Char aane ki keemat
The confessions of a quarterholic
Today, after having travelled across the country - mostly due to my profession of being a crew member making travelogue films – I realised that I am still a butt of jokes among my colleagues primarily due to my early living. Not one crew party, get together or even a little tea break seem to ever finish without statements such as “kya be, tera pura khaandan peeta tha kya?” (Did your entire family drank, isn't that?) or “abhi quarter chod, aur poori bottle khareeed le!” (At least now leave the quarter and buy a full bottle!! – referring to the quarter bottle of alcohol). This cyclic pattern of such irritating statements was for only for one reason – I used to live in the quarters all my childhood. Yes, quarters – the one usually allotted to employees – the little housing facility usually 2-3 floors high, little verandah, pigeon hole like windows, clubbed together in a row , with the most prominent feature being the staircase. You recollect seeing this somewhere, right?
My father, was in the railways- I guess that is how being on the move, is in my blood. What also came along as part of my father’s employment was residing in these quarters. It was a strange upbringing I must admit. All of us kids, residing in the quarters had common background – everybody’s father was in the railways, and most of the mother’s stayed home, all day. Most of the men would leave at the same time, return back at the same time, have holidays on specific days of the week, and we would all come together to celebrate an event. Not necessarily a festival, but a function became our common denominator; in our case it was Railway Day.
"...some were ground structure next to each other with large frontage, a few G+1 with external staircase or even single long staircase and most the G+2, where I resided. Yet they had a similar grain. Quarters are specific, and my childhood helped in developing a panache for recognise them."
In some, I realised later, would be Christmas, blood donation camp, Teacher's Day and so on. Whatever be the celebration, the quarters would decorate themselves the exact same way. his commonality would unite us all. It was as if everyone’s life had the same grain. What also helped was that all of us lived in exact similar looking houses. All had the same set of doors, similar type of room arrangements, windows peeping out to the same view - it meant that when we went from one house to the other, it never felt odd or different. It was the same - just that one would have a bigger sofa than the other or a swing in their living room or diwan instead of a couch. But that was it, usually we never felt one was different from the other.
Let me make my first confession here to you all. For a long time, until I moved out of my quarters I always felt that this kind of living was a special status quo that only people working in the Railways department deserved. I had the feeling of staying in a limited-edition facility. Yes, I was naive, you may also call me stupid. For I found out that these quarters dotted many parts of other cities, little towns and even many institutional facilities. Where I did my higher education, it was also called 'Boys Quarters'. But that hardly qualified as one. It was just long corridors on multiple levels. "No! That is not a quarter", I remember how I argued with my friends about the terminology. The other thing I realised that there was not one form to these quarters – some were ground structure next to each other with large frontage, a few G+1 with external staircase or even single long staircase and most the G+2, where I resided. Yet they had a similar grain. Quarters are specific, and my childhood helped in developing a panache for recognising them.
"If you are trying next time to spot a quarter housing, look out for the staircase and the paraphernalia that are stored in them. Mind you, the articles in each floor did not necessarily belong to the immediate household – so don’t pass a judgement on a family when you do identify the objects."
So, let me digress here and give you short tutorial on how to recognise a quarter. They are usually slightly obnoxious structures, not always appearing in a straight line but always clustered. Appearing right at the edge of the street, without much of a setback or what is now commonly a boundary wall. Even if there is a wall, somehow there is no hesitancy to walk up to the building, unlike in a house or an apartment.
Oh, and there was one more thing – there is no such concept of a front or rear elevation - they almost appear the same from all sides with one very interesting distinction - you can always spot which way the toilets are – the pipes run right down that side from the top to the bottom floor. Once you enter (if you ever do), the most important thing to find out is what is the common denominator (there ought to be one). In most cases the denominator would be the employment class or the marital status or even your religious background – like how I found out about the barracks in Kolkata. They all belonged to what is called Anglo-Indians. One more thing is that, the quarters make you feel the echoes of generations those have resided in it.
What happens is that the quarters leave you with little space for personalisation. The only kind of personalisation I have seen are little flower pots one may put up in the verandah, small decorations in front of the main door but no major alterations that allowed one to differentiate from the other. What that means is – if one employee has lived in one house of the quarter and has to move out – for any reason, the one who will replace that family, maintains the same mannerisms and orders of living. The lifestyle, the use of space, the accidental interactions with other colleagues remained the same. It would appear as if the new family, is a continuation of the older one – as if traditions have been merely passed on. I realised this when I happened to visit one such quarter in Itarsi, which felt the same as the one I used to stay in Tatanagar.
By now, I guess you realise my obsession with quarters. It's no secret to any of my colleagues. Honestly, this is the primary reason for why I am at the receiving end of all the jokes. Yes, I confess that I cannot stop talking about the quarters, especially when I see the staircases. Whenever, I see staircases in any housing facility, the first thing that crosses my mind is the sterility of it. Not the fact that no one uses them any more but simply for the appearance and the condition of it. Believe me when I say this – staircases are the heart and soul of staying in the quarters and probably they are the most distinguishing part of it. The staircases are airy, open ended at both the mid-landing as well as the entrance to each household. At times they are even long flight of stairs – but those are typically for the two storeyed quarters.
For most of the typical quarters' types - from the staircase you can look at the open spaces on both ends – not that there are any views or amenities, but something can be viewed – clothes hanging, someone riding a bicycle, a bird nest, a honeycomb, the cricket enthusiasts or even the pandal during a specific festival. The staircase is not just a means to climb up or down. For most, it is an additional storage space – the bicycle, an extra chair, the shoe rack and even the gas cylinder finds a space there. If you are trying next time to spot a quarter housing, look out for the staircase and the paraphernalia that are stored on them. Mind you, the objects laying on each floor don't necessarily belong to the immediate household – so don’t pass a judgement on a family when you do identify the objects.
Another confession – these staircases taught me voyeurism. All we young kids had to do was to spend most of our times at different landings of the staircase to find out – who was cooking what food; who got scoldings for what reason; the unspoken conversation across a window and a verandah; who was fulfilling their desires!! (what to do? the noises could be heard!); and even where little teenage love was brewing amidst this cohesive living. That staircase would reveal it all – even my first kiss – one just had to know which landing was the most suitable for what act – from playing cards, to having a hiding drink, the little banjo and dance everything revolved around the staircase. The community stayed in their houses and lived on these staircases.. Why do I say 'did'? It currently even does! Just that somewhere down the line, living in new found housing typologies, we have forgotten the importance of such staircase like spaces.
" ...it is a living typology, that is almost consumed by the city, hardly spoken about, and least documented – my own company travelogues have never paid attention. With the cropping up of new residential terminologies – such as condominiums, condo-apartments, villa apartments, gated communities, the quarters remain an unlisted identity today."
Well, its time for me to attend one of those team building, informal meetings; and I know that sooner or later I will again be the focus of discussions, for obvious reasons. So, when I will be mocked at again, I will not take it personally, but as the entire urban population is having an ignorant laugh towards the existence of quarter housing. For, not to value, neither identify, least even know about the existence of such a typology in cities and townships is nothing less than an insensitive mockery. For a condition of living that promotes essentials of community living, a sense of unity, societal level participation and quintessential neighbourhood engagement - across the length and breadth of the country an unresponsive behaviour by the urban population is least expected. But the truth is that quarters remain as a living typology, that are almost consumed by the city, hardly spoken about, and least documented – – my own company travelogues have never paid attention. With the cropping up of new residential terminologies – such as condominiums, condo-apartments, villa apartments, gated communities, the quarters remain an unlisted identity today.
The next time I again become the source of everyone’s humour, I have only one response “char aane ki keemat, tum kya jano Ramesh babu !" (How would you know the value of a quarter, Ramesh babu?) – a common urban resident"