The suitcase Indian11 min read . Updated: 02 Sep 2011, 08:29 PM IST
The suitcase Indian
The suitcase Indian
There are two senses of the word ‘home’. The first, in a wider sense, is where you grew up—your parents’ home, which for me always will be Bombay. The real sense of the term is well, really, in your head, isn’t it? Home is just a movable notion," says Jeet Thayil, a poet-musician currently exploring the theme of dislocation, uprootedness and men with no homes in his second novel, with a working title The Book of Common Saints.
Thayil has moved homes too many times to count, and seven times between continents in the last seven years. He recently made the jump from Mumbai to Delhi, “because my lease ran out and when you are moving, it is as much the same thing to move between apartments as it is to move between cities".
Thayil is no nomad without possessions. Each time he moves, he travels with furniture, kitchen, a lifetime’s collection of books and memorabilia, ties to friends and works in progress, and takes two-three months to start life from scratch, again. “Of course, it is disruptive, disruption is stimulation. I get dissatisfied in cities where I live longer. It is not about the city, it is something in me. When my lease runs out here in Delhi, I don’t know where I will go, but I will go," he says.
Almost as if describing a peculiar malady of this age, “Metastasis," writes Siddhartha Mukherjee in The Emperor of all Maladies, “is a curious mix of ‘meta’ and ‘stasis’—‘beyond stillness’ in Latin—an unmoored, partially stable state that captures the particular instability of modernity."
To the stable, anchored majority of Indians, this constant urge to stay in a state of self-propagating motion seems to be spreading disease-like among a new generation of urban wanderers who find no virtue in stability or rootedness. To them, the notion of “settling down" is anathema to their cause. Men and women who have given up on the great Indian dream— owning a home—are dismissed as aberrations at best.
Keki Mistry, CEO and vice-chairman of HDFC, Ltd calls them “a negligible phenomenon". Policymakers and housing experts alike would rather focus on the trends of the more predictable; those obediently buying into the dream. Yet, isn’t it always the exception—the lone cluster of abnormal cells in a routinely functioning ecosystem—that is the change maker?
According to the National Sample Survey Organisation’s 2009 survey, 29% of all Indians are migrants; the current urban migration rate being 35%. Further, the survey busts the myth that migrancy is the lot of the uneducated; the higher your education levels, the higher your propensity to migrate. According to a 2011 McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) report, 40% of India’s population is pegged to float into its six major cities by 2030, throwing up challenges for affordable housing and for urban infrastructure. The diaspora is silently transmuting to an internal phenomenon.
Juxtapose this to a generation that broke away from joint family traditions; for whom buying your own home became the ultimate expression of individual freedom. The home had become the safest repository their risk-averse, return-guaranteed vehicles of investment aspired to in pre-liberalized India. It was where they invested the virtues they made of success, stability and social prestige. The Khosla ka Ghosla generation that followed was stuck at the cusp, wondering why their children were more excited by jobs that took them wandering than by their land. Evidence of this metastasis is not in economic databases alone; it is in the vacant lots of inherited multi-crore properties in cities, it is in the sociological shifts in cities, it is in the works of our cultural documentarians.
R.N. Sharma, head of the department of urban housing at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Tiss), Mumbai, has been watching the urban home dream dissolve sociologically for some time now. “We call it ‘the dissolving of belongingness’. People are relocating for jobs. Whereas once you invested your savings in a house and then built your life around it, today it has become more important to invest your value in your professional future, and build life around that. One of the reasons for this huge sociological shift is the sheer inability of the middle class to afford the huge investment required to buy a house today. As people migrate for jobs, they lose their roots. They cease to belong. When you cease to belong to a city, the need to own a home in it also dissolves."
Themes of migration, displacement and loss of the sense of home are documented in the works of Indian artists like Subodh Gupta and Jagannath Panda, says independent curator and art critic Gayatri Sinha. Panda, who is displaying his works at the Gallery Nature Morte in New Delhi and Berlin in an exhibition titled Metropolis of Mirage, says migration is a primal urge towards a new utopia. “You outgrow a home— physically or mentally—when you grow in thought and stop feeling connected with the space around you. Culturally, we live in one space, and when you see these new spaces coming up—like a Gurgaon—offering you a new economy, a new life, you reach for it, but are not able to fully adapt to it. That gap is the desperation of this age, in which most of us exist," he says.
Home Spun, an exhibition that opened last week at the Devi Art Foundation in Gurgaon, spans artistic responses to the notion of home. When curator Girish Shahane asked each of the 40 artists featured to define “home" for the catalogue, most caught a nomadic strain. “Home is such a vast and ever-shifting idea that I still have to find words to contain it," says artist Sudarshan Shetty, while Pakistani artist Hamra Abbas says, “I have lived in Berlin, Islamabad, and now Massachusetts, and my Internet connection is always conveniently titled ‘Home’."
Why the trend is changing
Terms like “lifestyle", “tied down", “relocation" and “options open" are common among a new generation, says Sanjay Dutt, the Mumbai-based CEO of Jones Lang LeSalle India, a global real estate services firm. “Even 10 years ago, people’s requirements of a house were: Is there a school nearby, a temple, a hospital, how far from the station? Today, choices are driven by lifestyle. Homes are addresses."
Given the lifestyle choices, the math needs to add up for those constantly on the move.
Anmol Choubey, 35, a general manager in a media company, has lived in Malad, north Mumbai, on rent for five years. Despite pressure from his parents and wife to “settle down", he has no plans to buy a house in the foreseeable future. To him, it adds up. “I want a certain standard of living, certain amenities, certain kinds of people as my neighbours, certain kinds of children to play with for my son. I get that here for a rent of ₹ 20,000. The 10% hike in rent written into my contract gets covered by an average 15-20% hike in my salary every year. To buy the same place, I’d be spending ₹ 80k as EMI on a housing loan, apart from exhausting my savings on down payments. If I try to lower my EMI, I will end up moving to a place I don’t really want to live in," he explains. He first rented the place in Malad when he worked in that area. Today, he works in south Mumbai. “Tomorrow, I may move closer to work, or out of town, or out of the country. I don’t see why I should be tied down by a large financial commitment," he says.
Derailing stability is the new social value attached to flexibility. Whereas once matrimonial classifieds proudly stated “owns own flat", today “frequently posted overseas" is a far more potent hook. Job recruiters indicate that all things being equal, a candidate’s willingness to relocate, his ability to do so immediately, and his flexibility in adapting to a new location, are decisive factors.
This is also a generation for whom any potential dream of owning a home is satiated by the fact that their parents already do, and a future inheritance appeases any inherent need for ownership. Choubey admits that his parents’ home back in Ahmedabad fulfils that need for him.
Nikhil Adke, 28, a finance executive with Tata Consultancy Services in Mumbai, says a “dream home" simply makes no sense to his generation. “I change cities every eight months on average. If I get furnished accommodation, great. If I don’t, I buy furniture and sell when I move. I hope to be posted overseas shortly. My parents own a home in Belgaum, where I’m from, so I may invest in a house when I need the tax break, but how does a home matter to me?" asks Adke.
In a system already geared towards a pack-and-go lifestyle, the sheer unaffordability of a massive down payment, the volatility of constantly rising interest rates (10 times in the past year alone) and builder bullying through delayed possession and hidden costs, is pushing those on the brink of a home-owning decision off the edge.
“Let’s face it, a dream’s a dream, but a home today is at best an investment. It is a brutal disciplinarian," says Aaron Matthias, 32, who lived on rent for two years in Versova, Mumbai. Today, he owns a “bloody brick window" overlooking the expanse of Aarey Colony’s green lung in Goregaon’s Mantri project.
The sense of ownership of 850 sq. ft has come at a price: “I do not remember the last time I went to a pub. I do not own a credit card. I dine out sometimes, but I do not go to a fancy restaurant. I live a simple, hermetic life," he says. With a ₹ 57 lakh loan, he even questions the cost of his food. To what end? “I don’t foresee myself living here 10 years from now—infrastructure, water, traffic—this is not the dream. Imagine having children in this state! I can’t even think about it," he says.
The new diaspora
What is this lack of rootedness achieving? Why should a minimal percentage of people who voluntarily wander across cities, changing jobs and homes, matter to anyone?
For one, it affects the housing industry. According to Knight Frank Economy & Realty Glance June 2011, “the Realty Index on the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) has dropped by more than 38% in the last year compared to a 4% increase in the Sensex... The Maharashtra state stamp and registration department data has shown a 20% decline in total property registrations for the six-month period ending June compared with the corresponding period, the previous year... residential market transaction volumes have plummeted more than 70% since its 2007 heydays." In contrast, rental levels have been stable in spite of a spike in prices since 2007, and continue to hold steady. Economists claim that interest rate hikes being cyclical, the market evens out for “genuine buyers" in the long run.
The phenomenon also pushes up purchases in places where people don’t want to live, encouraging ghost towns. Liases Foras CEO Pankaj Kapoor says: “Walk through new developments in Gurgaon or Goregaon—more than 60% of flats are lying vacant. High interest rates ensure those who need homes—the middle class—cannot afford them. As a result, these new markets, driven by investors and not those chasing the dream, come up without required infrastructure, which further pushes down buying. It is only when the first-home buyer drives the market that there will be a true correction in the market trend."
Yet economists claim more and more Indians are taking home loans and investing in property; figures based on which new emerging markets pushing multi-storey apartment blocks accommodate the new India. Should it matter to economists or real estate experts why people buy, as long as they do?
“It matters deeply to the housing industry why people buy their homes," says Mistry. But he believes it is best to take the potential impact of migrant populations with a pinch of salt: “We’ll address migrations to cities in 2035 when we come to it," he says.
When people don’t live in the homes they buy, it becomes a speculator-driven market. It also breaks up traditional motifs of society. Mistry says that according to his database, migrants are still a small margin, and lack immediate influence. “At best, it is a dream deferred, not a dream given up on," he says. “Until the age of 35, young people cannot afford homes, and either live on rent or with their parents, especially when their children are small. People migrating to cities like Mumbai look to make this their home for 10 years at least, if not more. I would say 95% of people live in the homes they buy. Paying EMIs just makes more sense. India remains a traditional market and buying a home remains a dream, if not for current use, then for post-retirement purposes," he states.
Current statistics holding fort, it begs the question: How impactful can an anomalous floating population be? According to the World Bank’s 2009 World Development Report, in migration lie the answers to many of the questions plaguing development—skill development, education, unemployment, and a better quality of life.
Himanshu, assistant professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, a visiting fellow at Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi, and a Mint columnist, explains: “There is a cost involved with migration. It is obvious, hence, that mobility is still governed by the kind of assets people own, whether it is physical or human capital, or social status." Ideally, he says, migration is equitable when it is a “pull migration", where migration is caused by an attraction to the creation of opportunity, rather than a “push migration", where people are forced to move due to lack of it.
Ironically then, the more assets you own, the easier it is for you to pack up and move. The easier it is to let go of moorings like stability because your need for them as crutches diminishes. As India moves to a more affluent society, the more your sense of belongingness is likely to dissolve. On the ability of man to take a deep breath and let go of an anchor called home, depends all progress.
Anindita Ghose contributed to this story.