Friday, December 15, 2006

the house

The house straddled an entire block and faced a park to its north. It was bounded by streets on all four sides. over to the right, across one of the streets, was a giant well, used by the municipal corporation to supplement the town's water supply. It was more a water tank and less of a well, originally built by my great-grandfather when the properties beyond the street were also his. They had been sold off long before I was born, and now served as accomodation for about thirty households. The days of my childhood summers were punctuated by the coming and going of water tankers as they filled up at a small pumping station located at the edge of the well. For entirely unexplainable reasons, this fascinated me, and I spent countless hours sitting by the window closest to the well. Two generations of the clan, including my father, had learnt to swim in that tank. I am told they used old car tyre tubes as flotation aids.

My great-grandfather was a barrister who went on to become judge of the high court. An anglophile, and later in life a born-again orthodox brahmin, he built a house to emulate the mansions of mother england, right there in the dusty plains of India- replete with a big fireplace in the central hall to ward off winter temperatures that went down to a supposedly freezing 6 degrees Celsius. When you entered the main hall, having passed under the mughal style arches of the front verandah, and the big front door that could be fastened shut with big iron bolts much like the door to a castle, the first thing you noticed were the trophies on the walls - chital and a barasingha, from his and my grandfather's hunts. It was an elegantly furnished room, full of handcrafted wooden recliners, a big octagonal central table, and an old brass telephone.

Above it was the upstairs hall, its walls covered with portraits of seven generations of forefathers, more trophies and two antique guns. As a kid, I was spooked by the upstairs hall, and never went there unaccompanied. Family stories about my long dead great-grandmother who paid visits to the family there only made it worse.

Behind the main hall, and beyond the stairs that led upstairs and to the basement (another eerie place - it was unlit and had a vault with the family jewels), was another verandah that had a swing in it - another favorite place for me to pass time. And then there was the central courtyward at the back with a small well in it, flanked on two sides by the east wing and the west wing of the house. The west wing had the dining hall and the kitchens on the first floor, and bedrooms on the second. The east wing had bedrooms on both floors. Since my great-grandfather had eleven children and he planned it as a home for all generations to come, the house had 35 bedrooms.

His plans never worked out - he himself stayed in a government house in another city even after the house was built, and all his brothers and all but one of his children (my grandfather) flew the nest and settled in other places, and most of those bedrooms were occupied only for a brief period in the 1930's. By the time i was born, my grandfather had let out the rooms that had independent access to the central courtyard. The others were locked up and left to gather cobwebs. For me, it was fascinating to have G, the head servant of the house open up those rooms one by one and explore them - many of them had never really been cleared out when their original occupants had left - the furniture was shrouded up, and if you pulled off the shrouds, you would see, through clouds of dust, stuff that had been essentially untouched since the thirties.

I remember finding a set of tablas in those rooms once, but nobody could recall whom they belonged to. Even today I like to imagine that the ghosts of my forefathers emerge from their portraits in the upstairs hall, and get together in those rooms in the dead of the night, and reclining on the beautiful wooden beds, have private music recitals, all the while shaking their heads at the things that kids of my generation are up to.

Another exciting discovery was that of a balcony that could be accessed from one of the second floor bedrooms - a balcony that I had never seen from the outside. How could I have seen it? It was on the giant well side of the house and we kids weren't allowed to play on that side because of all the tanker traffic. Anyway, discovering that balcony made the nine year old me realize what columbus must have felt like.

In the long row of rooms that fringed the south end of the courtyard lived the fifteen or so servants that were needed to keep the house in order. A tour of these rooms revealed interesting things. Here was the gardener's room, full of old gardening equipment - there, the cook's apartments, containing a big stone mill used for grinding wheat - a 'chakki' so huge that it must have taken superhuman strength to operate.

The house remained the birthplace of two generations of children in the family (although i was born in a maternity home, i was taken there immediately upon my birth, and true to family custom, spent my first six months there). But in many ways, it never served its purpose. My great-grandfather expired while still living in a house provided by the government, my great-grandmother in a hospital far away from home. My grandfather and grandmother themselves spent their last years in a cramped (by their standards) Bombay apartment.

The sad thing about ancestral houses is that nobody has any real use for them these days. There is a risk of squatters taking over unoccupied property, and large pieces of real estate in the prime area of a fast growing tier 2 city are in great demand. Old houses are also expensive to maintain. And when their owners live hundreds and thousands of miles from them and are unable to visit them more than once every couple of years, (and in my case, well over eight), they are usually disposed off. In most cases, they are replaced by big boxy commercial complexes.

The house will no longer be in a few months. All I can hope for is to salvage some of the furniture, and most of the memories.

7 comments:

heh? ok said...

everyone has some of these...ragtag bunch of cousins chasing each other through a cramped, rented house during bitterly cold shillong winters, those are the ones i remember. strange how one never felt the cold back then.

Priyanka said...

Hey, thanks for dropping by my blog.
Your ancestral house sounds lovely, straight out of a story.
and, i suppose, the pragmatic thing is to let go of the house, but you (and the unborn generations of your family) will be losing a lot more than you gain...

Anil P said...

I tried imagining what it must be like, in that big place, almost like a story from faraway place. The story is repeated in Goa, where large ancestral houses are under lock and key because folks migrated, possibly with the thought of returning before realising that it might never be. So they're being pulled down.

I would be interested in seeing photographs of your house.

Tachyoson said...

dont houses have a life too ? its really sad that in the rush to jam the ever burgeoning masses we are wiping out large sections of history.

whoever said "how can we know where to go unless we know where we've been" must be speaking for us.

Amarula said...

am sorry for the house...

Heh Heh said...

heh2: shillong? ah. tumi baangali?

priyanka: true. its sad, but i have to let it go.

anil p: the story is repeated over most of india, i think

tachyoson: its sad, but inevitable, dont you think?

amarula: its okay. i'm not particularly sorry about it :)

tangled said...

Oh!

But have you no pictures, please?