Across India, a new kind of habitat is being created. As the city spills over from its original boundaries, and moves skywards, more and more Indians are coming to terms with the idea of living in flats. In a place like Mumbai, this has always been the case, but today, even in small town India, multiple store’s buildings are mushrooming, and the flat is emerging as the modern way to live. For many, this shift is now so much a part of the accepted reality of our lives that it no longer carries any significance, but in reality the changes it sets in motion can be profound.
The dominant mental model of the home has been as a place of origin, as a seat of belonging. This is why the home in India has been a highly unselfconscious space, one that accommodated all the angularities of one’s preferred mode of living. The home was a sprawled space gathering objects that were assigned places depending on the purpose they served. It was an organism which grew seemingly on its own, gradually acquiring layers of use. In most traditional homes, space wasn’t measured; one rarely knew how large or small one’s living space was. Space seemed to expand or contract around one’s needs. The home was imagined inside out- it was a space built around the people who lived there.
The builder flat is constructed the other way around. It is conceived of as the new grid within which lives are being relocated. Created by the inexorable arithmetic of space as currency, the builder flat delivers a template that acts as a solution to one’s housing needs. The space is determined first- the lives of the residents who occupy have to fit in into this pre configured arena.
In order to help a prospective buyer imagine the final product, every new building development uses a ‘sample flat’ which is fully done up and populated with furniture. This has become the default imagination for the new home- this dressing up of space with the veneer of surface modernity. This brand of interior design has a great preference for neatness and slickness. Nothing juts out, surfaces are evened out and glossified. The eye slides over everything that it sees- the modern ‘designed’ flat comes without memory or reference- the primary aim to start anew by leaving the messiness of the past behind. The builder flat has marble floors and straight lines. Everything is exposed and all space is rendered useful.
The furniture that is part of this new world has a nameless slickness about it. The slick is modernity’s shield against memory as it refuses to absorb anything. Memories do not stand in a straight line, even though the way we measure time is linear. Memories defy chronology, they leap about and arrive unannounced. The builder flat does not allow for this untidiness, not to begin with anyway. Here the personal is tucked away behind a screen. The modern becomes a denial of memory rather than an evocation of a new one. It marks the beginning of a new journey. Here one is meant to strive to become oneself, by jettisoning the accumulated luggage of the past.
Living in a flat and being responsible for one’s own home from scratch creates a new experience of the self. In the builder flat one arrives abruptly at the present having bailed on the past. The builder flat is in many ways a no-man’s-land where one catches one’s breath and idles in neutral. It opens up the possibility of making choices that were unavailable otherwise. It allows one to embark on a journey towards being an individual and gradually learning to make choices. The task of building one’s own life in one’s own home calls for making decisions that involve an awareness of one’s preferences, tastes and personality. The builder flat provides a start by putting together all those elements of modernity on which there is a general consensus, and even some on which there is not.
A good example is found in the number of flats that now have an open kitchen that abuts the living room. Borrowed from the West, this is an idea that is far removed from the reality of Indian kitchens where tadkas and masalas impose themselves on one’s senses. That so many people are open to this idea suggests that the desire to submit to a ‘modern’ life without asking too many questions of it is great.
The new habitat of the middle class also creates new anxieties and a desire for new affiliations. The community of the old needs to be replaced with a new kind of community. Here proximity is by itself not enough, being someone’s neighbor is an elective position; one chooses who to be neighborly with. Apartment living makes all actions deliberate- there are few things that are given, that one must do. The experience of living in a crowd, while being relatively anonymous, of being in plain sight of so many without necessarily feeling observed is a completely new sensation. To have one’s action freed from the relentless scrutiny of those who appoint themselves as stakeholder in one’s life can be a liberating feeling but equally it creates a void in feeling significant that needs to be filled.
The beliefs of the past which were steeped in so much certitude now need to be renewed without help from an enabling environment. The self-conscious preservation of the past becomes a project just as does the desire to acquire new skills. The search for new anchors and for a new sense of belonging is only likely to intensify. New modes of living create new opportunities but also open up new gaps. The idea of being an individual is getting gradually constructed but it brings in it wake anxieties springing from an unfamiliar feeling of rootlessness. The builder flat promises freedom from the past, but offers little by way of filling this void. It offers modernity without content, replacing textured memory with neat surfaces. A new ecosystem is being created and as yet we can grasp only the bare outlines of what changes it might bring.