Homing and unhoming: taxonomies of living

‘Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.
—James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room

1

What is a home? Is it a feeling, a habit, a set of relationships or a combination of materials and floor plans? The idea of this essay was triggered three months back, when I was asked to shift from the first house I’d settled entirely on my own. The lockdown in the city was on, and the only thing that seemed familiar was the house I had lived in for one and a half years. Yet, I would have to tear myself away from the house, pack it up and unpack it somewhere else, pretending that this was what we did, home ourselves anywhere with a set of things.

Writing about homes is difficult, because it is writing about our families, our feelings and our fears. It is also writing about bodies, blankets, beds and beloveds, and how we learn to inhabit each of these, carry some along and also leave behind some. To attempt an ethnography of the house pries open not only our arrangement of clothes in a wardrobe but also the arrangement of our emotions, our routines and our selves. Alienation or belonging in a place is never set in one particular form, space or time. It is set in materiality, experiences, weathers, clothes, friends and plants. It is set in how cupboards smell, how we adjust our walk in the monsoons on moss-ridden balconies, how we tackle the rain water from the window above the bookrack, what we do with winter clothes, how we cook, eat and sleep, how we navigate light from the roshandaan and how we watch a glimpse of the horizon each evening.

2

Thinking, living and writing on homes is interlinked with what these spaces can be and become for the people who inhabit them. They could be creative or generative zones of life, individuated or connected, dialogic or monologic, routine or chaotic, settling or nomadic.

Bourdieu’s essay on Kabyle houses—the traditional dwellings of the Berber-speaking people of Northeastern Algeria—looks at the social relations a house generates in its structures through oppositions such as inside versus outside, women’s space versus men’s space, day use versus night use, and so on, and argues that the house is a microcosm of the Kabyle cosmos.[1] For Bourdieu, the house is the site for habitus, the learning of embodied habits that make social reproduction possible. Levi-Strauss, on the other hand, puts forth the concept of ‘house societies’ wherein the house mediates kinship, lineages, ownership and inheritance, moving between the intangible forms of social relations, symbolic interactions and material manifestations.[2] Marilyn Strathern[3] extends the discussion on kinship by exploring the form and aspects of the British suburban house in the late nineteenth century in the wake of the garden city movement, which popularized the garden suburb as a new form of habitation that was neither urban nor rural. What were cultivated were not only the plants in the garden, often inseparable from the house itself, but also the interiors of the house as well as children and moral behaviour. Much like what we see in the Hindu undivided family in India, where newer extensions are added to an apartment or a new house is bought in the same housing colony as the family expands and the sons ‘grow up’ while keeping the umbilical cord with the family intact.

Apart from the anthropological formulations of the house/home, we also encounter in the history of philosophy, two philosophers who write about houses. For Heidegger, the idyllic, Walden-esque cottage in the dark forest is a place for dwelling and thinking. Wittgenstein, even as he was closely involved in designing a house for his sister in Vienna, claimed to be less interested in erecting a building than seeking ‘the foundation of all buildings’. Both work with their philosophical ideas, namely, Heidegger’s idealist return to nature and ‘some pure form’ of living, and Wittgenstein’s futurism built into his theory of language as a building block, so grandly placed in the house he constructs for his sister. Ironically, neither his sister nor other family members liked the end result, and Wittgenstein himself admitted that while the house had ‘good manners’, it had no ‘primordial life’ or ‘health’.[4]

For me, thinking about houses and homing lies somewhere between how we dwell in houses and how homes are continuously made. It is an exercise in thinking through the layout of rooms, the arrangement of beds, kitchen racks, bookshelf categories, comforting pillows and tables, the cold chicken in the refrigerator, lost Ludo sets, fridge magnet placements, Hanukkah lamps, big art book collections that never fit anywhere, paintings from Mother and others, earrings that have lost their pairs from three houses ago but still want to carry on, water pump switches that dictate daily rhythms, the number of friends who can simultaneously cook in the kitchen, the number of guests who can fit around the dining table, coping with colours and textures.


I explore here three locations—the floor, the form and the frontiers of the house—a distributed and disparate taxonomical list of how I live in homes and make them.

Do you terrazzo?

On entering the front foyer of the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bombay, I have always felt like I was not in an art gallery but in someone’s house. Though the NGMA building is structurally designed as a gallery space, its very familiar terrazzo flooring, so popular in the 1980s across Delhi houses, would confuse me of its purpose.

Terrazzo flooring can be traced back to fifteenth-century Venetian flooring techniques and further back to the mosaics tradition of ancient Egypt, but it has a ubiquitous manifestation in modernist architecture. I can recall playing on terrazzo floors as a child, finding designs and patterns, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, sometimes seeing chipped marble faces, sometimes just a soft blur of specks under the feet. With its silent presence across different houses I have lived in, terrazzo has become for me the comfort skin of a house. It felt cool in summers, while durries laid over it made it warm in winters. A potter friend reminds me that terrazzo will always feel softer and warmer as a floor, as the human hand has gone into laying it. Traditionally laid terrazzo floors used marble scraps mixed with concrete, laid with glass partitions, while today, tiles are made to mimic this form.

5

I recently moved houses, from one DDA apartment to another in a south Delhi neighbourhood. These 2BHK apartments, built in the 1980s, had the exact same floor plan and catered to the state family planning formula of ‘hum do hamare do’. Though the new house had the same layout and direction as the previous one, it felt strangely alienating to me. The flooring in the new house comprised machine-made ceramic tiles, unlike the terrazzo flooring of the earlier house. The property dealer showing me the house had explained that the tiles give a clean look to the house unlike terrazzo flooring that always appears unclean and old. A neighbour who also has tile flooring in her house explains, ‘They give a neat look, so we all get them done, 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 movement from kutcha flooring to pucca flooring more often than not follows a trajectory of cement-cast floors, terrazzo flooring to eventually the post-liberalization middle-class aesthetics of shiny, slippery, more ‘clean-looking’ tile or even marble flooring.


In my new apartment, I sometimes wonder how I am supposed to differentiate where the bathroom ends and the rooms begin when everything is cast under the same spell of white tiles. My body too is readapting to walking on these floors—a slippery terrain where every step has to be cautiously taken. I cover the floors with durries and mats, try to keep them dry and clean, yet, they don’t warm up to me. They have none of the warm familiarity that comes with terrazzo floors, which instantaneously change the way my durries fall on them and the way my feet walk on them. A fundamental location of ‘homing’ for me has been the familiarity of the body with terrazzo flooring. In my earlier house, I would walk numerous times from the bathroom to the balcony to water the plants; I could do yoga more easily on the floor, as the durries didn’t slip off them; the ground beneath my feet was intimate, cooler and stable, like an old beloved. The tiles in the new house, though shinier, are taking quite some adapting to.

Living with squares

‘the square is much more honest and tells me that it is sitting on one line of the four … And I have also come to the conclusion that the square is a human invention, which makes it sympathetic to me. Because you don’t see it in nature … But I have corrected myself. Because squares exist in salt crystals, our daily salt … On the other hand, we believe we see circles in nature. But rarely precise ones. Nature, it seems, is not a mathematician. Probably there are no straight lines either. I still like to believe that the square is a human invention. And that tickles me. So when I have a preference for it then I can only say excuse me.’ (Joseph Albers, 1968)[5]

Upon their return from a village study in north India, my students at the architecture school I used teach in were rigorously trying render the plan drawings of the houses in the village. One of them explained to me, ‘The difficulty with these village houses is that they are not made perfectly—the measurements are off and the staircases don’t make perfect straight lines or rectangles.’ The student was finding it challenging to fit the village houses, which are built incrementally and without a blueprint, into the form of squares and rectangles. The hegemony of straight lines in the teaching of architectural drawing sometimes bifurcates representation from how a house may ultimately look like and be inhabited.

Yet, squares and straight lines present themselves to us in both the Euclidian form and the real world. A square could be box, an open space in the city, a room, a desk, a cupboard, a wall, a tarpaulin sheet or even an archive. The square is constantly attempting to achieve itself, in the building of houses, in the production of knowledge as an archive or in the imposition of order and symmetry in design.


This section looks at how we encounter, inhabit, build, break and conquer squares in the context of our modern apartment living.

If we look at the history of our houses, it is a history of tackling with squares and rectangles in the form of floors, rooms, windows and doors and the placement of things—racks, refrigerators, air conditioners, beds and tables—across these squares and rectangles. How do we then begin to inhabit squares, dwell in them, create enclosures and forms of order for our lives? Do we arrange our lives at right angles or do the angles sometimes not fall so perfectly?

12a

I once lived in a pottery village, where my room was 8 x 10 feet. It was a simple room with a rectangular window that opened into wheat fields, and it fit in a small rectangular cupboard, a rectangular side table and a bed. This room with its tight-knit community of rectangles is one the best squares I have lived in. Swirling clay pot cylinders the whole day, I would return to the room to sleep, rest and read. In the cold nights I spent in the room, the praying mantis would often walk in for company, and in the mornings, a paradise flycatcher perched on the tree across the room would greet me. Strangely, the room’s square-ness never bit me—the softness of the surrounding areas made the room softer, like an enclosure out in the wild. Bruno Munari, in his book Square Circle Triangle,[6] points out that the square is associated with an enclosure for human life and dwelling, and the circle, with vastness, the cosmological and the divine.

Squares come to haunt me as I walk through innumerable empty apartments as part of my house hunt. I am searching for a simple 2BHK apartment and am presented with what seem to me as different Lego house sets. All houses are a permutation–combination of squares and rectangles. The place for the washing machine, the shelves, balconies and cupboards are all in the rectangular format. An architect friend explains to me the ‘assembly line production’ of modernist apartment housing in India, which is based on not only the standardization of floor plans and layouts but also the presence of standardized materials like steel beams, slabs and door handles. Each aspect of these houses is codified by planners, architects and engineers to set the standard format of living for middle-income groups, low-income groups, government officials, etc. This standardization of the apartment plan and of the materials used in construction extends itself into the imagination of the heteronormative family, with one size fitting all. In this standardization of life, is the line ever drawn off the angle? Can we live a life off the thresholds of the normative? Where is the fold in the square? Do emotions and life choices destabilize the square? Much to the surprise of my property dealer and new neighbours, I wanted to inhabit the 2BHK alone, as a single person.


How do we learn to dismantle, arrange and decorate squares? How do we build the memory of these squares, which all look the same from the outside? Perhaps we learn to live with squares when we begin to understand which window the sun will inhabit in winters, which book rack can be fitted on which wall, which tile will need bleach to clean, which spot in the balcony will gather the rain puddle.

A house I grew up in always had wrestling pigeons behind my window. Later I realized that they could have been making love. The pigeons wrestled through hot Delhi loos and winter cold winds, with the curtains drawn and sometimes not, and then suddenly one day, they were gone. Perhaps, they had found another square above a window, an air conditioner or something else, and perhaps they had found other pigeons to wrestle with.

We too wrestle to fit into squares and rectangles, wrestle in our bodies, our loves, our sleeping and waking lives, with computer screens on plywood desks and queen size beds in middle-income group bedrooms. The house is always laid in a square—a blanket, a table, a floor plan—but it always homes itself, like sleep, in a fold, it crumples in, curves and spoons, and softens to cloth, skin, curtains, carpets, colours, and random collections of sculptures and stones.

Piece of the sky

If we wish to understand some of the older neighbourhoods of Delhi, we can do so by just studying the social life of roofs. From kinship, solitude and collective work to kite flying and pigeon keeping, the roofs of the city open out many worlds. Working with students on trying to understand an area south of Jamia, I suggested that they study corners and roofs. An insight many of them came back with was the relationship that roofs had with the women of the household. The roofs in this congested, incrementally built area functioned as intimate spaces for women, possibly a substitute for a courtyard or aangan, a private open enclosure. Used for drying clothes, putting out bottles of pickles in the sun or just sitting and knitting on winter afternoons, the roof, the balcony and the courtyard often function as female spaces.

Over the course of a year in my last DDA apartment, I built a strange relationship with an elderly woman I would see from my balcony in the house across the road. She was always there in her balcony, early in the morning, on hot summer afternoons and in the evening. She practically spent her day there, sitting, watching and sometimes pretending to tend to the plants. In the beginning, I found her presence intrusive, and I wasn’t able to sit peacefully in my balcony and have a cup of tea. She was a grandmother and always eager for conversation. Sometimes, she would just look at the goings-on in other houses and the street below, sometimes she would buy vegetables from the vendors passing by, sometimes comment on the general state of the world. She possibly spent the day out in the balcony because she did not want to come in the way of her family inside. She knew everything that was going on in the neighbourhood, from who moved where to which tailor was good and the latest corona figures. Yet, when I moved out from that house, I missed her presence. She would see me everyday. And somewhere it made sense that someone should. That if ever I went missing, someone would know.

13
The balcony is critical to modern housing as it compensates for the garden, courtyard or roof that’s gone missing. Yet, it means different things to different people.

A friend who obsesses over her plants and currently has over 110 pots to manage in her tiny apartment balconies has spilled them over into the living room and on to the staircase landing. Her idea of the piece of the sky is where her plants can walk, grow and dwell. She spends hours in a day tending to them, trimming, weeding, repotting and rearranging them. The presence of her plants inside her house and outside her main door, on the staircase landings of her apartment block, has extended her balconies beyond their boundaries.

In Bombay, even a small window view of the sea means a higher rent for the house. The search for the sky, whether in terms of sunlight for plants, a sea view or just a spot to sit on a cold winter morning and look at a tree, works magically in how houses grow on us or how we grow back on them. Yet, the first improvisation that people make to their houses is the conversion of a balcony into a room or the building of a room on the roof. The expansive sky and space of the balcony is the first to accommodate to our expanding social, aspirational and kinship needs—it becomes a room for an ageing grandmother, a cousin who comes to study in the city, a son who gets married and brings home a wife, a daughter who is now a teenager and wants her own room or a paying guest who adds to the family income.


The much-desired balcony and roof are sacrificed in the ever-expanding forms of living that life presents to us. Still, there are people who will reclaim that space through window ledges or planter extensions, and sometimes by rebuilding balconies by knocking off rooms to open out the house and the self to the skies.

Acts of homing

Is homing a to-do list? Is it a gas connection? An electricity metre? An arrangement of the spice boxes? A place to sit and write, to have breakfast, to snooze in the daytime? Is it a marriage? A kinship network, a circle of friends? Some people will tell you a house is complete when there is a chulha, a place to cook, a hearth or a gas stove. Some feel homed when they have arranged their cupboards with clothes and naphthalene balls, and others, when each of their potted plants finds a place in the balcony.

On the footpath behind Colaba Causeway, there was man whose home was a thin mattress on the ground, a blanket and a philosophy book left overturned.


In how many ways do we make a home? We make love and make homes in other people’s bodies, we stick art on the walls, we make the perfect cup of Earl Grey tea, and we know that we are home.

We are Gandalf at the Council of Elrond deciding our fate, master craftsmen of Bukhara and Kris Kelvin of Solaris walking through our dreams—arranging, protecting, predicting, conjuring and continuing for no reason but for the journey. Because Bukhara must continue to exist somewhere. Beautiful and blue.

—Sarover Zaidi
All photographs © Sarover Zaidi.

[1] Pierre Bourdieu. 1979. ‘The Kabyle House or the World Reversed’, in Algeria 1960. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Claude Levi-Strauss. 1983. The Way of the Masks. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd.

[3] Marilyn Strathern. 1992. After Nature: English Kinship in the Late Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[4] Quoted in Lewis Hyde. 2008. ‘Making It’, The New York Times, 6 April 2008.

[5] Joseph Albers. 1968. ‘Josef Albers on Squares and the Nature of Expression’, an interview of Josef Albers conducted by Sevim Fesci, 22 June–5 July 1968. Available at https://americansuburbx.com/2015/12/josef-albers-on-squares-and-the-nature-of-expression.html, accessed on 6 August 2020.

[6] Bruno Munari. 2015. Square Circle Triangle. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

8 thoughts on “Homing and unhoming: taxonomies of living”

  1. Sarovar, to say this is a beautiful piece of writing is an understatement. The essay brings back the observing eye which is now a days mostly lacking from ethnographic writing. Moreover, the shared spaces of women always break is from more stereotypical writings on space and gender. To more ways of belongings found on the rooftops amidst the flowing lines of drying clothes, where there are nursed friendships, heart breaks and gossip.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Such a beautiful take on something which is both easily missed and omnipotent with our daily realties. Enriching at the same time intriguing.

    Like

  3. This was so lovely to read! What a beautiful meditation on what makes a home and what we make of homes (until we don’t). Reminds me of a Phillip Larkin’s poem ‘Home is so sad.’

    Like

  4. Sarover, thanks for a timely and elegant meditation on something that is slipping away, or changing form, as we write. And it was good to meet the sky and the floor on the same page.

    Liked by 1 person

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