The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry
Watching the Layton womenfolk having Full English breakfast aboard a houseboat in Jewel in the Crown - based on Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet - I became intrigued by these Anglo-Indian homes-from-Home, moored on a ring of blue-green lakes in the Vale of Kashmir. They seemed a perfect synthesis of the architectural primaries: genius loci and triad of space, construction and form. Their joyful, insightful and inspirational living-spaces - variously named: forecabin, living-room, front-room, sitting-room, drawing-room, lounge, salon - exemplified: “Architecture comes from the making of a room” (Louis Kahn). They gave shape to a colonial way of relaxing and socialising. Once created, decorated and furnished they, thereafter, shaped the activities, ideas and culture of their occupants - so that: “The past becomes a texture, an ambience to our present” (Paul Scott).
Touring northern India, I flew from the unrelenting heat of the plains to the cool freshness of the mountain-locked Vale, 5,000 feet above sea-level, to take a houseboat. There, I had a déjà vu experience of a spacious living-space, afore a dining-room and bedrooms with bathrooms, in an essentially long narrow house. It had human scale and proportions, with daylight and views on three sides, moored alongside a grove of chenar (oriental plane) trees on Nagin Lake, so-called “Jewel in the Ring”; preferred to Dal Lake by European and Asian honeymooners and discerning tourists for its enchanting setting. Unwell at the time, it was comforting, reassuring and curiously Homelike: a little bit of Royal Tunbridge Wells or Henley-on-Thames in a ‘Venetian Lagoon of the East’, where I could order plain English meals from the boat-owner’s cook-boat. From the private-cum-public porch-verandah, where the “Houseboy” slept across the threshold, there was a vista inwards, through foldaway french doors, two-steps-down, to the living-space and beyond. And a vista outwards, to snow-capped Himalayan ranges, floating gardens, and forests of willow, chestnut and poplar trees flanking lotus-strewn waters - with passing gondola-like shikaras.
These “Floating Palaces” - a haunting evocation of the British Raj in India - are a wonder of Victorian-style carpentry, joinery and cabinet-making revealing the judgement, skill and care of their Kashmiri boatbuilders. The Indian Civil Service in the nineteenth-century were responsible for negotiating their origin: a response to the Raj dream of Home in the Princely State of Kashmir. Although the Maharaja of Kashmir restricted building of European houses in the Vale, the British circumvented this by staying on the native Doonga houseboats. These metamorphosed - partly by design, partly by evolution - into luxurious Victorian houseboats; like the transformation of the Bengali bungalow into the East India Company neoclassical bungalow. After independence and partition of Kashmir in 1947, Kashmiri families have built, owned and maintained them: “Like our father and our child.”
Their unique hybrid design was a homesick, parochial dream of Home; preserving (sometimes to lunacy) the English middle-class lifestyle of the Raj, especially during the Srinagar season, when only the dutiful remained on the plains. They had romantic and aspirational names to match. The first, designed by sportsman M.T. Kenhard, was “Victory” - after Nelson’s flagship? Mine was “Silver Ghost” - after a Maharaja’s vintage Rolls-Royce? And conformed to the two-bedroomed, deluxe-version of the archetypal Anglo-Indian houseboat: at Anglo-Venetian root, an Oxford college barge or City of London livery company boat (one surviving as a floating restaurant at Richmond-upon-Thames) constructed entirely out of some 10 cubic metres of cedar-wood. The ornate rectangular superstructure, to the flat-bottomed twin-chined hull, was carved and fretted, especially around the porch-verandah, which, served as a balustraded and plush bench-seated extension to the living-space. A ship’s ladder led to another outdoor-cum-indoor living-space addition: a balustraded sun-deck with table and chairs arranged - as for afternoon tea - beneath an Indian-yellow canvas awning.
Downstairs, the living-space had wall-panelling that created an enveloping tactile sense of enclosure. The low sheltering ceiling - on which dappled sunlight danced - comprised preformed squares, octagons and hexagons assembled into a mosaic; which I much studied, convalescing, reading Mary Margaret Kaye’s whodunit Death in Kashmir! Its mesmerising geometry was a revelation: human beings have an inborn love of pattern - be it natural, representational or abstract. The boarded floor had a golden-lilac, Persian-style, tree-patterned carpet that: “Brought the entire room together” (Kashmiri saying); and there were moon-coloured, crewel-embroidered, curtains to french casements shaded with white canvas awnings. The doorway and casement architraves had carved centuries-old motifs celebrating the diverse flora and fauna of the Vale. Carved chenar leaves, kingfishers and lotus flowers bordered ‘Art Deco’ walnut-with-chintz furniture: sofas, armchairs, writing desk, occasional tables, and standard lamps - each with its own french-polished colour, grain and sheen. And there was a utilitarian wood-stove, a tinkling sapphire-blue glass chandelier, and a book-rack crammed with dogeared novels and out-of-date periodicals. All had those qualities of appearance, soundness and utility which craftsmanship produces. All was at one with William Morris: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
Perfection? Not wholly: the Kashmir Conflict aside, environmental issues threaten the sustainability of the houseboats, and mar the natural beauty of the Vale. With deforestation, there is depletion of the boatbuilder’s finest cedar trees, which grow only at altitudes of 7,000 feet in north-west Kashmir. The growing and changing presence of the houseboats - once holistically balanced in design, time and place - may have harmed the biodiversity of the lakes, bringing a 150-year-old tradition to an end? However, nothing is ever entirely lost or found in this enigmatic, unfathomable corner of the world, only metamorphosed into something else. As Paul Scott mused: “The past is a living root, running underground, throwing up and nourishing unexplained growths in the present.”