The apartment was on the 22nd floor of a building that came with a carpeted foyer, an elevator with a liftman who saluted the puffy-haired ladies who rode them, and a furry resident Labrador named Mango. The building was neither on a dingy Shantaram-esque lane off Colaba Causeway, nor in the darker turns of Cuffe Parade. On this road, where the apartment stood tall, trees grew high into the sky above.
The room on rent was slightly smaller than a big car. If I sat on the edge of the bed and stretched out my arms, the tips of my fingers could touch both the cupboard and the desk, the two other items of furniture in the room.
A forlorn monitor from the 1990s was placed near the cupboard. “No other PG in the city comes with a TV, madam,” Rajan, my broker, offered by way of explanation. The landlord, a bespectacled Parsi man with a headmasterly disposition, lived within the flat, too. The Wi-Fi, he warned, was strictly for email, “not movies and YouTube.”
It was one of those pre-monsoon dusks in Mumbai, when the only respite to the sapping humidity is a glimpse of the fiery orange sky above. Through the window, I could see the harbour, where boats bobbed up and down. Among the gothic gabled roofs, stood one majestic dome.
“I’ll take it.”
In the months that followed, my “home” became a conversation starter in a city I knew no one in. “I live in a room the size of a train compartment” or “My refrigerator is so small, I can buy only three tomatoes at a go.” But Mumbai is small, and buying groceries in limited quantities is actually a lesson in how not to waste.
I did my bit to make my house a home though — yellow bedspread, blue curtains, fairy lights and a softboard with photographs: everything that would make my British editor at the magazine I worked for grimace and say “design disaster!”
I worked for a publishing house where nothing in the world was as offensive as scruffiness. The magazine I wrote for published beautiful spreads of beautiful homes. By day, I would visit the houses of the rich, who thought they were famous. Holiday homes with infinity pools. Joint family homes with two pools — one to dip their feet in, one to swim in.
By night, I would struggle to write about them in a room smaller than the walk-in closet I had just visited. I knew nothing about design, but soon I learned how to play with words —light-filled, art-filled, cantilevered, slatted, louvred, and my favourite: “an oasis of calm in a sea of storm”. In interviews, when architects would use words like “mullions” and “chamfer”, I’d nod like I understood. When they would reference the unpronounceable names of other — usually French — architects, I’d nod even more fervently. “Yes, yes,” while carefully sliding my fingers over my notebook, to hide how I’d spell them. Pierre John Ray, did she say?
“I can’t do this,” I complained to my father over the phone one day, “I can’t relate to it.”
“What do you want to write about then?”
“People! Not doors, windows, tables and chairs!”
“People make a space, you know.”
“Buildings are not dead boxes,” I remembered reading BV Doshi famously say. I had been missing the forest for the trees. I slowly began to look for the maker, and not just the made, the lived rather than the living space.
Homes took different forms. I saw homes of different shapes (including one designed like a spaceship), spurred on by a range of emotions: kindness (the lady from Tokyo who built a home for her weavers in Uttarakhand), conviction (the London-return architect who made a house for his farmer parents in rural Maharashtra), acceptance (the circumspect parents who began living there), and love (the young mother who asked her architect to design a house large enough for her grandchildren’s children, too.)
During an interview, a Japanese architect told me of a bartender he had once met while backpacking across Japan. The man spent his life on a bunk bed: a laptop was fixed on the ceiling above, his utensils lay under, and his clothes occupied the foot of his bed. That evening at home after work, I looked around at my room. My cosmetics shared shelf-space with onions and potatoes. And, in a drawer, bottles of turmeric, salt and pepper were lined neatly beside my stationery. Under my bed was a tub of utensils. And the top of my fridge became a counter for books, bananas, keys and spare change.
Small spaces are uncomfortable — when you come home from a bad day at work, few sights are bleaker than onions and potatoes near a bottle of lotion. But small spaces are also good teachers. They instil in you a sense of order, and an understanding of what you really need. I did not need Marie Kondo to tell me that I needed to cut the clutter.
The stamp of approval that mattered came when my mother visited me in Mumbai. During the day, we visited dargahs and museums and argued whether Bandstand was better than Marine Drive; while, at night, my mother would lay a paati (an Assamese bamboo mat) in the space between the foot of my bed and cupboard. There was space for everything but a mess.
Over the months, my room had become a space I could call my own — where I ate, slept, read, wrote, laughed, cried and watched reruns of Friends on a monitor that was bought in 1995. My design sense had matured (my editor would be proud), and I flipped the college-kid fairy lights for a lampshade that cast a moody glow. On evenings, I would hear the Parsi landlord begin his daily karaoke session (it did not take long for his youthful exuberance to overtake his headmasterly pretensions), and I would look out of my window for my Mumbai moment: at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, its contemporary extension metres away, at the Yacht Club beyond, and the outline of the Gateway of India.
Two years later, I moved back to Assam with a job where I could finally write about real people. But here again, I find myself writing about homes, albeit of a different kind — homes that are quickly put together with bamboo and tarpaulin, homes that are destroyed as quickly by the wrath of a whimsical river, homes that have become tangible markers of identity in a land that is in the midst of a controversial citizen-counting exercise.
In the floods that ravaged Assam in July, I met a family who refused to be rescued. “Why should we leave our home?” they told me, as murky waters of an overflowing Brahmaputra swivelled around their bed. “The waters will recede tomorrow, but this will always be home.”
Back home, outside my window, the iconic architecture of a colonial Mumbai has been replaced by the rolling hills of Guwahati, where houses poke out of hill-tops, and birds chirp in unison with honking cars and chugging trains. A town raring to be a city, and stumbling along the way.
I am back in the room I spent my teenage years in, twice the size of my Mumbai flat. I open my cupboard and my clothes tumble out. My shoes are all over the place. Every flat surface is occupied.
“But you were so neat in Mumbai,” my mother often laments.
People make a space, but a space — the lack or excess of it, the perception or the memory of it — makes people, too.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Brick and Mortal’