Playing House

by Mathangi Krishnamurthy

Blog1Anthropologists are supposed to be masters of the art of the rooting and uprooting. I learned very early on in my graduate school career the art of attaching, but never too much. Never owning a place, always on the move, and becoming excellent at thrift store shopping for furniture were some of the skills I carried with me into adulthood. These things I only realized recently when I experienced intense panic as I stood in my adult living room looking around at all the “good” furniture I owned, things that were too solid to find takers on Craigslist.

Nevertheless, some of my most striking memories of “im”permanence are of the housed I inhabited, especially during the time I conducted fieldwork in the city of Pune. Over the course of a year and a half, I moved three times across four houses. For the first three months, I was a paying guest at the house of a friend. She had a beautiful home on the outskirts of the city. While the location was hardly convenient, the pleasure of her company and the promise of good food kept me rooted to the place. I had a lovely first floor room with its own bathroom, a bed, and a carved wooden desk. Her two dogs were an added joy. She had glass baubles in the windows, classical music wafting out of her room in the mornings, and a kitchen stuffed with interesting chutneys and condiments. Eclectic crystal and glassware dotted the cupboard in her dining room, and we spent many evenings conjuring cocktails and sipping wine.

The house was my respite from the frustrations of fieldwork, and its objects were sources of contemplation when the city offered none. Even the light filtering through its corner windows seemed imbued with its own enchantments and possibilities. It smelled of a delightful comfort.

It was, of course, too good to last.

After three months, I commenced nighttime work at a place far away from her home and it was time for me to find a new place. She came to my rescue however, and suggested that I meet her sister who lived in another part of the city and had a studio apartment to rent. The catch was that I would have to fend for myself for two months before the current tenants were ready to leave.

The two houses I inhabited for the two months that I was ungrounded were remarkable in the ways that they evoked emotions that can only be said to be in opposite quadrants of the affective pantheon.

The first was cold, white, bare, and clean but untended. It was a single room with a bathroom, the outhouse of another friend's parents' house. It seemed to reflect in some ways their personalities. His father was a nice man, albeit clinical and often, distant. Like many of the men of an older generation in my family, the only forms of conversation he was comfortable with were politics, technology and philosophy. His mother, on the contrary was chatty, lonely and often, wily. She wanted me to set up her son, who had been single for a while (or so she thought) and shared everything she could about her own youth and life. The room I inhabited was in many ways an epitome of the relationships in the house; guarded, cold, insufficient and unhappy. I slept very little and dreamed of ghosts. Waking up to bare walls was a nightmare in itself. The bathroom had brightly colored blue and yellow tiles though. Perhaps, if I had tarried longer, I could have filled it up with color, objects and people. But I was not allowed to have people over and the family hesitated at the strange hours I might have to keep if I were to begin working at the call center. So I left and took nothing with me. Perhaps just a bad memory of the room.

In despair and depression, I reached out to another friend who lived in the heart of the city and asked if she would let me live with her for a month before I moved to my studio. In warmth and friendship, she opened her house to me, and I found for another month a place to live in and a space to inhabit. Her late husband's paintings hung on the living room walls and her dining room table was always well stocked with fruit. Each morning, I helped her pick out saris to wear to work. We would chat late into the night and drive downtown to buy music. Her daybed always bore bright colored block-printed covers and I shared her hand lotions. She introduced me to a cereal called Weetabix and made sure there was always chocolate in the refrigerator. I bought fresh vegetables many nights from her favorite vendor down the street and together we discussed the colors that she might paint on her walls.

When I left, she gave me three things; a necklace, a pasta plate for my morning cereal, and notes on a well-stocked refrigerator. The necklace was beaded with large ceramic painted globes made in Jaipur. I wore it once kitted out as Calypso to a costume party . The plate had delicate ferns painted on its edges.

My new studio apartment was all of 400 square feet. My landlords were easygoing and seemed to genuinely treat me like an adult. The space was like a canvas for me to fill. The apartment was on the first floor; the French windows opened out onto a large balcony, which overlooked the street. It had a daybed to double up as a couch and a sideboard that could serve as my bookshelf. A frugal wooden table divided the kitchen area from the living room and in-built shelves lined one side of the kitchen counter. A small refrigerator stood guard on the other end and the tiny bathroom was tucked away to one edge behind the sideboard.

Blog2I made a list of things I needed; cupboards, lamps, rugs, floor cushions, soft board, bedcovers, curtains, plates, glasses, wine glasses, cutlery, knives.

On the first day, I took a dear friend's advice and stocked my refrigerator. The cheeky salesman at the corner store, a young boy, bantered and flirted as he offered to deliver my large order to the apartment. In relief and gratitude, I dropped off my list and he came by later in the day with milk, eggs, butter, bread, rice, lentils, spices (coriander, cumin, chilli powder, anise, fennel, mustard, turmeric, cloves, cinnamon, bay leaves) and Nutella. Later in the day, he brought soap, shampoo, cleaning liquids and washing powder; Lux and Sunsilk and Vim and Surf. He gazed amused at my apartment and its messiness. As I set things down, I caught a whiff of my mother's kitchen. This kind of “turning into our parents” I could deal with, I thought.

The next day I traipsed off to Tulsi Baug, Pune's own cornucopia of all things householderly. Directing the autorickshaw driver to a store unsurprisingly named Tulsi, I entered, brave of heart and firm of resolve, all of which melted the moment I espied the goods on display.

(Perhaps, a note to readers might be required here. Pune is a curious city, bearing in equal measure, mom and pop stores, artisanal offerings and large departmental behemoths. To know Pune is to know it in all its scales.)

Tulsi is tucked away in the middle of a busy road lined end-to-end with hole-in-the-wall stores selling a wide variety of goods including silver, toys, household linen, water bottles, lunch boxes, “fancy” bags, cotton “nighties” and “maxis”, refrigerator pouches, pantry containers, handkerchiefs and slips. Tulsi had all of the above, and then some. Dodging reckless scooters and motorbikes, I walked across the road and entered what thankfully, even in my adult view, was magical. Like a magpie, I began to peck. Soon I was trudging back and forth from various counters to the cashier's desk to line up my wares. In my head, I began allocating space to each of my finds. The three large containers on the top shelf, the wire baskets to be nailed to the walls in the bathroom, the cane baskets could hold lotion and lipsticks and sit on the sideboard, plates on the third shelf, glasses on the third too and knives and cutlery on the kitchen counter. Three vases for various corners, extension cords for lamps I intended to buy and two coffee mugs for wherever I worked (one for me, one in the hope of company). Weighed down by three large bags, I headed back, excited and exhausted.

Now my house had food, silverware, plates, cutlery and storage containers.

The next item required some serious thought. In the alcove between my refrigerator and the bathroom was enough space for a tiny cupboard; the kind one might read about in children's books where everything is neatly ordered, small people sized and beautiful. While I enjoy walk-in closets as much as the next consumptive person, there is something so much more interesting about a cupboard. Its musty insides seem to speak of long-forgotten clothes hidden away only to come out in surprising moments of boring lives. One of my favorite activities as a child was to open my parents' cupboard, to sift through photographs and enchantingly obtuse paperwork (bills, identity cards, old letters where my grandfather writes in equally obtuse longhand to my parents). Opening the locker required special permission and supervision. So once a week I would sit under the watchful eyes of a parent and work my way through jewelry, gold and silver, tiny and large, ornate and ugly.

So I wanted myself a cupboard too. For this errand, my scooter would suffice. Riding onto the busy street, avoiding faster motorbikes and looming smoking trucks, I made my way to a cane store in the middle of the city. I had passed this store many times on my rides through town and always wondered at the variety of furniture it stocked. Sofas, lamps, bookshelves, coffee tables, chairs, tables, beds, all woven exquisitely from cane and rattan. Cane furniture, I've been told, is difficult to clean. Dust settles in the gaps between the strands and makes a home. But cane makes me think of colonial bungalows and gracious hosts and sunlit patios. So I walked in and spoke to the proprietor, a middle-aged man with a lovely moustache. Together, we designed an alcove-sized cupboard and a high-backed chair. He even offered to make a cup-holder for the chair. The furniture would be delivered within two weeks, he assured me. I took with me an exquisite oval lampshade to hang from the ceiling.

My last task for the week involved linens and curtains. Across the street where I lived was a store that carried cotton rugs, curtains, and floor cushions. I had always lamented the lack of bright, cotton linen in the US. Here I bought a tan rug with ochre, yellow and purple diamond patterns and two bright orange floor cushions. My scooter was also made to carry two sets of curtains in sage green and transparent pewter and three bedcovers in bright turquoise, purple, yellow and green. The latter I found at an “exhibition” or traveling fair, where wares from various Indian states were sold. Here, I also bought two paper lamps and an ashtray in delicate papier-mâché.

Some things came with me from my parents' place. An old National Panasonic that my parents had bought the year I was born took pride of place on a rickety cane chair by the door. It played Radio Mirchi, the city's single FM channel all day long. To this day, I know the lyrics of all the Bollywood film songs released in 2007. I also brought with me books, comics, and cassettes. My comics had been bound meticulously by my father years ago and had been lying in the attic for too long. For a year, they came back to a bookshelf.

The week ended with various plumbers, carpenters and Internet service agents traipsing through the apartment to string lamps, fix cabinets, repair modems, check the water heater, and construct bulletin boards. Over the year, they would begin to recognize my apartment and be back many more times.

Over the year, besides the itinerants, two others would become permanent members of my home, Kantha and her son. Kantha was a middle-aged woman of great cheer who tended to many houses in the apartment complex. Kantha knocked on my door the day I moved on and offered to help with cleaning and cooking. I was more than happy to agree. Over the many months since that day, she would come by once to make me chapattis(which I cannot for the life of me figure out how to make to this day), and stave away dust and degeneration. Together we would brew tea; she would wrinkle her nose at my preferred Darjeeling without milk and make us strong, milky, black tea instead. Many a day after my night shift, I would return home in the morning and collapse on the bed. Kantha would let herself in, wake me up and bring with her the day and often, fresh greens. As she cooked, her son would come by and together we would work through his English textbook. She would keep a watchful eye on him before leaving to her other households. Some days we would gossip about her mortal enemy, the woman who helped at my landlord's and who, according to Kanta often came by to look through my various lotions and herbal facemasks. Once she suggested that I buy the apartment.

In this apartment, I hosted dinners, threw parties, shared drunken secrets, and interviewed respondents. Here, I cooked, talked, gossiped, sang, danced, and stumbled. In this tiny studio of four hundred square feet, people tended to stay. I was never short of company or music.

I had to dismantle everything when I left.