We reached Jammu around nightfall. The contours of the city were dark and alien, the air damp and viscous. We were woefully unprepared for the dual assault of heat and humidity. The multiple layers of clothing we wore did not help alleviate matters.

In the truck, Papaji and my father shed their pherans. But in the taxi, out of a sense of propriety, my mother and Byenji kept them on and suffered. As we went deeper into the city, on our left, appeared a canal filled with murky, olive-green water. On our right was a market facade punctuated by alleys at regular intervals. These alleys led to Talab Tillo – the locality where Papaji’s cousin had found accommodation for us. Our taxi, following the truck, took a right turn and entered one of them. The road inside was narrow with open drains on both sides. Crumpled milk packets, straws, plastic bags, black slush and sewage peeking out of the gutters welcomed us to our new neighbourhood. A few minutes and a few turns later, the truck and the taxi came to a stop. We disembarked from the vehicles and were greeted by the sight of a dilapidated 12x12-foot hovel with a tin roof and crumbling walls.

This was our new home.

Byenji and my mother burst into sobs. With our move to Bagh-i-Mehtab four years ago, my grandparents and parents had finally escaped the cramped tenements they had spent most of their lives in. But now, once again, our fortunes had reversed. We were back at the starting line of a long and arduous race. Papaji, to comfort them, said, “This is temporary. We’ll find another place soon.”

The walls inside were lime green. Shreds of plaster peeled off in multiple places. It smelled of must and mould and was more of a storehouse than a room. Inside, we could barely stand without bumping into each other. The dimensions allowed only a single bed as furniture. Which, given my broken leg, was allotted to me.

Byenji began cleaning a corner of the room vigorously. She wanted to capture space for her new kitchen before it was claimed for any other purpose. As she swept and mopped, she muttered invectives under her breath:

‘May lightning strike these bloody militants, may lightning strike these bloody politicians, may lightning strike these mobs and rabble rousers!’

Having expunged the minutest particles of dust and dirt, Byenji opened the white bundle and placed the utensils, as many as she could, in her new kitchen. Papaji asked if it would be possible to make dinner. Byenji nodded. A portable gas stove, with a small red cylinder as a base and a golden brass burner, was brought into action. As she sat on a small wicker ottoman and started cooking, the exhaustion that had been catching up, took over. She abandoned the stove and lay down in a corner. The rest of us were tired too. So dinner was cancelled. We decided to make do with the kulchas we were carrying.

After the meagre, stale meal was over, my father helped me lie down on the bed.

Then Papaji, Byenji, my mother and father spread thin mattresses and bed sheets on the floor. When they all lay down, they had to adjust their elbows and knees to fit together like a human jigsaw puzzle. Even so, due to the exertions of the day, sleep came easily.

At some point in the night, we realized even this 12x12 space did not completely belong to us. We were woken up by Byenji’s blood-curdling shriek. Papaji quickly switched on the light, and we found her curled in a fetal position.

“Something brushed my foot! There’s something here!”

Papaji gently said, “It has been a long day. Your mind is playing tricks on you.”

As Byenji began to refute these allegations, I spotted the miscreants who had assaulted her. From my raised vantage point, I could see two fat rats scurrying around the room. I quickly pointed them out to my father. He picked a broom and tried to chase them out of the room. To avoid the attack, the duo rapidly teleported under my bed. My father crouched on his knees and swept the broom under the bed to draw them out. It was of no use. Masters of stealth, the rats had vanished.

“Try to sleep tonight,” Papaji said, “we’ll set up a trap tomorrow.”

But how could we sleep with these abominations roaming around freely? I imagined them sneaking out of crevices and attacking me with their sharp fangs and dirty claws.

Sleep was not an option. Byenji, too, seemed hesitant to shut her eyes in the proximity of these vermin. It was decided that the bulb, with its pale yellow light, would be kept on. Those who wanted to sleep would cover their eyes. At some point in the night, my vigilance faltered and I dozed away.

Dawn arrived with a new set of revelations. We realized that while exile meant a piercing longing for home, it also meant a host of practical problems. Like water. Papaji, the earliest riser amongst us, discovered that neither our room, nor the tiny cement cubicle that masqueraded as our bathroom, had taps, showers or even pipes. To gather water for our morning ablutions, we had to trek around a hundred metres, to a tube well. There we had to manually pump out the ground water and fill our buckets. Papaji could not make more than one trip because of his bad back, so it fell upon my father to do multiple rounds of the tube well. He ferried bucket after bucket of water so that all of us could freshen up.

Papaji was the first one to take a bath. After drying himself with a towel and changing into a fresh set of kurta pyjama, he sat down for his prayers. He began with his favourite litany, a shiv-stuti which he rendered in his simple sing-song voice.

“Goram harkam narkam por keshav kalam shivaram, mamay dinam kampay natham…”

Many shlokas and bhajans followed. After he was done with the prayers, Papaji offered libations to all his ancestors invoking the date and their gotra, “Chatur mase shukl pakshe soman mudgale…” In Bagh-i-Mehtab, he would pour water over the Tulsi plant in our garden using a kumbh gad. But out here, in the parched lands of Jammu, he had to make do with the wild bushes that grew near our room.

Another daily hassle was the toilet. The cement bathroom was too small to host one, so a separate 4x4 structure performed that task. Its walls were built out of scrap metal, plastic boards and cardboard signs. There was no door. The only thing standing between our privacy and the world was a thin military green canvas flap. Inside, there was neither a Western commode nor an Indian style toilet. There was just a hole in the ground. A small repurposed distemper bucket, which had to be pre-filled, was the sole source of water. Flies buzzed around the toilet at all hours, and during the day the temperature easily climbed to 45 degrees Celsius.

And then there was the smell. A rotten miasma that rose from layers upon layers of compressed waste slowly putrefying in the Jammu heat.

Before entering this chamber of olfactory horrors, I would draw in the deepest breath I could. Then I would enter and strain to finish in the minimum number of inhalations possible. My plastered leg further complicated the process. When I had to go, a stool, with its top cut off, was placed atop the hole. I would sit on this rickety contraption, hoping it would not break down. Byenji and my mother complained about the toilet incessantly. Byenji, who sanitized every surface she came in contact with, was especially mortified with the prospect of entering this den of grime and slush every day.

“Just a few days more, until we find a better place,” Papaji said to placate her.

Excerpted with permission from This Our Paradise, Karan Mujoo, Penguin India.