The environment in which a house finds itself contributes fundamentally to the feel and ambience of what we call a home. Up in the hills and the mountains, houses generously lend themselves to this aspect because the outside and the inside are always in a conversation with each other, the mountains of becoming synonymous with home
While debating an appropriate title for this article, I once again committed the error of thinking positively about the word ‘homeliness’ for the nth time. For some unknown reason, dictionaries equate homeliness with the unattractive, the non-beautiful, and the inelegant, although another meaning does try to compensate by referring to ‘being homely’ in the sense of being ‘unpretentious’. I have often wished that such confusion regarding the word never existed in the first place, so that ‘homeliness’ would simply and unambiguously imply something warm, happy, cheerful, and beautiful in a kind of wholesome totality. For ‘home’ is a precious word and idea, even as it may mean different things to different people. Amply romanticised in culture since the beginnings of history and often intrinsically tied to the concepts of belonging and identity, ‘home’ fundamentally indexes the lived notions of comfort, ease, safety, and bonhomie. Homes make us as much as we make our homes.
I first became conscious of home as a special concept during my childhood when my father’s transferrable job began introducing me to different parts of the Himalayas of North India. For as long as I can remember, home has struck as a fertile, multilayered notion, that invariably speaks in different degrees and intensities through a variety of markers. While the entity of the ‘house’ is possibly the most obvious transmitter of home, the environment which the house finds itself in — a neighbourhood, a locality, a village, a town, a city — equally, if not more, contributes to the feel and ambience of home. Hilly regions generously lend themselves to this aspect because the outside and the inside are always in a conversation with each other. Views from one’s windows matter as an essential part of the house itself, as does the last ray of the sun peeling away from the flank of a distant hill, so that pahaad (mountains) routinely become synonymous with ghar (home).
India being a largely tropical country dominated by plains, heights continue to signify a much loved and often revered ‘other’. Hill people themselves are conscious of this aspect, and it is common to find countless summits serving as homes to Gods and Goddesses and the powers beyond. I am yet to meet a person who hasn’t smiled at hearing that I belong to the hills, specifically Shimla. Over the years, I have come to cherish this instinctive response, delighting in how the name of a hill station sends my listener on a memory trip to some or the other hills for a few seconds. “Jahaan ki yaadein ab bhi taaza hain” (whose memories are still fresh), as they invariably add. Conversely, I am yet to meet a person from the hills who doesn’t exude a sense of satisfaction at voicing his or her connection with the highlands. This is true of not only the Himalayas but also of people belonging to other raised terrains.
Mihir Vatsa, a friend and poet from the Hazaribagh plateau in Eastern India, makes me aware of similar claims to what might be called “landscape intimacy” or “topophilia” in his beloved upland, whose folk too bear witness to a “ghar ki feeling” (feeling of home). It is almost as if hills and mountains themselves prompt you to think of them in distinctive yet familiar terms, terms that naturally mature in the currency of home.
Hill stations came into existence with the consolidation and expansion of the British empire in the Indian subcontinent. The heat and dust of the plain-based cities triggered the cartographers and travellers of the East India Company (and then of the Crown) to search for cooler climes that lay in high areas spreading across the length and breadth of the colony. By the middle of the 19th century, well-known hill stations, such as Shimla, Darjeeling, Mussoorie, Ooty, and Nainital, had started gaining attention in popular consciousness, established as they were in the image of a ‘home away from home’. These stations were consciously meant to evoke the ambience of the British countryside, natural and cultural, so that European templates of architecture and social customs got transposed to a foreign territory to generate something new in the lens of the familiar. Unlike the precolonial mountainous establishments that sprouted along rivers in valleys (Kullu, Chamba, Kangra, to name a few) — water being the fundamental source for the seeding of civilisations — colonial hill stations shifted the very imagination of urban geography, preferring to germinate at the top of mountains and along ridges. Such positioning was synonymous with making grand statements about imperial might and supremacy, and because hardly any hill station was designed for the native, indigenous population, the latter got shoved aside to the haphazard tiers sloping down the hills. Interestingly, however, native-born discrimination originating much before the arrival of the British came into play as well, and the haphazard tiers themselves developed a hierarchical pattern, so that the topmost layer would be occupied by the higher castes and those at the bottom by the ‘untouchables’. From a distance, therefore, a typical ‘Indian’ hill station would echo not only colonial splendour and oppression through its magnificent buildings that filigreed the ridges, but also Indian bias wrapped up in a sore, unplanned look — a testimony to imperial indifference towards urban planning for the common Indian. As my brother describes this predicament, hill stations bore the look of “a beggar wearing a crown”.
Post-Independence, however, has been a different story, as all colonial hill stations have metamorphosed into as ‘Indian’ towns and cities as any other. The transformation is a complex one, full of fascinating points and idiosyncrasies that can easily fill a book. The most telling of these is the deepening of the affectionate claim of ‘home’ by the common indigenous population, for most of whom such spaces embody freedom, joy, and satisfaction. From once being the prerogative of the whites, hill stations have come a far way even though some people continue to associate places like Shimla and Mussoorie with an ‘elite’ atmosphere, owing to the few famous Indians residing there: This actor, that artiste, and that erstwhile maharaja. But like much else, this elite has itself become the stuff of local folklore, so that it is not uncommon to find the ‘non-elite’ shedding light on the ‘hill life’ of the crème de la crème with a vivacity typical of friendly storytelling. Hence, the generation of the ubiquitously found highland phrase: “Everyone knowing everyone”.
But the invention of such sentiment has also to do with the relatively smaller size of the hill stations to those of the cities, as well as with the lanes and trails that crisscross the hills to connect with the Mall Road — the lifeline of all major hill stations, which daily conduit the movement of their residents and visitors. Connections blossom on these Malls that play home to delightful architecture and a host of shops, restaurants, offices, and bakeries. Yet another colonial legacy, bakeries too thrive with their own indigenisation, and it is a pleasure to see people of all classes and hues buy cakes, pastries, breads, savouries and the other so-called ‘foreign’ dishes with the same warmth and sometimes explicit excitement as purchasing the other, more Indian stuff. When visitors from the plains return to their abodes, they fondly recall the eventful treks they had across these Malls in thrilling and occasionally hyperbolic terms: “Itnaa chaley hum!” (We walked so much!). For “Mall par jaana must hai!” (It is a must to go to the Mall) is almost an innately felt duty, as all roads lead to the Mall! The freedom of movement along the connector of the Mall democratises a colonial legacy on an everyday basis, but such democratisation comes with its own interesting oddities. At a time when major cities of the country have been renamed to preserve an indigenous ‘ring’ (Calcutta to Kolkata, Bangalore to Bengaluru, Bombay to Mumbai), Shimla’s Mall continues to be known as ‘the Mall’ (like other hills stations’), even though post-Independence it was recast as Lala Lajpat Rai Marg after the famous Indian leader whose statue still dons the town-centre. Then again, the Ridge, Shimla’s largest public space presided by the Christ Church and the Gaiety Theatre, retains its name despite the decades-old change to Nehru Maidan.
Notwithstanding outdoor pleasures, the ‘house’ still remains a most compelling symbol of the feeling of being ‘at home’ in hill stations. The much-touted aphorism that “a house is built by bricks, but a home is built by hearts” perhaps needs a little tweaking in the case of highlands because the phrase presupposes a necessarily inferior status for material ingredients in contrast to heartfelt emotions. Materiality, however, matters. Anyone even remotely interested in architecture and urban planning can provide an insight into the tones, densities, textures, and indeed, feelings associated with the elements of building, be they brick, stone, metal, wood, glass... you name it. Like the local artisans of the time, the colonisers of the 19th century also carefully assessed the materials and designs that went into the making of their houses. But for all their foreign look and appeal, Shimla houses developed on a fine intermixing of Himalayan and British aesthetics.
The indigenous dhajji dewari timber-framed structures undergirded by stone and earth infill were melded with the floor plans of European Romantic era cottages to issue something new, something unseen in the history of architecture. A friend and famed Shimla historian Raaja Bhasin warmly labels the cross-currents of Shimla buildings as “that dearly loved, adopted child — mine, but not mine”.
When the celebrated traveller of British India, Emily Eden, arrived in ‘Simla’ in the late 1830s for the first time, it was after settling in her new house Stirling Castle atop Elysium Hill that she pronounced the still-nascent town “as the best part of India”. In her judgment, the comforts of domesticity effortlessly flowered into a larger, general perspective on quality and well-being, and it is this relationship that I still witness in the old-time residents of Shimla in the contemporary age.
Since the time I turned into a cultural ethnographer and photographic archivist of my hometown, I have had the wonderful privilege of entering many different households of Shimla-waasis that thrive with countless stories and provide material anchorage to the sense of identity. While houses essentially signify the ‘personal’, they simultaneously grow into a testimony of the ‘social’. Such is their aesthetic diversity that each of them contributes to the making of the ‘character’ of Shimla. As a word, ‘character’ continually impregnates the concept of a hill town, as if the house itself urges us to put it on par with humans like a sentient entity. My collection of people’s personal histories frequently begins and returns to some or the other component of home: When was it built, how was it built, which room provides the best warmth, which window lends the best view, where did the fireplace exist, when did the particular table and dinner set get purchased, and so on. While many of these houses belong to the rich, a number of them are also inhabited by the middle class, the latter tracing their ownership to the fall in the prices post-Independence when buying or building an individual house with a small, open patch wasn’t such an expensive venture. Today, as space shrinks, population explodes, and urban planning wreaks havoc with its outlandish imagination, these houses have entered the realm of imagination, evoking cosiness, stability, and quietness that are otherwise becoming things of the past.
Perhaps their claim to imagination has to do with the simple fact that they fit into the template of a quintessential house, complete with gables mirroring the triangles of the background mountains, large windows, brick and stone chimneys, and hipped and ridged roofs, which all of us learned to draw when we were small. As French philosopher Gaston Bachelard beautifully put in his classic work, The Poetics of Space (1958), the intimacy of the house “guides” us back into our childhood, and childhood “is certainly greater than reality”.
Cinema often cashes in on this connection, two fine examples being Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black (2005) and Imtiaz Ali’s Tamasha (2015). While Black depicted the growth of a young, physically challenged girl in amiable edifices such as Woodville Palace and the Punjab Circuit House, Tamasha traced the journey of a dreamer and storyteller using another colonial era property perched near the town’s famous Christ Church. Such is the visual and affective power of Shimla homes that when you visit the Film City in Mumbai (which I did some years ago), a ‘Shimla house’ greets you there as well, sequestered in a leafy, elevated corner, and made to stand in as a surrogate of a real hill structure.
But along with its visual currency, an archetypal, imaginary hill home perhaps also embodies a sense of rhythm that further bespeaks harmony in an almost musical manner. For the interconnected feelings of well-being and intimacy aren’t just what can be seen but also realised in the mould of a melody.
German writer Goethe’s famous maxim, “Music is liquid architecture; architecture is frozen music”, perhaps requires a keen consideration, for it is this equation that the typical image of a highland haven repeatedly plays out through its intimate claims to space. The recent long advertisement for Saregama Carvaan, a modern electronic version of the erstwhile humble radio replete with Hindi film songs of yore, too uses an enchanting ancestral home, Sunnymead, belonging to a dear Shimla friend, Madhavi Sanghamitra Bhatia. Deeply sentimental, the commercial literally conjures the music of living in the hills as the passage of time leads to the loss of a loved one (a wife and a mother who is fond of singing) paving way for the advertised product, with the house imparting its own elegant harmony to the harmonies of the transistor. As the music softly lulls the bereaving husband to sleep and sows the seeds of newer beginnings for the son, the voiceover concludes with a nod to yaadein (memories) emitted by the transistor. For, after all, it is in the acts of memory-making, musical and otherwise, that the intimacy of being at home eventually crystallises.
The writer is finishing a PhD in English Literature and Material Culture Studies at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge