“These were called soil-stabilised houses,” my father had said to me. “They were built at a time when there was an acute shortage of cement in Chandigarh.” And whilst that is a term used essentially for roads, he was borrowing it to describe the traditional but out of style use of mud instead of cement in these constructions. They are old world houses in a modern city, somewhat anachronistic, almost ready to excuse themselves and depart. The roof is a pyjama stripe of concrete rafters.
Those of us who have grown up in government housing in Punjab towns look up at these ceilings and go into paroxysms of excitement. “You know, my grandfather’s house had ceilings exactly like these.” To many, this may not seem like a reason for such effusion, but for those of us with adequate years behind us, they are a piece of the past, the lost world of our childhood.
And when they were built in the 50s, it was perhaps not about going green. Green is relatively new – green technologies, green political parties, green lifestyle. The whole politics of green is new. Those days they were just trying to get past a cement shortage. A city was being built from scratch and that needed cement and bricks in large quantities. Even in the 60s, there were permits to be got for bricks and bags of cement, and they were counted out and issued to the permit holder from the depot manager.
In any case, these houses were supposed to have a best-before date to them. They were meant for the senior engineers who were working on the capital project, and were to have been demolished once the city was standing on its feet. Plots had already been demarcated for sale in Sector 19 on the assumption that the single storey, one-bedroom, brick and mud houses would be taken down.
But then we were not a use-and-throw society. And of course, I use the past tense deliberately. We were hoarders. My grandmother had pulled out silk veils from her battered trunk in the storeroom, which she had used when she was a teenager, and gifted them to me when I went to college. We used to skim cream off boiled milk, churn it into butter when it aged, cooked it for ghee when it turned sour and used the residue to make barfi. And when products in the market began to come dressed in fancy packaging, it was hard, for a while, to throw away those pretty little boxes.
Today, we seem ready to discard things very quickly into the dustbin of time. Sector 17 is losing its sheen and is no longer the throbbing heart of the city as shoppers crowd the many malls. The new OPD at the PGI makes the old one look a haunted house. Houses are no longer renovated but demolished and rebuilt.
And of course, we have learnt to consign to garbage those ribbon-festooned boxes in which we buy cakes and biscuits and chocolates.
But then, back in the 50s, those soilstabilised houses stayed. I am glad they did. One of them was allotted to me in the course of my teaching career. That is when my father told me of the innocent secret behind its walls.
(The writer is an English teacher based in Chandigarh)