Home Front

By Himanshu Burte 1

Labour, privacy and emotional attachments are all bricks in the structure we call home. Himanshu Burte explores the changing dynamic

Illustration: Rahul Das

Illustration: Rahul Das

Home is an important mechanism through which we engage the world. Through its space and practice it mediates between the self and the world shaping it and being shaped in turn. Today, look out of a window and you see an Indian city changing. But turn around, look back in, and you find home itself changing alongside. Home is changing, not just its hardware, whether bungalow, apartment or “building”. This change is part of the churn of the city.

A real estate ad—part of a series that appeared a few years ago on the cover page of a leading newspaper—helps understand this change. It frames tennis star Mahesh Bhupathi and his actor-wife Lara Dutta at “home” in an understatedly plush bedroom. They are dressed to the nines, though Dutta is one short. Perched on the edge of the bed in an elegant black dress, Bhupathi looking quietly at her from the bed, she surveys a spread of equally stylish red shoes and inhabits a dainty dilemma: which one?

The ad presents home as a perfectly coordinated visual ensemble of space and people. Black walls, white bed, black dress, white carpet, black floor. Black dress, white shirt, black jacket. And those red shoes, so many of them! A luxurious peace radiates out through wide glazed walls to a clear blue sky. There is no openable window in sight, and no city outside. The image obviously reworks the idea of home completely only to reorganise the climate and configuration of our consuming aspirations. But by that very token, it also points in the direction that real homes are taking.

Consider another image, a sight I cannot forget. A couple of years ago I visited a friend who lived in a complex of residential towers in Mumbai’s former textile mill area. As the car turned off the gritty chawl-lined buzz of the arterial road and up the entrance ramp, a glow-blast of evening sky suddenly flooded the windscreen. The short walk from the guests’ parking lot to the elevator passed through a manicured expanse of lawn and artfully meandering paths. The airy spaciousness amidst a scatter of well-dressed towers was a world away from the sweaty working-class city that lay beyond the gate fifty metres away. But this was only preparation. The someteenth floor apartment itself was corporate-class comfortable. Unremarkable, except for the long views to water on two sides that made the peninsularity of Mumbai visible. After dinner, our host showed us around what must be called “the grounds”. In the dark, it was like being in a landscape, truly, in the heart of the most crowded city in the world. Our host mentioned a golfing green. And then he pointed out the cricket ground. A dimly lit oval of grass floated up to sight through the dark. A private cricket ground for a few hundred families in one of the densest parts of Mumbai.

What do we get when we put the two images together—one a fictive interior, the other a “real” exterior space attached to elevated interior spaces? To begin with the obvious, a kind of unreality. In the ad, “home” is transparently a set, and the star pair characters that householders may be persuaded to aspire to. In the redeveloped tower complex, it is the unreal privateness of a public-scaled open space. One aspect of the unreality is the “closure” of coordination, cleanliness and repair in both spaces. No loose ends: no fused lamps, cracks in the wall, chipped polish. Both are perfectly maintained, near-illusions. The other aspect is the physical withdrawal of home from the city beyond. The home in the ad is a tower apartment and opens to the sky. In the real tower apartment, I looked to sky and water over a city reduced—from the vantage—to a quiescent “scene”. The two aspects point to a third, possibly more fundamental: the determined elision of any sign of labour, dwelling and time. The luxury of withdrawal is pleasure only when you cannot see the labour that keeps the furniture spotless.

Labour may well be the substance of the thick line dividing home from hotel. Hospitality as an attitude is realised only through the labour of its practice. Hotels offer wages (of varying viability) for such labour and charge a fee for the use of the resulting commodity; home, there, is a product offered daily on rent. A peculiar intensity of programmed manual and managerial labour keeps the hotel room looking new to every new “guest”. Home, on the other hand, can be dishevelled to the level at which your horizon of skill, time, energy and money meets your threshold of clutter-tolerance. It can be less than perfect in design, construction and maintenance: unrepaired damp patches on walls or leftovers of homework on the dining table don’t drive guests away. No specialist professional decorators and housekeepers continually attend to their corner of the taskscape in every corner of home. If your home is spotless, there is likely to be something of you making it so.

That line—between home and hotel room—appears to be blurring increasingly in the expanding, but very circumscribed, urban world of legitimised affluence. This is the new, aspirational normal of homes that are on the way to the kind of permanent perfection that the ad gestures towards. They often make up the vertical gated community whose aesthetic takes the Greco-Roman, huffing and puffing, to new heights in Gurugram or Gamdevi. In the thick of city life, the verticality enables a new kind of elevated ground (atop the multi-storey parking lot in Mumbai), intensively landscaped out of the heart of the city. On the city’s outskirts, land is cheap and the campy simulacrum of nature can be staged professionally on real ground with impossibly fluorescent colours of lawn and shrubbery. The ornamental compound wall and layers of manual and technologised security systems run by suddenly thriving businesses keep the city at bay.

Sometimes, of course, “arrival” is sought to be expressed—in the pursuit of differentiation, whether of product in the market, or family in the status stakes—more effectively through a minimalism of line and plane clad in materials of maximal prestige. Luxe moderne, if you will. Either way, you know you have begun walking across the line when, in one of these towers your affable host offers a choice of cuisine that will be rustled up by uniformed kitchen staff—what’s your fancy, Chinese, Punjabi, South Indian, Continental?

In the by now “old” paradigm of the middle-upper-class home, which still glows in the minimumist built environment of the unsmart Indian city, care replaces choice as the central value; at least, that is the expectation. Beyond the open door, the kitchen is not an ancillary unit of the domestic enterprise, run by professional expertise and labour. It remains continuous with the emotional practice of home and its peaceable injustices. To get the food to the table, the underacknowledged woman-of-the-house has hurried from work to direct the labour of the underpaid cook. The range on the table reflects her particular personality, creativity and commitment: aloo gobhi, masala dosa and a new pasta being tried out, perhaps? Or maybe avial and bisibele baath, with sev puri on the side.

Clearly, in some way home must “grow” out of its dweller. Labour might well be an important mode of this outgrowth. Labour ties you to your task, but it may also produce a lived if not legal ownership. Could the difference between old and new—if such oversimplification may be tolerated a little longer—be about how much of it grows out of dwellers’ creative and physical labour? The hotel is not home, precisely because it is the product of others’ labour, a product offered for cash rather than produced out of care. So, though the old middle-upper-class home is less of a hotel than the new, it might be a hotel all the same. In it women continue as always to labour on the production and reproduction of a field of care, whether as underappreciated wives and mothers, or as underpaid help. The labour of wives and mothers (though not of the “servants”) allows us to think of what they produce as their home, but what about the fathers, sons and husbands? Perhaps, as consumers of others’ labour in making home, they might as well be living in a hotel (as many a frazzled mother yells out to her distracted teenager)? Of course, by this logic the new home appears to have kicked its women upstairs from the traditional labouring role, to that of a consumer-manager. But who really “owns” the new home then, in the fullest sense? And what is the substance of that ownership in the outsourcing of home-(and therefore, family- and self-) making to specialist designers, housekeepers, cooks and even nannies?

The house has for long been the embodiment of property, but the home made out of it was always much closer to being territory, something that grows more directly out of our (social) animality. A more transactional model of home is probably emerging. Maybe it is related to our increased mobility, as we learn to switch relationships, homes, neighbourhoods, cities and countries at the drop of a mail in the inbox. Or maybe that mobility is itself an effect serving other purposes. Could it be that we are being cut loose and put into motion—call it upward mobility, or a roller coaster ride—by the bigger churn that is also applying a new torque to our cities? Parts of the older urban ­crust—usually informal or lower-middle-class settlements—are splintering out. In its place rises the spatial order of a new space economy, producing or trading in real estate, and building infrastructure. Urban space is the new product, and an instrument of the economy that mines ever deeper veins of our everyday life. The state smiles on approvingly through its policies for redevelopment or smart cities, even participating as an entrepreneur itself. No wonder that home is being turned inside-out by the gathering intensity of a paradox peculiarly of our time.

Two paradoxes, actually, and converging. As we saw, home may be withdrawing into an ever-more intensive privacy of leisure—remember the star couple getting ready for a party? But only by outsourcing every act that is involved in the making of home. So your home may be more your personal hotel than your home. Further, your privacy is already compromised by virtue of the very pathways of consumption that it is devoted to. Anybody can find almost anything about your life—you are already overexposed in the virtual world without a real choice. In fact, anybody can reach you any time. (Not just the market, the state too, with Aadhar.)Which means they can, and do, reach deep into you to tweak your dreams as you check on the last ping, for the last time, really, before bed. The ornamental compound wall, CCTV system and layers of uniformed guards at the gate may all be part of an elaborate security joke on you that you pay for. The good news is that you can at least forbid your teenager from living behind a closed bedroom door. But you or your home may not always be the main target, just a pathway to something bigger. Multi-level marketing and pyramid schemes gamble on the institution of home, in principle. Other people’s businesses strive to absorb your home preying on the economic value latent in the live streams of family feeling and friendship (your “network”) that sustain it in the first place. Home, is an increasingly attractive target.

“Home front” is just right, then. I got it the other way round in the beginning. Home may no more be a mechanism through which we engage the world. It looks increasingly like a new front on which the world engages us. I mean engage as in a struggle. Engage as also in enlist. The struggle is not to get enlisted like much of the city (and world) at large has been. Remember the big data company that profiled every American voter and sought to influence voting habits subtly while running Trump’s online campaign? How do you know you have not been tagged already?


This article was published in the Jan-Mar 2018 issue of The Indian Quarterly. The theme of the issue is “Home”.

One Comment

  1. Sheela Jaywant January 14, 2018 at 8:52 am - Reply

    Brilliant essay.

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