Following is an account of the construction of my orchard house in Himachal I wrote for Mail Today.
When my father said he wanted to build a house in the orchards, I was surprised. What’s wrong with this one I said? We already had an orchard house. Though the house was a bit unplanned- with no attached toilets or modular kitchen it was still beautiful. It was in the middle of our apple orchards . It was glazed on three sides and had a spacious lounging area running around it. The kitchen was the old pahari-style, complete with a chulla where we burnt firewood to warm our hands and sometimes cook. The house had a huge gable with a spacious living room below it and an attic with splendid views of the apple orchard valley.
But my father was not satisfied. He wanted something modern. Something he had seen in the cities. He had imagined it all- : a big brick and mortar house near the roadside with two huge iron gates- (an entry and an exit gate for the car he said). A house with marble flooring, jacuzzi toilets, ornate staircases and arched corridors. A modular kitchen with a victorian fireplace replacing the good old chulla. In short everything our present house was not. My father’s mind was made. The new house had to be built. He could not be persuaded especially since most of our relatives and neighbors in the area had made or had started making new houses.
The Baghi -Ratnari belt in Shimla district where we have our orchards, is especially favorable for apple crop. It is located at 2400 meters above sea level and is about 80kms from Shimla. It has just the right altitude, the right temperature and the right soil for apple cultivation. The orchardists have flourished here in a relatively very short time and the only way to show new wealth in this remote place is either by buying expensive SUV’s or making fancy houses. But the new houses built here are modeled more on houses in Punjabi Bagh Delhi than on anything indigenous. Rococo ornate style is in and the local simplistic pahari architecture is out. My father was naturally influenced by the trend of the day.
And then he threw the volley. Our old orchard house would have to be demolished to get building material for the new one. That’s when I protested. You can make the new house I said but don’t pull down the old one. What will you do with this stodgy old house he wanted to know. I told him it could be a tourist attraction. People who appreciated it better could perhaps take it on rent. I explained, how holiday makers were fed up of congested hill stations that had all the problems of the cities they had come from. I told him how they sought peace and quite. And how village and nature tourism was catching up. But why will anyone come to this godforsaken place he exclaimed throwing his arms at the huge mountains around us. I lived in the city but for the sixty years of his existence, my father had woken up with these mountains framed in his windows. They were not going to impress him at this point in his life.
I gave an advertisement in the papers about the house and soon had dozens of people calling up. Some of them came all the way to see the house. For them, the idea of living in a house with apples hanging outside the bedroom window was as exotic a fantasy they had ever conjured. Some of them offered us rental for a room that is the going rate for a two bedroom house in South Delhi. My father was puzzled and the old house was saved.
The foundation stone of our new house was laid. This new orchard house was a compromise between my father’s modern flashy design and the simple plain architecture I had in mind. We could have our modular kitchen, modern bathrooms, the staircase and the fireplace but without any embellishments. The houses in the hills are predominately wooden. The forests provide the wood which helps keep the house warm in winters. Apart from the doors and the windows, the wood is used extensively for the ceiling, flooring and paneling.
Because so much wood is used there is a tendency to carve it. A simple plank of wood is not considered beautiful unless you have grooves running down it or some design embellished on it. The carpenters were happy with my father who let them do all that. But it took a lot of dissuading from me to stop them from doing so.
Making a house in the hills is not only an expensive proposition but a logistical nightmare. Most of the raw material for the foundation- the sand, the bricks, the stones, the iron has to be brought from the cities. Even delicate bathroom tiles and mirrors come in trucks and breakages cannot be avoided in the winding and bumpy hill road.
Since goods come from so far away there is no luxury to buy one thing at a time to see how it goes with the house. If one is shopping for the bathrooms you have to buy all the tiles and the fittings together. If you are shopping for the lighting you have to pick everything in one go. There is always something that doesn’t match and doesn’t fit. One has to go all the way to city to make the replacement.
The carpenters and the masons are not as efficient as you have them in the cities. Most of them are from plains and have little knowledge about hill architecture. They are especially wanting when it comes to making the sloping roofs we have in hill houses.
The local architect is however the least of the problems. In these parts were everyone knows everyone, the architect becomes almost a family member. Over time our architect Promod became less an architect and more a family hand. He not only helped us design the house but would also be at our beck and call for any errands. He did it all from fixing my laptop to being our key- keeper for our Shimla house.
The new house was made in almost three years. It is a good time since construction has to be suspended for almost four months between November and February because of snowfall.
In summers life in the orchards is good. The weather is just right and it’s the time when the apple crop is blooming. The fragrance of the ripening apples wafting in through the windows is a heady feeling. This sleepy place suddenly becomes brisk. The bees buzz around the blossoming flowers. Frisky butterflies and birds dash around for the nectar and the worm. There is fresh new grass in the meadows. The labourers pluck and grade apples singing soulful Himachali ballads.
Winters are fun but only if you are a tourist. The permanent residents here like my parents have braved them for all their lives to care about the aesthetics. The temperatures go well below zero and one has to constantly worry about heating, quilts, warm clothes and not catching the cold. You have to leave the tap dripping so the water pipes don’t freeze overnight. The electricity can snap for over a week if the snow breaks the cables or pulls down an electricity pole.
The house in the hills is made with winters in mind. It is ideally built around the movement of the sun so that it is facing the sun at all times. The kitchen where the hill-folk spend most of the time should have a lot of sunlight coming in. Apart from our individual ideas we tried to incorporated these basic rules in the new house. And between me and my father we are more or less satisfied.