project site, besides my Innova SUV, looking proudly at an apartment complex I built with my own hands literally. Two blocks with 3 floors per block and each floor had two houses. Twelve houses in total. What an irony that a builder had to wait to find occupants in a country where people were hit by property (or lack of) crisis.

This was the IT corridor of the city and a “fast-growing area”, at least when I started the project in a small piece of barren land inherited by my wife from her family after a bitter legal tussle. They called OMR IT corridor Chennai’s own Noida. The compound wall was half complete. We just had the wall portion adjacent to security guard room at the gate ready and a granite slab with Gold plated signboard Windflowers gaudily betraying my pride and achievement. An achievement indeed that I could complete the project on schedule within my budget and most importantly with very less borrowed finances. I had intended to sell 11 houses and keeping one for me.

I should have been on top of the world. Instead, I was looking at the caller id of my conservative not so “smart” phone hoping that this would be a response to our advertisement in Property Plus repeated again last week. Yes, I did not get a single buyer yet. Demonetization, political uncertainty, economy slow down etc were driving investors out of my state. This was what the Chairman of our builders’ association spoke last night at the meeting. The builders’ meet last week was more of a party than a real meeting. Builders like me were drowning the sorrows that fell upon us. Even the liquor served was cheap. Again, this was another malaise for small builders like me, while corporate builders had occupants waitlisted!

It was Sharin on the phone. My prodigy, my daughter, fresher at NIT, Civil Engineering. I was her role model, myself Sam Titus, a 1984 batch civil engineer from CIT Coimbatore Windflower was growing tall when she got her JEE score. She had no qualms about screaming CIVIL at the counseling. I knew she wouldn’t opt for any other subject.

The phone call was not from the messiah I hoped for. Nevertheless, Sharin’s call was always my energy booster. As usual, she did all the talking, straight to the point. Mess bill payments and a suggestion for a new mini drafter was her immediate requirement. I wound up the call with a promise to bring it to her hostel during my visit to Tiruchirappalli, the following week where I had another lame builders’ meet to attend!

The mason’s Honda Activa Scooter meandered in through the cobblestones of the porch. The compound wall was his last scope of work and what should have been completed on the D-day was still at status quo six months down the line. I knew what his excuses would be and at this time I didn’t care. Last time he scorned me when I asked the time frame for the compound wall. He grunted loudly “what is the urgency, sir’? Are the occupants complaining?” rubbing salt and also some pepper into my wounds.

Well, it was great that he came. My Omega Mini drafter with a trendy cover and container was in his makeshift office room. Probably, I should gift this to Sharin. It was an imported one and had purchased it during my stint at Doha while working as the lead project engineer for a huge mall attached to Hamad International airport.

The makeshift room was to be demolished as soon as the building was complete. Saravanan Maistry (Mason in Tamil) was deliberately delaying this, as this room served as his free storage room. I also had my tools and drawings stored here. I walked in beside Saravanan Maistry to retrieve my stuff, at least, before they are eaten away by moths and insects. I asked Maistry to help me shift my belongings to the Innova. I broke his sarcasm before he could start to inquire about the sale progress with a stern command “help me if you want, or I can do it alone”. The makeshift workroom was a disaster. I hadn’t been inside for a long while, didn’t need to. I hoped my valuable possessions were intact!

“Paranai”, the slab that served as a poor man’s attic on the circumference of the walls at about 7 ft height from the floor, and this 1 ft wide slab is both a blessing and a curse. Blessing for the ones who used it carefully to store items of archival value, and curse when it was used for throwing up anything that had no space in the cupboards or a place that was used to hide unkempt stuff when guests came visiting. I made it a point not to build this wretched “paranai” in any of my projects. It was more often than not misused.

It was no surprise that Saravanan’s “precious” items were at hand’s length on ground zero and mine were thrown up into the Paranai. Saravanan had a logic “They are safe there, saar!” I had to agree. Thankfully he had managed to dump all my “items” into a carton box and he was up on his table to retrieve them. He somehow pretended it to be heavier than it was as he brought down my stuff and had placed into the rusty wheelbarrow cart.

I decided to inspect the contents before transferring the box to my car. I didn’t want to displease Maria, my wife who had a psychic obsession with cleanliness. I would do this dirty work here rather than at home. Thank God, the mini drafter was intact and inside its protective cover. It was a very inexpensive instrument. But Sharin liked the sleek design and I doubted if I could get something similar in our country. She would be delighted and proud to use it while boasting on the number of projects that were shaped into existence by this vital drawing tool, courtesy yours Truly! Then next came the maze of drawings. I was happy that they at least tied the bundle of sheets neatly, even if not in order and ensured that nothing is amiss. There were a lot of marker pens and pencils which I decided to discard. A plastic cover bulging and bursting at seams contained loose photographs of the site work at various stages. This was the most valuable prize of the day. I decided to make an album soon with this.

I asked Saravanan to take out a bigger plastic cover if he can so that I could empty out the photographs from the damaged envelope. He managed to get me instead, a small but in good condition, a carton box which was also handy for transferring the photographs into it. As I emptied the photos into the box, a black heavy pouch fritted out with a small thud. When I saw the label Canon EOS 1V 35mm on the leather pouch, it brought along a feeling that wavered between pangs of elation and melancholy.

My father Joseph Titus was a passionate photographer. His whole life, at least since the day he married my mother Sarah Punniyavati was on celluloid. Every moment was captured, in Black and white and later in colour. He went on to start and head Chennai’s own nature Photography club with a set of his acquaintances with similar hobbies. His almirah had more albums than anything else. It was, therefore, an easy decision to make when I had to purchase a gift with my first salary outside India while working on Dubai Metro Project. My brother had told me that he had never seen Dad happier than that moment when he opened the wrap containing the Canon EOS 1V 35mm analogue camera which I had sent it through a colleague on his holiday to India. Ten years later, he didn’t bother to migrate to digital user-friendly cameras when they gradually replaced the analogue designs. He still loved his EOS 1V 35mm.

2010 was the year when I decided to return to India and fulfill my ambition of becoming a local Howard Roarke. My father in law, Cecil Sambandham, a big-time export-import agent from Tuticorin had wisely invested in dry lands on the Mahabalipuram road during the days when Computer was a more popular term as a future business venture and IT was still unheard off as an industry. The project OMR in Chennai was earmarked for “computer industry” development. Millions of jobs were to be created here and which meant people needed places for their homes. This was the last purchase of Mr. Cecil before he lost a long-fought battle with pancreatitis.

A few visits to the Tirunelveli District courts was all it took for my wife Maria to get legal inheritance of this OMR dry lands from the clutches of her wily brothers. The wily Sambandham brothers did not want to give a cent to their sister as she had a “rich” Dubai husband. Maria would have none of it..he verdict in Maria Sambandham Samuel vs Sambandham brothers case diary went in favour of Maria. We became rich, as legal owners of Mr. Cecil’s spices estate in Shencottah and the barren small piece of land on the Chennai Mahabalipuram road, now called OMR!

My father Joseph almost bore the brunt of this deal as he was accused of being the one who “inspired” Maria to fight the battle in courts against the Sambandham brothers. On the day of the hearing, he was taken into hiding by Maria’s friends fearing a brutal attack from Sambandham’s hired sickle wielding goons. He spent two days in Courtallam cascades clicking away to glory the splendour of Western Ghats.

Years later, my father had just arrived after a grand tour of Scandinavia with his friends from the nature photographers’ club. I wanted him to get over his jet lag before taking him on a tour of the site. But he would have none of it. Within an hour of his early morning arrival, we were driving to the site. He took me literally to Sweden-Norway- Denmark -Finland in the one-hour drive from T Nagar to OMR site, with his vivid pictorial descriptions of his trip. The flora and fauna, the Baltic sea, clean air and “lack” of the population or traffic were the subjects of his excited narrations.

Thirty minutes at the site was all it took for him to faint from exhaustion. Fatigue was what we thought as we sprinkled water on his face in the mason’s room, took out the camera from his neck and removed his perspiring T-shirt that sported “I love Sverige”.

I assumed, sugar level escalation or drop or jet lag for this sudden fatigue for this well- conditioned body and mind. However, the heart attack was his first and I expected him to survive more than the next two days that he spent at the hospital before leaving us and the world forever.

Days of mourning passed without getting noticed. Work at the site was in full swing. I could not get to terms from being absent from the site for long. It was not even 3 days since the tragedy when I was back at the mason’s table with my intern Shijo working on the revised drawings to the layout. Shijo casually mentioned about Dad’s camera that he had locked in the main almirah containing the drawings on that day. I was mad that he didn’t keep it at a safer place, maybe at his home temporarily. But I thanked him for his timely care and action to keep safe this expensive camera.

It beats me to date, even after so many days, why I never bothered to keep it safe myself at my home and allowed it to land on the “Paranai”. I held the camera as I held my dad’s cold face on that night when he left us forever . Saravanan backed away seeing my eyes moist. I hung the camera on my neck as I walked to my car with maistry tugging the rest of the possessions on a wheelbarrow.

I was cursing myself for not working on dad’s camera all these years and not printing the pictures. Was work so important to me that I ignored such small but important things? Maybe. But, I didn’t even think of that camera, in the first place! That made me feel like so irresponsible!

Post Dad’s demise, Maria had neatly preserved all Dad’s archivable valuables while giving away his wardrobe and other useful things to charity. The picture collections were already converted into themed albums by Maria and Sharin few Summer vacations ago. However, the camera was at the site. The poor women wouldn’t have known! Or else!

Sun Studios in Porur still had facilities to develop and print films from Analogue cameras. It was a Saturday evening and I wouldn’t get the prints before Wednesday. There were a lot of technical issues- fungus, damp, dust etc and they were not sure if the prints could come out of the Fuji film at all.. So, until three more days, I must wait for the images, I wish I had seen few years ago. Now I am not even certain if I could cherish Dad’s final clicks.

I did not have to wait later than Tuesday noon. A message from Sun studios. “Prints rdy, come n collet” spelt so awfully in SMS language. I dropped every other errand I had on that day and rushed to Porur. The manager said, “Sir, we could retrieve about 18 pictures. Rest remained unclicked”.

I sat on the steel chair at the counter and looked at the surprisingly good pictures. I saw 16 pictures of a neat tall building at different angles and 2 pictures were those he clicked that day at my under-construction site before he swooned. I was honestly disappointed. This wasn’t Dad’s style. He usually clicked nature, it was a nature club tour. I rummaged once again through each picture. Oh! Maybe he was trying to get me some design inspiration for my future projects. But none of them looked special or extraordinary. No Big Deal. Few clicks from outside a tall apartment. Few pictures of the rooms. A doctor attending to a patient. Few clicks of people having dinner in a large hall. A prayer room. Some modern community living.

I was paying up while the pictures and the developed films were packed, I asked for the bunch again and looked at the first image closely. It had a signboard Bostäder först on the foreground!

I wondered if Dad’s tour group stayed in this place. It looked more like a serviced apartment. Maybe, that’s right. It was Sharin again who woke me up from my brain fade and made me google up Bostäder först.

Bostäder först meant “Housing first” in English. It was a non-profit organization that built houses to be “owned” by the Homeless families. This was developed subsequently into a 16-floors condominium! The research took me the whole night on the broader and finer details of project Bostäder först. The website had an online chat facility and I engaged a long online chat with the calls assistant, who narrated the story that was Bostäder först, right from the conceptual stage, its occupants and few of their stories as well. By 3 30 AM when Maria woke up in the middle of the night and forced me to shut down the computer and sleep, I felt enlightened like a saint! But I couldn’t sleep and wait for daybreak.

Next morning, I went to Nageshwara Rao park at Mylapore to meet Mathew uncle, who was my Dad’s closest friend and also a member of the nature photography club that toured Scandinavia. Mathew uncle sat down in the grass after his 4 th round in the park during his morning walk and motioned me to sit beside him. 

For one hour I listened to the slow and detailed narration of the life of Per Lundjstom, one of their nature club counterpart members in Stockholm who lived in Bostäder först. I saw a frail old man wearing a heavy Polaroid around his neck in the google image as I surfed for Per Lundjstom on the internet. Mathew uncle continued how Per was left to rot on the cold streets of Stockholm on a Scandinavian winter by his live-in partner and her daughter when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. His own children closed the door on his face when he shamelessly hoped and tried for a coming back. His wife was married again.

Months later, he was barely found alive at the King’s Hospital when he was chosen as one of the first occupants of Project Bostäder först by the non-profit organisation Stadsmissionen and Svenska Bostäder, a broker of state-owned apartments in Stockholm. Bostäder först gave Per a second life and two years later he won the best nature photographer award at Sony World Amateur Photography awards at Marseilles. Per was insistent that the troupe from India visit Bostäder först and stayed with him and fellow “homeless” neighbours for a day at least. On the flight back to India Dad had told Mathew Uncle of how he wished that one day Sam, (yours truly) would be resourceful enough to build such a dream project in India.

Maria gripped my hand as I walked up the stairs to receive the second prize for the Hearthstone Humanitarian Award for my project “Windflower Nest” that housed 12 couples abandoned by their own children, I could see from the corner of my moist eyes, Sharin with the Canon EOS 1V 35mm jostling with the official photographers to capture the moments.

She calls out to the man on the street

“Sir, can you help me?

It’s cold and I’ve nowhere to sleep,

Is there somewhere you can tell me?”

He walks on, doesn’t look back

He pretends he can’t hear her

Starts to whistle as he crosses the street

Seems embarrassed to be there

Oh think twice, it’s another day for you and me in paradise

Oh think twice, ‘cause it’s just another day for you,

You and me in paradise

- Phil Collins “Just another day in Paradise” 1989

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(Unedited- ArtoonsInn)

Cover by Mithru Rachamalla

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