You cannot have visitors. You cannot own a TV. You cannot lock your room—it will be used when you are at work. You cannot have a key to the house—you ring the bell every time you come in.
These were some of the conditions of my stay as a paying guest when I moved in new to Mumbai. The landlady’s daughter used my room for giving tuitions during the day. The occasions when I could not or did not go to work during the week, I would have to sit in the living room or leave the house during the time when the lessons were on. Basically, I would not have access to the single room I was paying rent for.
That is just one of the many travails tenants experience in Mumbai—of compromised living—when they move here with first jobs and limited means. The city is notoriously unkind in renting to single folks, certain professionals, people seeking privacy, members of certain communities, individuals who like music, men with long hair, women with short hair… the list goes on depending on who you encounter.
Mumbai is a large, expensive city with a transient population in which immigrants, therefore, keep moving houses till they find a place they can call their own or leave for another city/country.
At what point do you call the place you live in as “home”? Is it when you own the place or have lived in it for the longest time or when the furniture belongs to you or you can put your name on the door? To use a cliché, when does a “house” become a “home”?
My colleague Sidin Vadukut’s Letter From... last week set me thinking—besides this commonality we share of moving houses many times in our lives—about the number of places I have lived in and how that shaped me as an individual.
I have now lived in seven-eight cities and 24-25 houses, none of which belonged to me (I use the term “lived” for a place where I spent at least six months. I say “seven-eight” because I don’t know if I should consider Delhi and Noida as one or two). These range from a small town like (four houses) Bhilai (formerly in Madhya Pradesh and now in Chhattisgarh) to Bengaluru (six houses), Chennai (one), Kolkata (three), Delhi (two), Boston (one) and Mumbai (seven).
I have distinct memories of each. Like the house with a playground in front where we played cricket in 42 degrees Celsius during the summer and the other house not far away in front of which I learnt to cycle. The house with a large garden, with lemon and guava trees, from which the sibling moved out to study and I felt loneliness for the first time.
That cold, dark apartment in front of the bus terminus in the big city where all the children were so cool and trendy. The sunny, open house next to the milkman whose athlete son would give me a complex by topping the state in his tenth standard. The first floor house in front of a lake where we played table tennis on the dining table and the third floor one that still holds my belongings from childhood.
There was the ground floor house where the power would go off every few hours. Then that building, famous for being next to Sourav Ganguly’s house, one of whose residents would recognize me over 20 years later in another city, in another context.
The terrace room where I could touch all four walls standing in one place and was so hot that water would sizzle when dropped on the floor. The first floor flat with narrow, steep steps, and rusty doors, which was so dusty that I would write my name on the floor out of boredom.
The place I stayed in when Mother Teresa died. The hostel room I shared with an unwelcome mouse that was partial to Marie biscuits. The remote, peaceful apartment with the swimming pool and just one shop nearby where I found great contentment and sorrow.
The house with a basement window from where I would gasp on seeing the season’s first snow, turning the night’s barren landscape into magical candyfloss in the morning.
The flat where the landlord was so generous that he would allow me to pay half the market rate for rent and to the next where another gracious owner would excuse me for not paying rent for a few months. And that old building with decrepit walls and unfriendly neighbours where, without realizing how, I would end up staying the most—my longest, happiest stint in a single place lasting almost eight years.
Besides personal memories, there are lessons to be learnt from moving frequently. You don’t get too attached to material things, you settle in and out quickly, you know what to look for in a neighbourhood, you don’t accumulate too much and you make fleeting friendships easily.
But you never feel “settled”, which has different connotations in Indian English. You don’t have all your precious possessions in one place. You don’t drive nails into whichever wall you want and you don’t mention this as your “permanent” address in any of the millions of forms you fill.
You rarely make friendships that last through every stage of your life. You still sleep the best in your parents’ home, because it smells of your childhood and of familiarity—that racing car from the fifth standard stands at the same place on the shelf.
Life is temporary and a rented house is the best reminder of it.
After leaving all them, I have returned to only two of the houses where I lived once, because they belong to family. It’s not that I haven’t been tempted to, but since most of them are in other cities, it seems too much of an effort. Plus, I may not remember most of the addresses.
On one of our moves to a different city, my father left my favourite (and only) hockey stick behind. It broke my heart and I expressed my displeasure. He said he would get me another one. He also said that I should learn to move on—possessions can be replaced but the more baggage you carry, the heavier your steps get.
Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.
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