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City Archives – Barsatis, Around Town

[Digging out old stories from The Delhi Walla]

It’s vanishing. The barsati. The small room at the top of the house where the family could enjoy the cool breeze during the monsoon. A unique Delhi phenomenon.

The city’s real estate regulations spawned a way of life that was artistic and idealistic, temporary and flamboyant. Taking its name from barsat, Urdu for heavy showers, the barsati was a room with a large terrace. Holed up in these below-the-sky capsules, young, unconventional middle-class migrants waited for new opportunities.

A few barsati residents later became famous. Painter M.F. Husain lived in a Jangpura barsati. British author Ian Jack had a barsati near the railway tracks in Defence Colony. Writer Arundhati Roy shaped her world view in a string of barsatis in Lajpat Nagar, Nizamuddin West and Malcha Marg. Author William Dalrymple’s first year in Delhi was spent in a barsati in Nizamuddin West.

Novelist Anita Desai immortalized the barsati by making it the setting of her short story The Rooftop Dwellers. She described the dwelling with her characteristic understated humour: “The rooms had once been built on Delhi’s flat rooftops so that families who slept out on their roofs on summer nights could draw in their beds in case of a sudden dust storm or thunder shower. But now that Delhi was far too unsafe for sleeping alfresco, these barsatis were being rented out to working spinsters or bachelors at delightful profits.”

The barsati is now in terminal decline. “In the 1980s, 75% of renting places in Defence Colony were barsatis,” says Shankar, a real estate agent in this upscale south Delhi neighbourhood. “Today, most bungalows have turned into multi-floor apartments. The entire area has only 25 barsatis.”

The author of the story of the rise and fall of barsatis is the Delhi Development Authority. The floor space index (FSI) regulates the built area of the property in relation to its plot size. In most neighbourhoods, there was a limit on the number of floors a bungalow could have. In the diplomatic enclave of Chanakyapuri, for instance, a bungalow could have a ground floor and a first floor. On the second floor, only a small room would be permitted, which was the barsati, the rain shelter. Doubling up as servant quarters, it was soon being rented out by the landlord for extra income. Today, the bungalow owner in Chanakyapuri can raise four floors and get more rent.

The barsati is doomed; the South Delhi Barsati Marxists (SDBMs) are already extinct.

Click here to read the rest of this article originally published on The Delhi Walla in May 2011.

Rain shelter (This photo is by Pradip Krishen)

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