Homing and unhoming in a lockdown
What is a house? Is it a feeling, a habit, a set of relationships or a combination of materials and floor plans? The idea for this essay was born three months ago, when I was asked to leave the first house where I had settled entirely on my own. The lockdown was in place in Delhi, and the only thing that looked familiar to me was the house I had lived in for a year and a half. Still, I would have to tear myself away from the house, put it away and unpack it somewhere else, pretending that’s what we did, settle down anywhere with a bunch of things.
For me, thinking about houses and homing falls somewhere between the way we inhabit houses and the way houses are continually built. It’s a thought-provoking exercise on room layout, bed layout, kitchen shelves, shelf categories, comforting pillows and tables, cold chicken in the fridge, lost Ludo sets, locations fridge magnets, Hanukkah lamps, large collections of art books. that never fit anywhere, paintings of Mother and others, earrings that have lost their pairs from three houses ago but still want to go on, water pump switches that dictate the daily rhythms , the number of friends who can cook simultaneously in the kitchen, the number of guests who can fit around the dining table, managing colors and textures.
Here I explore three locations – soil, shape, and house boundaries – a distributed and disparate taxonomic list of how I live in and make houses.
Living with squares
The squares come to haunt me on my house hunt. I’m looking for a simple 2BHK apartment and I’m shown what looks to be different sets of Lego houses. All houses are a permutation / combination of squares and rectangles. An architect friend explains to me the ‘chain production’ of modernist housing in India. Every aspect of these homes is codified by planners, architects and engineers to define the standard living format of middle income groups, low income groups, government officials, etc. This standardization of the apartment plan and the materials used in the construction extends into the imagination of the heteronormative family, with a unique size.
We struggle to adjust to those squares and rectangles, struggle with computer screens on plywood desks and queen-size beds in the rooms of the middle-income groups. The house is always laid out in a square – a blanket, a table, a floor plan – but it still lodges, like sleep, in a fold, it crumples, bends and softens, and softens into fabric, skin, curtains, rugs, colors and random collections of sculptures and stones.
Do you make terrazzo?
Walking into the lobby of the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bombay, I always felt like I was not in an art gallery but in someone’s house. Although the NGMA building is structurally designed as a gallery space, its very familiar terrazzo floor, so popular in the 1980s in Delhi homes, would confuse me with its purpose. Terrazzo flooring dates back to 15th century Venetian flooring techniques and further back to the mosaic tradition of ancient Egypt, but it has a ubiquitous manifestation in Modernist architecture. I remember playing on terrazzo floors as a child, finding patterns and patterns, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, sometimes seeing chipped marble faces, sometimes just a slight blur of spots under the feet. With its silent presence through the different houses in which I have lived, terrazzo has become for me the comfort skin of a home. It was cool in the summer, while the dhurries on it made it warm in the winter. A potter friend reminds me that terrazzo will always be softer and warmer as a floor, because the human hand has placed it.
I recently moved from one DDA apartment to another in a South Delhi area. These 2BHK apartments, built in the 1980s, had the exact same floor plan and met the state’s “hum do hamare do” family planning formula. But the new house with its machine-made ceramic tiles still seemed strangely alienating to me. The property dealer showing me the house explained to me that the tiles give a clean look to the house unlike the terrazzo floor which always looks dirty and old. A neighbor, who also has a tiled floor in her house, told me: ‘They make it look neat so we all do them, but it’s also more work for us to keep it clean because you can see every speck of dust and hair on it. ‘ There has been an obsession with what looks ‘clean’ in South Asia. The shift from kutcha flooring to pucca flooring most often follows a trajectory of poured cement floors, from terrazzo flooring to the post-liberalization bourgeois aesthetic of shiny, slippery tiles, more ” clean ‘or even marble floors.
In my new apartment, I sometimes wonder how I’m supposed to differentiate where the bathroom ends and where the rooms begin when everything is cast under the same spell of white tiling. My body is also readjusting to walking on this slippery ground. I cover the floors with dhurries and rugs, try to keep them dry and clean, but they don’t warm me up.
Piece of sky
If we wish to understand some of Delhi’s oldest neighborhoods, we can do so by simply studying the social life of the rooftops. While working with students to try to understand an area south of Jamia, I suggested that they study the corners and the roofs. One glimpse that many of them returned with was that the roofs of this crowded and gradually built up area functioned as intimate spaces for women, used to dry clothes, put pickle bottles in the sun, or just knit the after- winter noon.
In Mumbai, even a small window with a sea view means higher rent for the house. Searching for the sky, whether it’s sunlight for plants, a view of the sea, or just a place to sit on a cold winter morning and gaze at a tree, works like magically in the way houses grow on us or how we grow back. Yet the expansive sky and balcony space, which makes up for the lost garden, courtyard or roof, are the first to adapt to our growing social, ambitious and family needs – it becomes a bedroom for a grandparent. – an aging mother, a cousin who comes to study in town, a son who brings a wife home, a daughter who is now a teenager and wants her own room, or a paying guest who adds to the family income.
Is homing a to-do list? Is it a gas connection? An electric meter? An arrangement of spice boxes? A place to sit and write, to have breakfast, to take a nap during the day? Is it a marriage? A kinship network, a circle of friends? Some people will tell you that a house is finished when there is a place to cook – a chulha, a fireplace, or a gas stove. Some feel at home when they have furnished their closets with clothes and mothballs, and others when each of their potted plants finds its place on the balcony.
On the path behind Colaba Causeway was a man whose house was a thin mattress on the floor, a blanket and a philosophy book overturned.
How many ways do we make a house? We make love and create homes in the bodies of others, we put art on the walls, we brew the perfect cup of Earl Gray tea and we know we are at home.
Excerpt from an essay originally published on chiraghdilli.com
The opinions expressed above are those of the author.
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