We have to admit, when we did the interviews for this story, our faces were just plain green with envy. There isn’t a soul in the world who doesn’t, at some point in her or his life, dream of the perfect home. Sometimes that dream is so detailed that our perfect homes are even furnished, down to the last coffee table coaster, exactly as we want them. Some of us long for splendid, luxurious, lazy isolation, far away from people. Some of us yearn for a healthy, busy life, where we’d take care of all our needs ourselves. Some of us imagine overlooking the cities we love. Almost all of us literally build castles in the air.
For most of us, however, those castles remain in the air. A lovely day-dreaming escape from the everydayness of our lives. But some people acquire their castles for real. And these are the people we’ve featured in this story. Three of them live in penthouses. Four are farmhouse addicts.
So what do penthouses and farmhouses have in common? It’s simple. Space. Different kinds of space, yes, but space for their inhabitants to live the kind of lives they want. For hardcore urbanites, nothing works better than a penthouse. You’re in the city, but above it. You have almost a birds-eye view of the metropolis you belong to, yet the concrete jungle that exists at ground level seems softer, nicer... the grime of reality disappears. And ahead of you is the horizon, stretching far, far away. But if city life doesn’t suit you, a farmhouse could. There, there’s space of a different kind. Definitely ground level, but earthy, not grimy.
Chances are, when you read this story, your face, like ours, will be just plain green with envy. Never mind. Maybe you’ll come across one more feature to add to your own castle in the air. And maybe you’ll acquire your own castle one day.
A new point of view
It’s like touring an art gallery. Swapan and Sreya Seth’s penthouse home in Gurgaon is spacious and stark – and stocked with interesting pieces of art. Well, art is their passion and their home reflects that. “Most of our friends are confused by things in our house,” says Sreya. “They keep asking us if this or that is art or a functional item. For instance, we have a chair made out of a spool in the entrance foyer and our friends always ask if they can sit on it.”
The couple shifted from their three-bedroom apartment in the same building to the penthouse on the 19th floor a few months ago. The 6,500 sq. feet duplex penthouse gives them the space to display all their collected artwork. “In the flat, we couldn’t display the sculptures and paintings so they were kept in a gallery in the building. Now, each piece has enough space,” says Swapan, CEO of the advertising agency Equus Red Cell.
Their favourite installation, One Thousand Tears, is displayed in the entrance foyer. The installation consists of a thousand small glass bottles, each containing a liquid of the composition of tears, lined up in rows. On every bottle is one word that describes what drives one to tears. “Where could we have kept this installation in a flat? It is fragile!” says Sreya. Their penthouse also houses art pieces that are reflective of the people living in it. It was Swapan’s idea to have a black painting called A Pair Of Lungs on the drawing room wall and a series of pictures of an asthmatic man breathing. “Swapan smokes so A Pair Of Lungs is reflective of his lungs, he says,” Sreya laughs. “And our son is a bit asthmatic, hence the breathing man.”
There’s lots of other artwork, the display made possible by space. And there’s a lot of space in the Seths’ penthouse. There are three large bedrooms, each with a sit-out area and a semi-walk-in wardrobe, a gallery on the upper floor, an entrance gallery, a drawing room, a dining room, a guest room on the lower floor... So much space that, often, says Swapan, the family can be home for hours without laying eyes on each other. “I have to get in touch with my sons Reyhan and Sirhaan by phone!” says Swapan. “So I’ve instituted a rule – all of us must meet every evening to spend time together.”
Their new home works well for both Sreya and Swapan. Sreya grew up in large bungalows and always wanted space. Swapan, on the other hand, wanted his children to live in a condominium setting with a community culture where they could interact with other children. The penthouse fulfills both desires. With its spacious sit-outs filled with plants, the duplex apartment looks like a bungalow on the 19th floor.
“My most favourite thing about it is the opportunity it gives me to sit outside and sip tea, watching the sun set,” says Sreya. “It’s beautiful and very peaceful. This you can only do in a penthouse.”
Woman on top
When she first stepped into this apartment five years ago, the actress didn’t even notice the terrace. “Having grown up in colonial cantonment bungalows, all I craved in Mumbai was space,” she says.
This is the apartment I had imagined since I was 16 years old,” says actress Celina Jaitley. “I made a wish one day and it’s been granted.” Living on the top floor of a building in suburban Mumbai, Celina has a view most Mumbaikars would kill for. Stretching before you, as you walk into her penthouse, is the gently heaving Arabian Sea, broken by the deep green of the mangroves of Madh Island.Celina can see it from the tiny balcony that abuts the cosy sitting area of her living room, and from the terrace that adjoins it. But the view inside her apartment (which also has a narrow room filled entirely with shoes) is as eye-catching as the view beyond.
Celina has a fascination for the antique and nothing in her living / dining room is less than 100 years old – except for an upright piano given to her by her parents, because the old baby grand piano she loves would have looked out of place. “I’m inspired by vintage Victorian villas,” Celina says. “Most of what I have I inherited from my grandfather. So every piece here, including the gramophone and the painting of St Xavier with baby Jesus, has a story.”
A penthouse combines the conveniences of an apartment building with the space of a bungalow. It was a must for us.
The terrace pool was a bonus, but the penthouse was a must. “A penthouse combines the features of a flat and bungalow,” says 25-year-old Nikhil Agarwal, assistant vice president with his family transport business. “But since it’s in a building, electricity, security, etc., is all taken care of.” The duplex apartment, designed by Anjali Goel, founder of the interior decorating firm La Sorogeeka, with five rooms, two terraces, lobbies, puja room and servants’ quarters, easily accommodates the family consisting of NK Agarwal, his wife Madhu, son Nikhil, daughter Samiha and his mother. Their favourite part? The terrace, with its pool, water bodies and greenery.
What is it that drives some people to abandon the addictive madness of city life for a semi-rural idyll? Supriya Thanawala tells us.
Living in in the heart of nature was a dream – and a quest – for filmmaker Mansoor Khan. He pursued it for almost 25 years before it finally materialised. After finishing his studies in the US and returning to India, all the young director wanted was to get away from the concrete jungle of the Indian city. Here he is now – in his own proper farmhouse in Coonoor, a short distance from Ooty.
But Khan is not the only one who did not allow his dream to die. Many people today want nothing more than the opportunity to break away from the rut of the daily drill – and a farmhouse seems like the perfect solution. But how many of us really do it? And what exactly is the alluring charm of a farmhouse that drives some people to abandon the addictive, churning madness of city life that others so willingly drown themselves in?
“I’m terribly anti-urban,” says Khan, the director of memorable Hindi films like Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, Josh, and Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar. “I cannot understand the madness of urban life, and find it surprising how people like it. I think that life here is much richer. I’ve always loved open spaces and never liked big cities, so the decision to move was a very clear one for me.” For those who have made that choice, there’s seldom any looking back.
Aside from the vast, green, open spaces, being in touch with nature and living in an ecologically healthy environment, living in a farmhouse can also give you psychological and emotional satisfaction that can be creatively fulfilling. William Dalrymple, author of a number of books on India, says that his most recently rented farmhouse in Delhi, at Jonapur near Mehrauli, is where his latest book, Nine Lives, was both conceived and written.
Cities and beyond
“I’m a country boy,” grins Dalrymple, who grew up in Scotland and moved to India with his wife Olivia sometime in the mid-’80s. “Back then, we lived in a small apartment at Nizammuddin, which was right in the middle of town. But as soon as we had kids, we decided to move out and rented our first farmhouse at Kapashera,” he says.
For Dalrymple, living in a farmhouse is essential to his experience as a writer. “There’s tremendous space, you can walk about, and you can grow your own vegetables – what more does one need? I simply can’t imagine moving back to an apartment,” he says. “We only need to worry about making sure that cities are able to continue sustaining farmhouses. Luscious bungalows are being brought down, but it’s important these spaces remain.”
Dalrymple and some others believe that the maddening city can be juxtaposed with the quiet chirping of birds. But there are others – like Khan – for whom that kind of compartmentalising will never be any fun. “Living in a farmhouse near a city is simply not the full experience,” says Khan. “At first, I tried for a piece of land in Alibaug (close to Mumbai), but it didn’t really materialise. That’s when I decided to go all out and go really far from the city – because that was the whole point of moving to a farmhouse, anyway. The idea was to go away.” And Dalrymple, who wants his solitude too, despite a range of acquaintances and friends living nearby in Chhatarpur, wouldn’t go as far as calling it a neighbourhood or a community either. “The point is to get away rather than get together,” he says.
Khan and his wife Lisa, who live with their two children in the Coonoor farmhouse, have been working hard on their space over the last four years. They have their own cheese-making workshops, gobergas plant, cows and goats, as well as a recently conceptualised farmstay. “The process has been a huge learning experience,” says Khan. “There’s so much that needs to be continuously taken care of: making sure monkeys and animals don’t knock off the bees for honey, taking care of the nitty-gritty of the cheese business, the billing, designating work, interacting with people – none of all this could have been rushed.” He adds: “We’ve spent effort on every tiny thing – from building the pond, the cottages, the cheese cottage, the cowshed, as well as our website that details everything available here, and which now has loads of visitors.”
What you want
The environment and good health are perhaps the most important things for Khan, and his farmhouse gives him some control over these elements of life. Plus, it’s a gentler life, and he likes that thought. “A lot of people today want the same thing – even if our culture is yet very urban,” says Khan. “So many tell me that I’m ‘living their dream’, but that they have commitments holding them back – work, business, family – and they are unable to make the jump. It’s not always easy,” he says.
His own children, who are spending their formative years being conditioned in the farmhouse environment, studying at a nearby school, are imbibing the values of this lifestyle, and that’s what Khan wanted. “I hate elitist schools, and I’m happy with the school they are in right now, which is located some 20 kilometers away from where we live,” he says. “It has a nice outlook, and I like the place.”
Summer is business time for the Khans. Their farmstay option is beginning to thrive, even though they announced it on their website, www.acres-wild.com , around last month. “People will get to know what it’s about slowly: they’re still used to the concept of guest houses and homestay, but this is different,” says Khan. “One can experience the entire life of the farm while living here on a holiday: watch cows, learn to make cheese, have a breathtaking view, and experience the feeling of being away from Coonoor. It depends on what your priority is: if you’re coming here, then you should know why.”
And it’s true: a lot more people are beginning to see the beauty of living away from cities. Ranu Kapoor, a landscaper in Mumbai, used to have a farmhouse at Kamshet, near Lonavala, some years ago. She sold it later because it was getting more and more difficult to maintain it – her age and health had begun to interfere. “People thought I was crazy when I first decided to buy a farmhouse – they thought I was mad that I wanted to live in this completely different world: amidst beauty and nature,” she recalls with a laugh. “And when I found the place that my heart was set on, it was a lovely experience. It faced a lake, and there was nobody for miles and miles around; I lived there all alone.”
It made her happy in a way she could never have been, back in Mumbai. “I was amidst birds and nature and I felt one with God. It felt like heaven; it was when I realised that there is something like the sound of silence – it really does exist,” she says. She may be back in the city now – a more practical choice for her age – but she still makes sure that her surroundings are peaceful, spacious and lovely. She would give anything to keep her bungalow in suburban Chembur.
It’s no surprise then that the demand for farmhouses has shot up by a whopping 50 per cent over the last ten years, says S K Jha, estate agent and proprietor of Gulmohar Estates in Delhi. But more foreigners than Indians are going in for farmhouses. “Both the investment as well as the returns are great where farmhouses are concerned,” he says.
Punam Kalra, an interior and furniture designer in Delhi, abandoned her Lajpat Nagar house to move to her farmhouse in Mehrauli. “Lajpat Nagar has changed – what used to be a lovely place, full of greenery all over has now become a concrete jungle, filled with dust and pollution. That’s when we decided to move to a farmhouse,” she says. She still continues to use her Lajpat Nagar space as a studio, but is slowly shifting her base to a farmhouse lifestyle in the long run. “There’s much more privacy here. We need quietude, and prefer places that are remote, away from the crowd,” she says.
But romantic as it is, keeping a farmhouse going can be physically and mentally exhausting, requires time and commitment, and most importantly, needs relentless passion. How easy can it be?
Furniture designer Mike Knowles, who lives in Delhi and is from the UK, converted his old farmhouse into a work studio, and now lives in an apartment in the city with his wife. “Getting a great garden in the UK takes a lot of work and money. It’s so much different here: things really grow in India. There was also the feeling that when you closed your gate you were in a world of your own. In the early days that used to be important for me – but today, it’s quite the opposite. I love the buzz of being a pukka Delhiwallah,” he says.
He recalls some of the great memories he had when he stayed in the farmhouse. “It’s a great space for loads of things, whether it’s pottery, painting, sports of all kinds or having your own pets. I’ve had dogs, cats, ducks, and all sorts of animals. I thought it would be difficult to live in an apartment again, but now I don’t. We now have the best of both worlds,” he says.
But combining city life with a farmhouse lifestyle can be difficult. “One of the major hurdles of living here is the commuting back and forth,” complains Dalrymple, whose children have to travel to school by road for almost 40 minutes every morning. It’s not just the commuting. Just the hugeness of the project itself can be quite intimidating. Keeping pets and animals is great fun, but once the kids grow up it becomes difficult to give them enough time. Dalrymple has a herd of goats and many other animals in his farmhouse.
But Reynu Tandon, a fashion designer in Mehrauli, says that they’ve reduced the number of pets they had in their farmhouse over the years and now only have a lovely, large, white dog. “It’s difficult to leave the animals behind and go out,” she says. “When the kids were young, things were different; they had time to look after them. Today, both my daughter and son are grown up, working, and mostly travelling; they want their lifestyle at home to mainly be comfortable so they can relax and spend time with family and friends.” Tandon recalls how it was her husband’s dream, back when they married, to live in a farmhouse. “There was no looking back after that,” she says. “I’ve spent the most crucial and longest years of my life in this farmhouse. Though I came here after I was married, I feel as if I’ve grown up here.”
Working on it
Tandon’s house reflects the aesthetics that Mumbai-based architect Akhil Kapadia says has become a dominant trend these days: lots of use of glass, rooms constructed as semi-open spaces, and indoors and outdoors merging with each other. “People are interested in a modern, contemporary look – clean, straight lines, and a maximum open effect, rather than insisting we design Greek villas,” he says. Tandon also has a huge vegetable garden, where she grows all that she needs, from Chinese oranges to a whole range of other vegetables. “It’s becoming more and more accessible to the rest of the world,” says Tandon, as she points to the towering view of Gurgaon behind her.
For Punam Kalra, coming home to this world compensates for everything. “All the traffic, all the madness of the day is worth it once you reach home. Though you’re part of the city, you feel wrapped in your own cocoon back here,” she says. “We had a lot of initial excitement about our farmhouse when we had just moved in, but now things have calmed down. The socialising and the parties have reduced, and we’re settling into it with our lives.”
Despite the many who balance city and semi-rural lifestyles, for Mansoor Khan, there is only one way: you’re either in it or you’re out. “The logistics change when you shift completely and leave your urban life behind forever,” he says. “When people visit, they’re floored for the first two days, but after that they’re ready to run back. This cannot work if those are your priorities. There are many people who own farmhouses, but don’t live there – it’s just not the same feeling.”
That’s why Khan wouldn’t call living in a farmhouse a lonely experience, but an experience of solitude. Who can deny how irresistible it can be?