Another house comes crumbling down. A real estate developer is bringing down a 40-year old house next to my home. With each bang, a wall disintegrates and the painstakingly constructed home of the Lekhis takes its last breaths. The House of Lekhis is not named thus, but in our family that is what we called it. Ramneek Lekhi was a photojournalist employed with CBS News in the sixties. He was very keen to travel abroad and waited anxiously for a foreign assignment. A father to three young sons, he promised them toy-cars if he indeed went abroad.
And then came the dangerous assignment in May 1970 to travel to Cambodia. While his colleagues were apprehensive, as the news of massacres conducted by the Khmer Rouge had started filtering out, Lekhi was thrilled to go.
There were no direct flights to Cambodia so he had the opportunity to stop over in Hong Kong. He wrote to his sons from there that the toys he promised them had been bought, and he would be home soon after the assignment. One morning CBS producer Gerry Miller and four other journalists including Ramneek Lekhi left their hotel in Cambodia to drive straight into an ambush.
Their bodies were never recovered. Mrs Lekhi till date believes that her husband did not die, he must have been taken hostage, and that he will return one day. It is 43 years now and she has been told of the painstaking hunt in 1992 for the bodies of the journalists to bring a closure to the families of the missing men. The bodies were never found…Mrs Lekhi’s vigil will never end. With the substantial compensation that she got from the news organisation her husband worked for, she constructed the House of Lekhis.
A single mother to three sons, she brought them up with fortitude. Now a real estate developer is building swanky flats in those 500 square yards. Her house is gone but she will hopefully live in one of the flats. The others will be occupied by the rich of new India who may know little about the land where their new homes now are. Maybe somebody will tell them. Dreams and hopes are built with sentiment, not bricks.
My grandmother lived in a grand old house constructed by my grandfather. The house sat on top of hill and he owned one half of the hill. There was a fruit orchard with mango, coconut, papaya, guava trees, paddy cultivation, a well, a cowshed, a bee-yard, and a garage for his Morris Minor, a badminton court and so much space.
She lived there for many years after my grandfather died, being true to his memory not leaving her roots till she was physically incapable of maintaining the house. She sold it and moved to an apartment in Mangalore. Even now when I go to Puttur in South Karnataka, I drive past what used to be a house, now it is home to several people in apartments.
Urban India’s middle class dream is to own a house. In rural India, it might have been ‘do bigha zameen’ but in cities, it has always been “ek aashinaa dhoondte hain…aabodaana dhoondte hain”…. searching for a home, a nest. Drive to any suburb in any of India’s metros and you can see millions of apartments.
One building after another is coming up next to narrow roads, the economy promising each new generation of Indians — almost 400 million in urban India — self-advancement. Middle class dreams on EMIs allow them to move out of congested city ghettos. There is no stagnation of living standards evident here, as is being lamented in the West. As per Kundu Report, more than 26 million homes have been added in urban India in the last decade. But there is still a shortage of 18.78 million houses, 95 per cent of it for those at the bottom of the pyramid.
The steady growth in the Indian economy is a story nobody wants to tell in these unhappy times of gang rapes and corruption scandals. We are accustomed to complaining. And perhaps we should. It is healthy to demand and expect more — to work harder towards our aspirations.
Even as I type this, marble slabs are being unloaded into what was once the Lekhi’s garage. They had one Maruti in that garage, now each flat owner will probably own three cars and there will be no garage. People move up in life. And that is always a good thing. Maybe.
Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash