Dwelling in “not-the-home” during COVID-19

28 December 2020

Sampurna Das

In March 2020 when the COVID-19 lockdown was announced, I was quarter-way into my year-long ethnographic field study in a char (riverine island) of the Barpeta district of Assam, India. The lockdown came as a surprise, owing to the sheer suddenness of the announcement. It interrupted my doctoral fieldwork. I had to immediately relocate to my natal house in the city of Guwahati, Assam.

I should have been noting my interviews at my field, but here I was sanitizing currency notes at my natal home throughout the peak of COVID-19 in India. This has been quite a year.

I slowly realized that this was going to be a prolonged stay, unlike those I planned during university breaks. It is after almost a decade of moving to a different city in the country for higher studies that I am back in Guwahati for months at a stretch. I dreaded the stay. I knew this stay at my natal house would be fraught with negotiations. I cannot withstand the misogyny pushed under the garb of “culture” – dressing a particular way, moving out or talking over the phone only during certain hours of the day and the like. My relatives would often quip “Feminism had touched me” for now, I would voice my opinions at the drop of the hat.

In initial weeks, I went about adjusting to the sudden relocation. To begin with, I had to set up my workspace and timing. The former did not quite work out as planned. For over these years, my room has been alternatively used as a wardrobe room. As a result, there is always someone looking for something in my room throughout the day. Bolting the door was not an option. I decided to keep the door closed, and would bolt only when I had a meeting. Eventually, I did go on to announce that I was on a meeting even when I was not. So much for privacy! What did work in this process of negotiating my personal space was the ability to say “no” to random questions (like whom I was meeting with or talking to late into the night) or requests (like running errands during my work hours), as a means to get my parents to respect my limits.

The vines could not cover the entire scaffold, but whatever they did was enough for the gourd to grow. My negotiations are yet to reach their desired result, but whatever they did has improved a few equations at my natal home.

Lately, I have been reflecting on this ongoing dynamic of living with my parents, and feel that somewhere down the lane my natal house has ceased to be my home. Because home for me is where I can be myself. It subsumes both a geographic location and human relations, where and my living does not feel like an act or argument. At best my natal house is “not-the-home”, a zone in-between “home” and “outside”. For me “not-the-home” is a space where one has to put up an act to some degree or subdue some parts of the real self, but there is always a possibilty of eventually being one’s real self through continuous negotiation. In my case, the negotiations are with capillaries of misogyny. “Outside”, on the other hand, as a zone would never enable one to be their real self at all.

I am making up these categories of dwelling for my sanity, but every time someone asks me where my home is, I am conflicted. Should I tell them about the room in my hostel or field site? But often people ask, expecting my natal address as a reply.

When every logical justification against patriarchy seems like an argument to my parents, I go back to my passion – embroidery. After picking up the knack for embroidery from my mother, I have been doing it ever since I was in primary school. Embroidery offers me a sense of escape from my immediate surroundings. It has always enabled my mind to travel places restricted to my body.

“Why do you need to lock the room all the time?” I am asked. Clearly, parents do not understand the idea of privacy. It is frustrating, to begin with. Plus, the current layout of our house makes bolting the room impossible. Therefore, to maintain some sense of solitude I have started using a paper as a door-stopper.

Trying to make sense of what is happening internally – panicking inside! Just about a month into the lockdown, I was thoroughly confused – out of the field, without any direction of how I would make up for the lost time and cooped up at my natal house. It was then when I got hold of this book by one of the most influential social theorists of our times. I read it with the hope that perhaps some conceptualization of the current social world will help me navigate my mind away from the pandemic gloom. It did work!

Enough! Fighting with patriarchy inside four walls and out on the street. This selfie was taken on October 3 2020 in Guwahati (Assam) during a demonstration demanding justice for the Hathras rape case that rocked the country on September 14 2020. This was also the first time in months that I had stepped outside alone, apart from running errands. When I saw the call for this demonstration, I instantly decided that I had to be part of it. Because rape, after all, is the culmination of everyday misogyny – from teasing here and making a mockery of our will in the name of safety or culture there – we ignore happening both inside and outside our houses. We need to be vociferous at all levels.

Writing and reading the Assamese version of the Chilean protest song against gender violence – “Un Violador en Tu Camino” at my natal home. It has been translated to my mother tongue – Assamese – by queer activist and my dear colleague from Assam, Mayuri Deka. The act of reading a protest song in a space which is inherently misogynistic is liberating.


Sampurna Das is a Doctoral Candidate with the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi. Her primary research entails understanding the social in fluvial landscapes of Assam. Sampurna is also an embroidery artist, currently building on a workshop module of “embroidery as therapy”.

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