Dakshinpuri is a sprawling working-class settlement in South Delhi, with inhabitants from diverse backgrounds. Established in late 1970s, it is now a dense and bustling neighborhood.
It’s nine o’clock at night. I’m at my home, sitting on the palang (bed). Right in front of me is the door that leads outside. The door is painted pink and the walls purple. On the wall, to the left, hangs a big picture of Sheravali (goddess Durga) and the opposite wall is adorned by pictures of all of us.
Right next to this wall stand two almaris (cupboards): one contains Daadi’s belongings and mummy keeps her things in the other one. Next to the almaris are four boxes. The boxes are all covered by a purdah (curtain) of the same color.
A refrigerator is kept adjacent to the boxes. Above the boxes, the almaris and the fridge are some odds and ends, all of which have been covered by sheets with flower-prints. On the opposite end is the palang. Next to the palang is a white table on which we keep all of our school bags.
A pink bedsheet covers a sewing machine that sits to the side of the palang. Daadi always keeps her chair or charpai next to this wall. When the chair or charpai is kept at that spot, the door that goes outside can’t be opened more than halfway.
There are three shelves on the front wall. The bottom one, on which the gas stove sits, is very broad. There are two baskets too, in which we keep the boxes of spices. Next to them, we always keep big steel bowls that are used whenever we need to cook more than what our cooker and the other cooking utensils can handle.
Below the shelves we keep a gas cylinder, and next to it a rice canister. The water pitcher, perched on an iron stand, is also kept close by. The two upper shelves are small. On them, we keep boxes that we use to store food. On the uppermost shelf there are big patilas (pans). They are only ever taken down when there is some party in our house. The rest of the time they just serve the purpose of a showpiece. One step away from the spot, where we stand while cooking, is the spot where we keep dirty dishes and wash them.
Next to the door that goes outside is a small bathroom.
The bathroom’s door opens onto the verandah. If someone is washing the dishes then we can’t go to the bathroom because there is not enough space to enter the bathroom. The latrine and the bathroom are combined. You can get fresh easily but in order to bathe, you have to stand on the latrine. You have to use a small bucket of water because there is not enough space for a big bucket or a second small bucket.
There are two doors on this wall: one is the door to the bathroom, which opens to the inside and the other one goes outside. There are two windows: one is above the door that goes outside and the other is on top of the wall inside the bathroom. It is only the window in the bathroom that lets in air from outside. When the bathroom door is closed, there is no ventilation inside the house.
At night, this same verandah turns into a bedroom.
One time, at nine o’clock at night, everyone in the house had eaten dinner. Daadi was lying on the palang. Papa had gone outside. My sisters were siting next to daadi and mummy was mopping the floor. She finished mopping the room.
As soon as Alisha laid out a mat on the ground, mummy yelled, “Anju, bring the dari! (carpet)” Anju immediately slammed the dari (carpet) down in front of mummy, muttering, “Now don’t say anything else,” and sat back down. Watching Alisha’s face, mummy began to spread the heavy dari out on the floor, alone.
The floor of our room is broken in many places, but is now completely covered by the durry. Mummy brought out one more mat, the one that is always underneath the almari. This mat is only used at night. When mummy was laying out the mat, there wasn’t enough space to spread it out completely. She called Amisha and said, “Amisha, remove this machine.”
Amisha lifted the sewing machine a bit and mummy tucked the mat under the machine. She then laid out the carpet on top, covered it with a bedsheet and kept two pillows, two quilts, and one blanket on top. And just like that, this room turned into a sleeping space – for three people to sleep, sit and watch TV. If I ever turn at night and spread out my legs then my feet hit the sewing machine. In the beginning, I would wake up when this happened, but now I don’t wake up anymore. And this doesn’t only happen with me, when mummy spreads her feet out they also go under the almari.
One night, mummy’s feet got stuck under the almari, and it was really difficult to get them back out. It made us laugh. Ever since then, no matter how deeply asleep Ammi is, she never sticks her feet under the almari. Maybe, even when we are asleep, our body is awake!
Our little brother, who used to sleep between us three, has now grown up. But even now, we tolerate him moving his hands and legs in his sleep. Sometimes when bua (aunt) comes to spend time with us, we tell her, “You sleep on the palang and we will go to chacha–chachi’s house to sleep.” Bua sleeps next to daadi, and our little brother sleeps next to them.
One time I went to chacha’s house to sleep. His two kids came to my bed to sleep. I kept thinking, earlier I had to sleep with one small child, and now I will have to sleep in-between two of them!
In our house we always keep a palang ready for Papa. If Papa ever has to go to the bathroom in the night, he puts one foot on my pillow and uses the other foot to make a path to the bathroom. This always wakes me up.
One time, we were all sitting on the bed watching the ‘Gulaam’ serial on the TV. Sitting with the palang as back support, Amisha was cutting her nails. Propping herself up on a low-height stool and taking the almari’s support, daadi kept adjusting her pallu, which kept falling off her head. Mummy was watching the serial too, sitting in front of the fridge cracking her toes.
Once the serial ended, everyone got up. Daadi and Amisha went outside to sleep. Mummy also went outside to check if the door was bolted. She came back inside and turned off the big tube-light. After turning on the night bulb, she lied down. As she prepared to fall asleep she issued her last instruction, “Wake me up early in the morning, Niru madam has called for me to come in early!”
And with that, our room went quiet.
Ishika, born 2001, has been a regular practitioner of Ankur, at Dakhsinpuri since the last four years. At present, she is writing on ‘Lessons from Poverty’ and ‘Non-classroom school spaces’. She also does Dastangoi in Delhi.
This story was translated from the Hindi by Thalia Gigerenzer. She is a German-American writer, anthropologist and audio producer based in Princeton, NJ, Berlin and Delhi.
Featured image credit: Bhavna (active practitioner of Ankur at Dakshinpuri)