Dwelling in “not-the-home” during COVID-19
28 December 2020
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 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.
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.
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”.