My memory of red-oxide is tinged with the sound it made.
There was a quality of foundation to that sound. A thick fatherliness. Solidity. Perhaps it came from the fact that it was mixed directly into cement, poured onto rigid ground, ironed with persistence, dried stern, before deemed terra really, really firma.
Anything that fell on red-oxide floors, fell heavily. Vases made almost musical sounds. Tantrums were exceptionally loud. And coins fell and rolled into impossible places with such crispness.
This ground felt like the Earth that Science speaks of – the one that actually offers an equal and opposite force, and goes on to demand reckoning as formidable. Jumping with abandon on red-oxide made feet tingle with guilt – even without the watchful eyes of disciplining aunts. Walking on it bestowed feet with a dull Bharatnatyam red. A sort of subliminal branding – spelling a home that rang MS’s Kausalya-Supraja each morning, smelled of tamarind & (forbidden) onion sambar each noon, and slept to a mallige-talcum headiness each evening.
I remember adding curls of white paint along the floor’s edges, and getting a rap on the knuckle for letting my imagination run in a few places.
Down the 90s, the red lost its lustre. A paradox, because as years wore on, red-oxide would acquire a glow that could be kissed alive by early morning sunshine.
Learning lessons from booming “flats”, and cashing in on descending prospective-tenants from exotic parts of the country, ambitious landlords began building homes floor upon floor while it was still legal. Red-oxide, quite a cheap alternative to many other materials, suddenly encountered a problem that was unheard of until rapid urbanization – specialization of labour. Red-oxide was an art, done by hand, and didn’t see mechanization for a long time – a window of opportunity that was not lost on competing materials. Factoring in vital things, like time, effort, and our inherent need of keeping-up-with-the-times, it was decided: this would be the age of Mosaic, the understated, clipped accent of a sufficiently English educated middle-class home.
To be truthful, I don’t like Mosaic. It lacks the seamlessness and careful grace that red-oxide had. Disruptions in red-oxide floors had the treads of thin, waif-like ropes. Mosaic floors, however, are exactly what urbania loves. Square after square. Building after building. Block after block. Feigned organization. Red-oxide could glide right around the bends, trace them with the dexterity of a finger. But the best Mosaic can do, is express curves as several clumsy quadrilaterals.
Summer on red-oxide floors had the exact feeling of sweet water from an earthen pot in the same summer. Fond memories include letting my skin steal some cold under my as-raised-as-aunt’s-eyebrow seam of cotton frock. I have shelled peas, played countless games of Ludo, and watched the TV’s reflection on this hallowed ground.
Sure, new homes are retracing metaphorical steps to where they started. It’s heartening to see online forums discuss the Do’s and Don’ts of DIY red-oxide. I get a feeling, though, that the story of red-oxide will follow that of block-print fabric. It’s waiting for a Fab India and a few activists to rescue it from oblivion. It’s waiting for its mall-organized, buffed-up-by-marketing ironic comeback.
I realize now. My only real grouse with red-oxide is this: if it’s not old enough, it doesn’t matter how much talcum I sprinkle – I can never slide on it.
Dec 08th, 2011.
Thanks Aadisht, for reminding me of this thing I’d written ages ago. ❤