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A House on Stilts

Meena Murdeshwar
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A House on Stilts may sound quaint as a headline. A house on stilts in Shillong is very safe and very practical, indeed. These light Accra-cane houses are built with a purpose and serve a purpose too.

Lyngdoh Cottage, for instance, was built on a slope. The levelled garden had masses of Cosmos flowers in beds of sunrise- yellow and soft-petal mauve and a lush green lawn that moved onto a wrap-around wooden verandah,which was balanced on two-foot high stilts.

Ten feet away were the second range of concrete stilts, four feet off the ground, on which were built the front room, the living room and the bedrooms. The cosmos flowers, growing on thin, drinking-straw-like stems peeped into these rooms. The ground naturally sloped away on one side and this was used to support the pipes and tubes which fed the bathrooms in that area.

The six-foot high pillars that stood further behind supported the dining, cooking and storage areas. Further down, about ten concrete steps away and running under a sloping asbestos roof, were the servants’ quarters. There were bathrooms for them which stood further away in the back garden and there was a washing and bathing place which also had a hand-pump.

There were two lines of clothes drying wire strung between a couple of plum trees but no fencing or compound demarcations, which designated the boundary to any house or indicated a ‘compound limit’.

Mild tremors of earthquakes I could detect each time the handle of the brass bucket in the bathroom went jiggling and making a tick-tick-click sound. As if in response Scooty, the Alpine pup (not a strange new breed, but part Alsatian+pi but nice=Alpine!) that we had picked up, would start to make little whine-and-snuffle puppy sounds and snuggle closer to my feet. The bucket and the puppy were more dependable and accurate than any Richter Scale. Traditionally, the householder’s cattle and goats were tied under the third shelter. It formed a natural shed and stored the hay and cattle feed. Under a huge over-turned basket, the hens were ‘cooped’ in for the night. In our case the black trunks afforded an even higher perch for a rooster who would want to crow to the world outside and tell them that yet another egg had been laid.

On the last level, the plum trees that fruit in alternate year, fruited the year that we were at Lyngdoh Cottage. At first, birds and the children were up in the trees, eating them off the branches. But soon the children started bringing them to the kitchen in their pockets and then in pouches and bags and then in baskets and buckets. Friends began sharing their favourite recipes for plum jam, plum chutney, plum sauce, plum wine and plum brandy.

I made each one at least once and the others several times over. No wonder a posting to Shillong was considered a ‘Plum Posting’!

Meena Murdeshwar


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