The earliest friends my father made when he came to Madras as a bachelor were M Krishnan, India’s most eminent naturalist and his wife Indumati Krishnan. Their home, Perunkulam House or PH, was a second home to me. In a city where we had no relatives, theirs was the closest I had to a grandparent’s home…

Krishnan believed that like animals, people also needed a space of their own. You had to take care that you stayed at the perimeter and did not stray into that private space of an animal. Indu and Krishnan respected each other’s territory, their different interests and pleasures…

The room furthest inside and its ante-chambers formed Indu’s living quarters. A gap between the wall and the sloping roof allowed a ribbon of sky and green trees to run along one side of the room. Breeze, gusts of it from the Bay of Bengal, was as much a presence in the house as people.

Central to the room, and Indu’s life, was her puja.

Among the many idols, the most precious item was a small naturally shaped stone shivalinga, whose contours matched that of Mount Everest. The tallest figure was a clay image of blue-skinned Krishna leaning against a white cow, a lovely expression on his face. When in time it broke, it proved irreplaceable.

Her bed topped by a mosquito net, mirror and dressing table with a silver-backed comb and brush set, two cupboards, a showcase with many different bric-a-brac and a rosewood bench filled the room. While her expensive silk saris or sentimentally precious ones were locked away in the squat almirah, her everyday cottons were piled neatly on the rocking chair. Indu never needed an iron for her saris. Folded, they were placed under the mattress and came out looking perfectly pressed.

Depending on the vagaries of the sun, the house dimmed and brightened.

If the sun played with the clouds, the house sank into gloom. If it dazzled, the house cheered up. Dimness and light were at constant play as one moved about the cottage. When one entered, one’s eyes adjusted from the white heat outside to soothing coolness. Inside, light reflected on the black stone of the floor,the slabs gleaming dully. Sometimes, on a wall, a spray of sunlight would ripple like water.

Indeed, there came a time when water flowed right into the house during the monsoon because the main road outside had been tarred repeatedly, raising its height. Indu sloshed about quite calmly, though the water ruined the lower half of the furniture.

I loved Indu’s room most of all because of the many, many photographs that hung on the walls, as well as the ‘paintings’ in embroidery – calendar prints brightened with silk thread, done by Indu’s mother, Manorama.

I could spend hours looking at them. Photographs of wildlife taken by Krishnan; of Krishnan when young with a full head of hair and round-rimmed spectacles; their son Harikrishnan as a schoolboy, Indu’s friends and relatives – all black and white. And a coloured portrait of Indu as a lovely young bride.

In an era before videos and digital cameras and smart phones, each of these photographs was precious; each held time and a story captive. I only had to point to a black-and-white photograph with yellowing edges and Indu would dip in and out of a lake of memories. Her marriage to Krishnan in 1937 was unusual for the times. He twenty-four, she just fifteen. He Tamil Iyer, she Maharashtrian Chitpavan. The birth of her only child Harikrishnan in 1938… Years were joined together by a thread created of the moment. Who could tell just which word or which thought would jostle another, dislodging a memory that belonged later or earlier in linear time?

A door at the back of Indu’s room led into the courtyard. Indu had always wanted the typical plant-holding platform, madam, built for her tulsi plant. One day Krishnan did just that and the tulsi was installed between her room and the entrance to the kitchen. Though the holder was comparatively new, at dusk when the kolam was drawn brightly in front of it, and the lamp lit and placed in the niche, golden in the oncoming night, the plant became an entity, alive. It was as though there was something eternal and unchanged in the house.

The kitchen was divided by a cupboard, into the cooking and dining spaces.

Two small windows set high in the wall and a skylight provided the only natural light near the stove. Open shelving on one side of the wall held the cooking vessels and plates and cutlery. In the years before Krishnan acquired a fridge, a small meat safe kept food cool and safe from ants. Before a square table and chairs were installed, meals were eaten seated cross-legged on a very low wooden plank – palakais. The seating was L-shaped then, people taking their place in a row as food was served.

Indu, who was never interested in cooking, was more than happy to let Krishnan take charge of the kitchen. It was not an uncommon sight for visitors to see Krishnan slicing vegetables into precise, symmetric pieces or stirring something over the stove while Indu sat at the table in the kitchen, chattering about this and that, quite secure in the knowledge that the meal Krishnan was about to prepare would be a delicious one.

The bathroom was just that, a room where one bathed, with a sink for washing.

The lavatory was Indian-style, in a separate shed outside and away from the kitchen, following the architectural rules of earlier times. When it became necessary for Indu to have the convenience of a western commode indoors so that she would not have to leave her room at night, it caused her a lot of inner conflict for the toilet chamber was separated from her puja by a thin wall.

The courtyard was occupied by the two essential grinding stones – the circular one with a hollow for idli batter, the flat slab for chutneys – and a hip-high sloping one for washing clothes. The electric grinder rendered obsolete the idli grinding stone, and so also the image of the feisty old cook, Shanmugam seated with one leg splayed in front of it, sari drawn up to her knees, rotating the smaller pestle with gusto. In later years, it sat there, heavy, a thing of stone, deprived of its nourishment. Even the pestle lay tilted at an angle of defeat.

One travelled through the day among these structures as from task to task, the rooms in Indu’s cottage reserved for the more pleasurable activities – of sleeping, dressing to go out, welcoming friends and communing with her gods.

Krishnan’s room upstairs was another continent as it were.

A flight of steps led to his easy chair at the very top, in the nook created by two low walls at the landing. Greetings were exchanged as one approached him, climbing the stairs reverentially, so that by the time one had reached him he was ready to plunge into conversation. Krishnan, usually clad in a chequered lungi, was often engrossed in his work but was always ready to put it aside and relax for a while. The only time when it was wise not to disturb him was when he was in his lair, the darkroom, developing prints. When I remember Krishnan, I think of him suspended in the inviting fold of that easy chair, smoking a cigarette.

Depending on what was preoccupying him at the time, he would begin to talk about it. In the course of his discourse, he would meander into other anecdotes and other tales so that by the time he finished the thought he had begun with, he might have linked together topics as diverse as the dismal cricket score, the heavenly sculptures of the Vijayanagara empire, the steep price of carrots and the exquisite puliodarai – tamarind rice – that the Parthasarathy temple in Triplicane is famous for. Each time I heard Krishnan speak about his adventures in the jungle or heard his retelling of an amazing experience, I told myself that I would make notes but, to my regret, I never did. The rasa was in hearing Krishnan narrate his life story.

To his right, the view of his neighbour’s backyard, and to his left, the steps leading down.

His paints, an ashtray, cigarettes and match-box laid out in front of him, he worked holding a clipboard. An abiding image is of him leaning forward in that very easy chair, his eye and hand intent on making a pen-and-ink sketch or watercolour drawing that would illustrate an article that he had written.

His other, more formal, workspace was inside his room – desk with a typewriter, negatives meticulously stored and labelled, and a chair in front of the bed. It was bright here, sunlight entering from many windows.

From the height of Krishnan’s room, the vast roof of the cottage was visible. The tiles that would have been red once, new and clean, were now dark brown. Here and there, a glimmer of red. Coated with moss, they shone in the rain, as also the rotting mass of leaves that had settled on their surface, impervious to the wind. Standing on the steps, looking at the empire of the roof, the array of tiles, it seemed incredible that Indu lived beneath it, so ancient did it look, vulnerable and brittle with age.

Over the years, Indu who was diabetic and had heart trouble, found it more and more difficult to climb the stairs to Krishnan’s room.

Krishnan, who was immersed in his work till the very end of his life, would be busy typing or sketching or writing or listening to Carnatic music. Indu would stand directly below his window and shout whatever she had to say and he would bellow back. They met at lunch, dinner and whenever Krishnan came down.

In their demarcation of ‘his’ and ‘her’ space, Indu and Krishnan were far ahead of their times.

Excerpted with permission from Madras, Chennai and the Self: Conversations with the City, Tulsi Badrinath, PAN Books.