City City Bang Bang, Columns

The home in transition?

Architects treat walls with a distressing amount of disdain. To them walls are nothing more than reality clearing its throat, words written in pencil with an eraser in hand. Walls can be shifted, torn down, converted into glass dividers, so that space, light  and circulation, those abstracts idea that they owe their real allegiance to, can get to do their thing. Architects can make space dance, and get it to do things that seem quite magical for the layperson. This realization came to me while going through a process of redoing our apartment, and finding both, a great sense of wonder as well as an inarticulate but stubborn resistance to change. Having grown up with the idea that rooms in a home are settled existences, that cannot simply be rearranged- it is as if the material basis of all reality gets challenged when walls begin to move around.

A labourer stands on a truck carrying construction materials at a construction site of residential buildings in Noida on the outskirts of New Delhi November 29, 2013. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/File Photo

But then the idea of buying a home is in itself a contradiction in terms. The idea that any space can arbitrarily be called home simply because of a commercial transaction, that a word tingling unbearably with meaning can get so abruptly attached to a space that one owes nothing to and has no connection with, is a little uncomfortable. But then we now transact in homes, selling and reselling them, indeed ‘flipping’ them as if they were hamburgers, and talking ceaselessly and animatedly about property prices, now widely expected to be in a state of post-demonetisation decline.

When we buy a home, we are in effect stuffing a space devoid of meaning with an enormous amount of ourselves. But eventually a space becomes home only when we start living in it, when it becomes a natural niche in which our life curls up and sighs. The idea of home has to do with a space where we can live without being aware of ourselves. To be at home is to be asleep, in a state of blissful unconsciousness, snoring, flailing about, muttering guttural dreams, snatching memories of foetal embrace.

The home used to be a place we could never own, only belong to. Where do you come from, we were asked. We ‘hailed’ from somewhere- we had a ‘permanent address’ that we were asked about when filling any form. Even when the joint family with its headquarters at the ancestral home began to gradually fragment, its role as the emotional command post of one’s life stayed put, This permanent home is where we  came back to, literally in annual holidays and otherwise in our minds whenever  we thought of a place of anchorage.

As a child of the Nehruvian industrial project, one’s childhood lay scattered over towns that my father got posted to. A product of 7 schools, 3 colleges and 12 houses, every home came with an expiry date. While we were there, each of those places was home, but it was easy to have an acute sense of one’s own insignificance. It was clear that we were passing through the structure we called home- it was ours, without that word carrying a trace of the idea of ownership.

As a space, homes did not follow any templates. Things settled around people. Space sprawled without a plan. Rooms were organized, if one could use the word, because of someone’s convenience. The refrigerator could be in the bedroom because an elderly aunt, who could not move around much, liked her water cold. A large table lies grazing idly in a room because the grandfather, long deceased used to write there. The lumpy sofa, grey on the inside and eventually also on the outside was bought at the time of the war, although which one was a matter of some debate. Different rooms were painted in different colours at different times and stayed that way. A part of the house accommodated miscellaneous things that were just too messy to be organized. Space by itself did not carry a premium. Even in a small house, there were parts that were never used.

The formal delineation of space began perhaps with the idea of the drawing room a generation ago, but the transition was an awkward one. In an essay examining the difference between Indian and Western theatrical practices, Girish Karnad observes that when adapting a Western play into an Indian setting, it didn’t make sense to use the living room- the theatre of so much action. He argued that ‘nothing of consequence ever happens in an Indian living room.  It is the no-man’s-land, the empty, almost defensive front that the family presents to the world outside”. The real action in India, he argues takes place in the kitchen or the backyard, where women got to have their say.

Living room or household

A site of identity, rather than a seat of adornment, what went into a home had to do more with memory than with aesthetics. The home was more culture than personality. When one thinks about the showcase, still a standard feature in many Indian homes, it is striking how things deemed worthy of showcasing were often little odds-and-ends of personal memory, marking events of some significance. A squeaky toy bought from one’s first trip abroad, a souvenir picked up at a honeymoon, a plaque honouring some obscure achievement, a laughing Buddha statue which for some reason can be seen in every nook and corner of the country. It is as even when one wants to find ways of showing off the self, one could only lapse into memory, a gallery of recollections rather than a collection of artifacts.

The architect’s dazzling vision has won and the walls in our new apartment have moved. Without question, the new space it has created is much more useful. And the act of moving things around, has made an alien space seem familiar. The home may no longer be the womb where we came from, but as a nest that we build for a reason, for a length of time, it still feels like home.