Monday, September 19, 2011

Living with the Raj

What I loved about living in the century-old, British Raj-era houses. 

Space. The ceilings are twenty, thirty feet high, the bathrooms are big enough to literally swing a cat around 360 degrees, the vast expanse of floor - I literally learned to ride a bicycle indoors - the average Raj house is bigger than the average Mumbai jogging park. Barked shins don't exist, can't happen. 
A museum sense of history. They're filled with these awesome little clues about a bygone era and what life was like - the strips of metal on the ceiling from where the fans hang, stretching across the room, with a little wheel-and-pulley arrangement. That was the original support for the punkha - the sheet that would manually swing from end to end on it's castors, pulled by a rope leading out through holes and pipes in the ceiling (scars of which are still visible under the plaster) out into the servants' passageways, where one guy would stand patiently fanning all day. 

The cast-ron fire escapes attached to the back, ensuring a safe and rapid exit when the main (wooden) staircase went up in flames. 

The giant arches and carved pillars visible under plaster, now replaced by smaller windows and walls. Thick pegs in the bathroom walls where giant geysers and cast-iron cisterns once hung... and sometimes, still hang, creaking and groaning ominously. 

The furniture. Like the house, it's older than you, your parents, and likely your grandparents, and built so solidly it can withstand almost anything you throw at it. And perfectly built - not one warp, not one crack, not one sticking drawer or stuck door. 

Wooden windows covered in a quarter-inch-think layer of white paint, blurring the outlines, softening the angles... wire mesh to keep out bugs, with little wooden doors to give access to the latches, and thick iron bars to keep out anything else. The windows and doors themselves, over an inch thick, armed with massive, elongated bolts, built for the possibility of insurrection. 

Every room with multiple doors - infinite permutations in wandering around. None of this one-room, one-door concept. 
Vast empty expanses of wall, sometimes filled with giant posters of mountains and nature. At one time, there would have been trophies there. 

The walls so thick - over a foot and a half, easy - that you have proper windowsills. Perfect insulation, too - between a complete block of all the day's heat, fans on poles and excellent cross-ventilation, you don't need an AC - not that they'll work anyway, given the giant room size. 
Blue, green and yellow light trickling in though the ventilators in the somnolent afternoons, with the occasional sparrow rustling in their nests ensconced in them.  

Talking of sparrows, there's an entire ecosystem built into these houses - the clouds of bugs that emerge in the evenings around the lamps, battalions of geckos emerging from the wall plaster to feast on them, raucous cacophony of sparrows and mynahs in the morning, pigeons and parrots in the afternoon, crows in the evening and then the silent whisper of owls and bats in the evening, broken by wailing cats and distant dogs. Fish ponds with frogs croaking in the lawns. 

Ah, the lawns - ponds and rockeries, flower beds and herb gardens, an entire miniature irrigation system, fruit trees, shade trees, bushes and fences, manicured lawns... garden furniture and swings... massive verandahs and sweeping driveways. 

Did you know the doors are color-coded? Green for the servants' entrances, black for outsiders, and white for inhabitants? 
Giant pantries attached to the kitchen, with a ingrained smell of dust, paint, wood, cardboard, varnish and metal. 
In every room, the heavy tick of ancient clocks... 

Time hasn't moved in here for decades. It's a place that belongs to a different time, a different era, a different way of life with a different notion of what life's all about. 

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