Flats & Flatmates

    by Arushi Vats

    In the summer of 2018, I developed an obsession with looking at houses online. Much like everyone else, I had a Facebook profile, which had matured from a virtual diary of sorts to a vertical catalogue of pictures deemed worthy of social praise and was now serving more as a frequent but blasé friend—good enough to fill up the dull hours at work. I am in no denial that spending time on Facebook was an effective strategy in inducing a state of mindlessness. The constant churning of the mind could rest when the eye was preoccupied, and it is here where I learnt the art of not ever being truly present.

    What does being truly present mean? I guess people took it to mean attentiveness, self-awareness, and active listening. I’d scroll past multiple headlines asserting how the practice of listening was acquired, how it was an art that needed cultivation, that reaped benefits. But not being present was also a product of effort—of training the mind to deliberately separate from everything that is going on around you; and much was going on that summer.

    Biggest among these was the reason I was looking for a house. A separation of degree and kind had ruptured through the fabric of my daily life; there was no question, I simply must move.

    I was searching for a place that could accommodate my sister, our cat and me. The house had to be safe, it had to hold that mystic quality of peace and calm. But the facts were that we had short purse strings, little in the way of savings, difficult family history, and no guarantors. Looking for a house in parts of the city we were hoping to live in was a challenge in what we had initially determined as a suitable budget. And like all novices who enter a field thinking they’ll figure things out on the go, we hadn’t accounted for brokers—middlemen who grabbed vacant houses, and negotiated with possible tenants, charging a handsome fee for finding you your dream house. There were some advantages to searching for a house at this moment in history, the ubiquity of mobiles and the internet had transformed the nature of this search—most brokers would send pictures and videos of potential houses over messages, greatly reducing the time spent physically looking at places. But even with these advancements, I remember looking at my sister on a hot afternoon in a dusty bylane of South Extension, our kurtas drenched in sweat after walking from one empty flat to another as the brokers trawled along and contemplating if we could spend the hundred rupees left in her purse on an auto rickshaw back home, or two glassfuls of fresh lime soda.

    A friend casually suggested, “Why don’t you look at postings online?”

    To our heat-stricken, recurrently famished, dehydrated bodies, it seemed like the most sensible thing to do.

    And so, I signed up on listings websites, requesting to join about twenty groups dedicated to eliminating the middlemen on Facebook, created by departing tenants who uploaded pictures of flats to be vacated by them.

    It began innocently enough. I was permitted to join some groups; others took longer to approve my request. I began to diligently follow activities on the groups which had let me in—Facebook conveniently set up notifications that audibly rang a little jingle on my phone and laptop each time there was an update, ensuring that I didn’t miss anything.

    I looked at hundreds of pictures and watched videos of rooms in various stages of abandonment. I studied the composition of these images—their hurried, out of focus, grainy quality or well-lit, carefully arranged studies in light. The subtle marks of mould or seepage on the walls, the poor array of paint colours; whether someone had left things in a disarray, or if the room was scrupulously organised. The presence of plants; the selection of art on the wall; the typologies of rugs and cushions; beds or mattresses sprawled on the floor; cramped, dirty bathrooms; shelves filled with regrettable fiction. I wondered: who were these people, and where were they going? Did they laugh here, did they have sex? Did they suffer from nightmares or respiratory infections; were they addicted to pornography? I studied the voice of the descriptions that accompanied these images: “2BHK, secure locality, maid, wifi, electrical appliances”; “Looking for a chilled-out flatmate, working women only”; “UPSC Aspirants, focused students only”; “Desirable for single women, career-focus”; “No restrictions; no landlord interference”.

    In a few days, I was hooked. I slyly kept a tab open on the internet browser at work, scrolling through vacant flats. I told myself I was doing what many in my line of work had done before me: gazing at representations of still life, making sense of visual documents on modern living. Like any researcher, my interest had expanded from just considering posts which were appropriate to my search, to now looking, perhaps lasciviously, at every update. Listings in remote parts of the city, listings exclusively for men, listings beyond my budget, and even in other countries.

    It had been a year since my search for a house began. I found a place and moved, only to find out a month later that it didn’t work. This realisation cost us a life and flung me back into the search for a house. I found another house, this time, through a broker. I knew postings online would be of little help, but I did not stop looking.

    It hasn’t taken as much as I thought it would to admit that I am the victim of an addiction. It has been two years since I found a house, which for all intents and purposes, meets my requirements, even possessing a sliver of that mystic quality. However, at the time of writing this, I am also absent-mindedly looking at recently vacated houses online.

    ****

    The question that interests me is not the why of it. Addictions are everywhere, lying tremulously in wait for the slightest psychological injury to surface. And what I had experienced was bludgeoning—left only with the entrails of whichever organs were responsible for generating happiness. Outwardly, I was alright— flushed like an apple that appears ripe but is rotting right beneath the peel.

    A couple of weeks after moving houses the first time, I met Rom, a friend of a few years who too had recently moved out of her parent’s home in the peri-urban regions socially tucked within the seams of Delhi but geographically beyond, to a piece of architectural history: an apartment designed by Charles Correa. We were meeting after a while, and both felt strange around each other—as if living in new houses had severed us from our past selves, in the act of moving out we had altered in an apparent fashion, visible to others. We were polite to an alarming degree, asking and answering with sincerity. We were smiling and nodding vigorously, making a production of attentive listening and unconditional agreement, discussing how beautiful the apartment was, such thoughtful lines, such symphony of light… But as we made lunch an old rhythm surfaced. Questions were coated with a knowing look; a mixture of disdain and playfulness rose. I finally felt comfortable enough to ask Rom what made her take this place up, and she said without skipping a beat, “It’s who I am.”

    After we ate, I lay on the sofa for a bit, turning this over in my mind. That thought was comforting. It held some recuperative force. It made me believe that when something falls apart, the feeling of being yourself doesn’t drift to a distant corner of the galaxy, lost forever. My own histories were far more proximate than I had imagined. They were within me, however imperceptible to my eyes. I thought of what I was hoping to find in my incessant search. Fullness? Is that what home meant?

    That summer I lost a home, and my cat died. And I guess by the end of it, I had arrived at a conclusion: these things happen. I wonder if in my persistent gazing at homes online—not fictive, decorative, unreal spreads that make it to magazines—but real, fractured, homes marked with the signs of life, I wasn’t searching for a more meaningful conclusion to these tragedies of life. Hoping, amidst piles of utensils, discarded clothes, dishevelled beds and pristine sofa-sets, used furniture and trash, metal tubes and broken electric switchboards, to find a shard of wisdom, some piece of enlightenment—something that made all the pain and the unjustness of it feel worthwhile. I wonder if I was looking for closure—not one arrived at by resignation, but one which held more enigma, more depth. I guess I didn’t want the grand, dramatic breakage in my life to amount to something as mundane as shit happens.

    Maybe that is why I can’t stop looking at houses. I can’t stop trying to piece together bits of other people’s lives; hoping that it somehow contains the gleam of knowing something definitive about pain. The houses were real enough, but the fictions I built around them, the notions I created about their once and future residents were my own. And maybe addiction had invited a known bedfellow—ritual. The repetition of doing this, the comfort of knowing that only a couple of clicks away, the lives and spaces of so many people were available for my viewing, was routine for me, a daily incantation that became the centre of my existence. I needed to look at these houses, even as they failed repeatedly to reveal to me what I had hoped they would contain.

    In a large city such as Delhi, houses are vacated every day. These can be large, airy, luxurious, thoughtful; or small, provisional, tattered, and in flagrant violation of construction norms that render those who inhabit them severely unsafe. Regardless of which of these forms it took, or whether it lay somewhere in the middle, life happened in a house. Only later did I consider the possibility that the object of my search had changed form. I was no longer seeking a revelation; I was seeking the care of monotony, the reliability of the medium, the relief in knowing that I could continue to enforce what had become a habit; nothing could stand in my way.

    I never dwelled on why it was houses that I was drawn to, not art or literature. Much like the knowledge that pain does not lead to enlightenment, I had accepted that when untethered from the symbols of their past being and looking for an anchor, not everyone finds solace in things of repute. I reasoned that my tactic was investigative and fabulatory—a training in learning to pierce the surface in search of a depth that probably doesn’t exist. I told myself that what drew me to this peculiar act was the idea that much like me, a house to-be-vacated was only ever filled with greater possibility, evermore endowed with the energy of life. It had an aura, a delicacy that teetered between desertion and occupancy. The qualities of a house changing hands virtually are unique—it crosses from placid assurance to the territory of anticipation. The house must necessarily accept a stranger; it must believe in the redemptive force of an arrival, no matter how hazy the details are. The goodbyes are said and final; it must wait, patiently for the new. As I did.

    What seemed to have mattered the most was that somewhere outside the walls of my life, there were people who conjoined with me for a singular moment—the space of in-betweenness, when you are shedding something old, and wondering how to build something from all that survives of it. Through these groups and within them a universe with its own rules of exchange—second-hand furniture sale, used personal items for barter, I could revisit that moment in time. Through shameless, secret online voyeurism I could, strangely, hold on to a moment of loss, a moment of birth.

    I guess that’s better than “shit happens”.

    Arushi Vats is a curator and writer based in New Delhi, India. Her essays have been published in online and print platforms such as Art India Magazine, Runway Journal, Alternative South Asia Photography, LSE International History, Critical Collective, Write | Art | Connect, Frontline, Scroll, Mint, and The Quint; and in catalogues and anthologies by Serendipity Arts Foundation, New Delhi; Museum of Art and Photography, Bangalore (forthcoming, December 2022); Global Visual Handbook of Anti-Authoritarian Counterstrategies published by The Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (forthcoming, 2022); and Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust, India (January 2021). She has written curatorial notes for Galerie Mirchandani Steinruecke, Mumbai; Reliable Copy, Bangalore; Aicon Contemporary, New York. Her short stories are published in nether quarterly, Gulmohar Quarterly, and Hakara Journal; Poetry has been published by PIX Quarterly, India and as part of Zinnia Naqvi’s artist book “Dear Nani” by Anchorless Press, Canada. She is the associate editor for Fiction at Alternative South Asia Photography. She is the recipient of the Momus – Eyebeam Critical Writing Fellowship 2021, and the Art Scribes Award 2021. She has conducted workshops on critical writing for Inlaks Shivdasani Foundation, Khoj International Artists Association, and Art Chain India. She has attended residencies at La Napoule Art Foundation, France (2022) and the digital Momus Emerging Critics Residency.

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