Madam, aap ko samajh nahin aaya? He didn’t really mean that I hadn’t understood, though the poetic implication of it was profound. What the broker — showing me a house in south Delhi — really meant was “why on earth did I not like it?”
We had just finished looking at a prospective house in Panchsheel Enclave, which the broker thought was perfect for our “compact family” of two. Seeing the ground-floor house of the three-storey apartment, which shares a wall on either side with its neighbours, was like going to a horse dressage — it was trained to perform any task to the best of its abilities. Could the vitrified tiles have shone any brighter or the chandeliers hanging from POP ceilings been any more luminescent? The bathroom in the master bedroom came with the latest fittings; the marble walls sparkled in the artificial light. It all seemed perfect till I popped the question: “Where are the windows?” The broker looked incredulous. “Why do you need windows? Delhi is too hot to keep windows open in summers and too cold to keep them open in winters. There’s the AC to cool and heat the room,” he said, pointing triumphantly at the split 1.5 tonne that perched on the wall. Our speedy exit told him it wasn’t what we were looking for.
My partner and my nomadic existence in Delhi is nearly 16 years old and truth be told, house-hunting is pretty much like finding a partner. One needs to feel secure, be assured of ample space, know just how private or public one wants to be, see if it reveals itself differently at different times of the days — seasons even — and can carry the baggage and clutter of past memories lightly. That time plays a vital role in profiling our home life is often forgotten in our frenentic lifestyles. In 2016, the British Pavillion at the Venice Architecture Biennale presented “Home Economics: Five new models for domestic life”. The curators carved out five new ways to envision a house based on time — hours, days, months, years, decades. It offered an alternative to conventional domestic architecture and magnificently changed the way one would look at a home. We all know we don’t use all the spaces in our house at the same time. Sometimes, it’s the favourite bedroom where friends gather or around the dining table that official work gets done. The curators mentioned how they noticed beds were getting to be more popular than sofas, simply because they afforded multiple functions. How can the rest of the “unreal estate” that we carry like tortoises on our backs become better efficient?
I grew up in Bombay, in the western suburbs of Mulund, which still had hills in the region. Beyond the third and highest hill was the Powai lake. At the foothills, where my grandfather had built his house, is where all my learnings of what a house should be came from. Sliced along the contours of the slope, the house sat at multiple levels. In the centre of it all was the dog house, where our Doberman went to sleep. Her shelter was surrounded on one side by a concrete double-height jaali wall, and glass on three sides. On Sundays, the main living and dining area turned into a mini theatre hall, with neighbours and friends arriving for the 6 pm Hindi feature film on Doordarshan. This was before liberalisation and not every household had a television set. The three rooms of the house were at no point isolated from the sky, the trees or the ambient sounds. So perfectly choreographed were the spaces that our public-private lives converged and diverged into and from each other, quite often without the closing of doors. For a family of five it was perfect, as every childhood house is. One is not oblivious to the fact that Bombay has an elastic urbanity where space is a constant jostle, like the push and pull in a local train. Yet, not too long ago it had nooks and corners where one could store secrets and memories.
So, back in Delhi, when another broker showed us a “luxury apartment” that abutted a golf course and took me to the balcony to show me the manicured lawns, I asked him “Why can’t I see it from my bedroom?” The idea that you sleep in your bedroom, you socialise in your living space and balcony is the most restrictive idea of how a home should be. More importantly, that the greenery, if any, becomes as much a showpiece as the latest crystal collection is a worrying trend. We are all aware of the recent redevelopment project of government houses in Delhi’s Kidwai Nagar. Bereft of its old residents —the gulmohars, jamun and guava trees, a cordoned area of fading trees along the periphery of this soulless complex has a board that reads: “Adopted by NBCC (National Buildings Construction Corporation)”. It’s a “see-but-don’t-touch” greenery. You can’t build your memories around it.
When I look at houses in the city now, I’m often reminded of the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince. “Grown-ups love figures. When you tell them that you have made a new friend, they never ask any questions about essential matters. They never says to you, ‘What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?’ Instead, they demand: ‘How old is he? How much money does his father make?’ Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him.”
So, when the universal language of broker-hood declares that homes can be fit into 2BHK or 3BHK, one is left wondering if they can ever think outside the box. It’s true that age and size define our choices, but at each stage, we can demand more, imagine more. The power to imagine a home should come with the basic of light and ventilation. That is a house I will understand.