Homing as a Single Displaced Woman

“Why don’t you look for a ghar for her?”

Our new domestic help asked my mother in an accusatory tone. My mother buttressed her pleading by reporting this incident on our regular evening call.

When we were younger, my friends and I often mocked the framing of the phrase “looking for a house”. “Are we homeless?,” we asked our parents. It always evoked a survey-like image. We imagined our fathers and uncles going door to door to see if that house would suit us.

I then saw cousins get married to houses and lands. I understand that now. There is a comfort of companionship in spaces of dwelling. Or in this case, the prospective spaces of dwelling.

My uncle described the wavy staircases and high palatial ceilings with a romantic peculiarity after his exploration of a “house” for a cousin. It was the comfort of our class and the security of friendships and higher education that liberated many of us from seeking those houses.

I am at a peculiar age in my life. It is the age when my parents are ashamed and apologetic in front of acquaintances and strangers for having an unmarried, unsettled daughter living in another city. I am not completely unshaken by how everything has changed in just a few years. My acquaintances, friends, and cousins are no longer engaged in philosophical musings on love and companionship. Or there is a charge of urgency in those conversations. Many of them are opting for a package of promises that I am evading.

How much do I not want it? There is discomfort in launching into that thought. And in carrying this perpetually displaced life, what is my locus standi in thinking about homes?

I once stood outside our house with my mother and asked her if we could go somewhere. She said with an unmistakable dignity, “This is our only home.” I felt desperately in need of an alternative home where I could go. So much of life is lived against the lives my ancestresses lived.

I started my pursuit of finding a home for myself that day. But as I changed academic disciplines and geographical locations, the sense of homelessness became acute. I am fast moving past the biological age when I can find a socially appropriate home in a man and his family, his property and his domestic staff. I am no more the nerd all parents had looked up to as I collected successive trophies for excelling in the board examination. Now I am the one who is “too educated”.

I feel betrayed and lonely, and so do my parents. Every time I tell my mother about “my home”, she is shocked at the blasphemy. My parents’ home was supposed to be my only home till I was married.

What does it mean for a woman to have a home of her own?

Whenever I went back to my home city, I discussed my domestic life more extensively than my work life. I shared recipes I had learnt, I mentioned doing dishes and laundry, and I talked about tea get-togethers. As I rubbed my individuality and freedom fiercely in their faces, I experienced a pang of guilt. How could I equate the drudgery of my life – that I wear with self-chosen confusion and agency-driven misery with theirs, a self-preserving resilience and socially acceptable labour code?

So, where is the language to talk of home? What should one talk about when they talk about the home if not daily domesticity?

I was struggling with making sense of the idea of home when a woman in my office declared that she has finally been allotted a house under the housing scheme. She threw an ice-cream party for the office. As I licked the kulfi-flavoured ice-cream, I thought how I would probably never understand the achievement of the sturdiness of home. I quietly went to her and congratulated her, she smiled the smile her fate smiled at her. Other women lamented their bad luck in not being chosen in the lottery. I opened the policy document of the housing scheme brochure. The bearded photo of the prime minister ruminates:

Ek baar chardeewari aa jaati hai, chhat aa jaati hai to insaanon ke sapnon mein jaan aa jaati hai aur wo nayi nayi cheezen karne lagta hai.”

(Once four walls are erected, the roof is laid, it enlivens a person’s dreams and she starts doing new things).

I thought about what it takes for me to make a home – satiating the hasrat-e-tameer (desire to build), as Ghalib would say. I carefully observed and reflected on my behaviour. When I came back to solo living in the city after the pandemic, I was ecstatic. I finalised the apartment on the internet after checking a few boxes – sturdy construction, no restrictions, fully furnished, safe for a single woman, roommate sounds homely.

As I moved in, I obsessively called for groceries on apps. I made friends with the person who sold sugarcane juice. His waves grounded me. I roamed on the city roads madly. I sang songs of joy in loneliness. I heard Farida Khanum singing in my ear, “Maine pairon mein paayal to pehni nahiin, kyun sada aa rahi hai jhanan, jhanana”. I wrote poems as I walked:

Wrapping the arteries on my toe
I’ll wear the heart on my feet
You’ll hear my heartbeat from my heels
On my knee, you’ll find my pulse
While entering gateways,
I’ll leave bloodprints on the way
The world will be my mangal bhawan
I’ll celebrate suhag on every step

And how else do I make a city home? Homes that belong to nobody, homes where I belong. I want a home that no woman in my life has. But I feel wary of owning anything. I want to steer clear of that masculine power. Homemaking is a feminine desire for me. A space where I roll rotis and temper mustard seeds on hot, steamed snacks. I write poetry and prayers on the walls. Home is where I put fairy lights and gifted dream catchers. I completely externalise myself. There is a kettle on the bedside which I constantly put up for water. There is a double bed for my block printed chadars. I sleep on one side of the bed. On the other side lie my books, notes and Kindle.

I need a bed table if my room doesn’t have it built in the furniture. I need a small table anyway. I put it on the floor and sit there all day long as I read, write, work, embroider and watch TV as I prepare for the next day’s meal. And for days I feel emotional, I need enough empty space to lie on the floor with my hair spread about and tears in my eyes.

I need a spacey airy kitchen. But not an open one. I don’t want to perform for the drawing room as I cook, I want to escape the drawing room if I am in the kitchen. Or I want to just dance through cooking. I need cinnamon sticks and dry ginger powder. I get all kinds of spices and make hareera when we fall sick. I need an okhli, preferably the one in green marble. On low days, I chop my anxiety away. Or I chop away while co-existing with anxiety. I make achar and chutney. Somedays, I feel empty and resort to another app-based service.

Or some night, if I can’t sleep because of a poem stuck in my gut, I walk as I dance to Abida Parveen. I put all of it up – postcards and paintings sent by friends. From friends, I seek suggestions for the brands of personal care products, books, snacks and teas. Those who are away will always be around. My life is a constant letter to those who are not there, those whom I am escaping.

On days I cannot enter my room, I take my short height and place it on the sofa. I seek compulsive loneliness when sick. I read Buddhist texts and make tea with milk and feel grateful. On good days, there are solitary bhajan sessions. On other days, in the emptiness of twilight, I listen to the worldliness of Amir Khusro. A song where a departing bride poignantly requests her mother to let go of her aanchal, “Chhorho chhorho amma ri mora aanchra”. One after another, she requests all her female relatives to let go of her aanchal. The male relatives have lost the word, she says and thus she is another night’s guest in the house. Helplessly, she seeks a day’s refuge and then wants to be let go. Oh, look how she leaves! I weep for the aanchal, one end of which is stuck.

This is mine, not in the sense of ownership but affiliation. Other people visit my room, other smells linger and lurk, other bodies lie on my double bed, but it is essentially mine. A duplication to house my selves.


Vinod Kumar Shukla starts ‘Naukar Ki Kameez’ with:

“Kitna sukh tha ki har baar ghar lautkar aane
Ke liye main baar-baar ghar se bahar nikloonga”

(What a joy it was that I left home, again and again, to come back home)

In his wisdom, he informed us that home is more for coming back than going out. I sit in a cafe alone and embroider as I order two successive coffees. I need to be alone as much as I need people. I feel privileged to be able to pay the price of solitude. I feel deprived for having to pay a price for solitude. And then I feel guilty.

As I commute in an auto, I look straight into the eyes of all my city folk. I want to befriend all who toil in the city. As Raidas says, “Jo humsehri so meet hamaar”. That feeling of being a speck in this swarm of a city.

And sometimes I return to myself when I feel all those masculine stares crawling under my skin. I ask the auto driver to stop a few metres before, if he is too chatty. I walk home from there. On other days, I rush home and then go sabzi shopping. On anxious nights, I order groceries from an app-based service.

Who knows what else makes a home? One home I lived in added the moon to my kitty. The last one found me the sun resting on my balcony.

I feel frustrated that I need so much. I take so much space in a country where most people don’t get any. I know that my homes are inviolable. Homes that will not be placed in museums like those of many displaced tribals. Homes safely homed in my memory.

Yet there is displacement. My arms hurt as I walk holding my portable homes. My feet ache at my rootlessness. I go back to my home city and I look at everything with a charged sacredness. At home, I open the refrigerator and take a bhagauni of milk out to make chai. And everything looks wrong, misplaced. And then I come back to my temporary house. Not knowing which home is home. Or if any home is home.

“Bulbul bitiya,” the snake charmer baba shouted outside the home in which I have not lived for the last nine years. I go out, I cradle the snake he has got for the sake of nostalgia and then I find a bowl full of aata for him.

Who will call me outside my rented homes once I have left? Maybe friends and lovers will pass the street and smile to themselves. Home probably is a long dupatta with one end permanently tethered to the address on my Aadhaar card.

“Will she write even about this?”

My friend’s mother said when she mentioned that her brother had satiated his emasculation by writing me an accusatory text for “spoiling” his sister. I recovered from tears so quickly. Tears are no more frowned upon in the world I live in but it is for my own femininity I did not cry. I don’t want to be the woman who cries. I am the woman who tells herself, “Know this feeling, and then write it down.”

There are days when I open the notes application on my phone before tears shimmer my vision.

“Yes aunty, she will write about it.”

I write home in a sentence. Home is a sentence I write.

Shraddha Upadhyay is a researcher, lawyer and Young India Fellow.

Featured image: Pariplab Chakraborty