During my walks around Delhi, the Havelis or the Indian Mansions in the narrow lanes that we call Galis, have always intrigued me. I have often sat on the Chabutra outside the Haveli. And tried to imagine how it would be living in this huge mansion with many others. How it would be sharing stories sitting in a baithak and then having areas that were only for men or women or guests. How would be the kitchen that would be perpetually on for the family members? And How it would be to have collective ownership of everything in the house. How would it be to let the head of a family take decisions on behalf of the whole family? How would it be to celebrate weddings and other functions the way it used to be, everything cooked at home with the help of extended family and servants?
We all have our roots in this culture. But as of today, it is more or less something that we heard from our grandmothers. And probably see in grand Indian movies.
I picked up this book Indian Mansions to read more about Havelis. Author has covered the social life of a Haveli. She has researched and written about how people lived in these Havelis, what was their day-to-day lifelike. She takes you through the basic construct of a Haveli. And how they were built for joint families and could accommodate 100s of people in it. How over a period of time they got divided and finally most of them have been reduced to storage spaces for businesses. Which is pretty much what I observed during my walks around Delhi.
Sometimes they were built in one go and sometimes patches were added for additional requirements later. It describes the Mardana and Zenana, the areas that were exclusively for men and women within the Haveli. Then there were common areas like kitchens, baithaks and guest areas. She describes the Jharokhas that were literally the women’s window to the world outside. She has also looked at the way slowly the European influences were flowing in the Havelis, but only at the periphery like furniture and outside decorations.
It talks about the morning, daytime and evening in a haveli, the activities that kept its inmates involved. She talks about what they wore, what they ate, where they slept. And what how every nook and corner of Haveli looked. Particularly interesting are the parts where she talks about celebrations like marriage and birth. She tries to describe the rituals. But then they are so many of them, changing with each community and even with each family that she would have been lost. She kept the broad classification of Hindus and Muslims. And it looks like the lives were not very different for them. She talks about the heads of the family who ruled within their Havelis.
The servants who served for generations together and were more or less a part of the family. And the guests who would come and enjoy the hospitality of the family. Her writing is pretty objective and has no judgment whatsoever built into it.
Author has used a lot of references from writings by various Europeans who lived in India in the 18th and 19th century and were privy to the lives of Havelis. She has also visited Havelis and spoke to the current occupants. Her work is limited to Havelis in Rajasthan and Delhi with an occasional reference to Lucknow. The pictures of Indian Mansions are a delight to look at, wish there were more colored ones.
If you have visited your grandparents who lived in Havelis, you may not find many new things in this book. If you have heard stories from them about the Havelis your family owned somewhere, it may make you feel nostalgic. Otherwise, it will give you a glimpse of how people lived in this country just a century or two ago.