Author’s note: Certain place names have been changed to protect privacy.
In a few weeks, my roommate Pallavi and I will move into the apartment right next door because our present one is scheduled for maintenance. Sounds stupid, and it is. But we’re unwilling to search for alternatives.
We’re lazy, for one thing. Moving next door is absurd, but moving anywhere else would multiply the inconvenience by far. Also, strangely, we sort of like it here, even if our layout has a dorm-like severity and our carpet is a drab office-grey. We’re on the bus route; we get free campus Wi-Fi and central heating; we have large windows which, every evening, are shot through with flaming reds before softening into swathes of darkness. And we actually like living in a building with hundreds of others. Used to throngs all our lives—busy Indian streets, loud families—we do not thrive in silence. The late-night shouts, the drifting scent of something fried, the side-step while skulking, braless and barefoot, through the laundry room, the pool of unidentified fluid on the elevator floor, the snippets of gossip floating past us in the lobby–we need these. They are proof that life happens around us, and we belong to life.
Most Indians—as far as Pallavi and I can speak for them—will live in the same city their whole lives without too many pangs of shame or lost possibility; Americans, by contrast, appear constantly on the move. Now that we’ve lived here for a while, the bustle of everyday life around us has crystallized into familiar facets. The office staff appear to us like characters on a comforting daily comedy: a gentle senior administrator with short grey hair and slender earrings framing a slender face; a hyper blonde, talking as easily of a trip to Thailand as she does about falling out of love with her husband; the internationals, including the kind, bearded man who reluctantly hushed the first party we ever hosted, and the young woman with a sparkly blue headscarf, bright against the bleak tones of winter.
And there are the children. Over the last three years, I found I love the sound of children talking in languages I don’t know, the magic of different linguistic cadences blending with the heightened pitch and soft singsong of their voices.
Last year, two young brown boys and their father moved into an apartment on our floor. They’re usually on their way to or from a soccer game. One day the brothers prank-knocked on our door and scurried off, giggling at us from a few feet away as Pallavi and I stared bewildered down the corridor. I invited them to drop by our place and pick up a leftover bag of candy. When I asked them if they liked Jolly Ranchers, it hit me—have we become aunties already?
Carnation Court didn’t always feel like home. Our Graduate Student/Associate Instructor stipends are meager and we have to budget. Here are some things we both chose:
- three-fourths of the price of tickets back home (our parents almost inevitably have to fund a quarter)
- the unbelievable taste and improved nutritional value of organic eggs
- the pleasure of leaving the house in nice clothes, over the pleasure of returning to a nicely decorated house
Like many privileged Indians, I lived at home all through my BA and MA, so I had few expectations for my first home; on the other hand, most Americans get a substantial taste of campus residence when they enter college, so that by the time they graduate, they’ve had enough of the bareness, the chaos. They want to move on, to feel grown up enough to build a beautiful space. And it is truly a sign of growth to do more than the minimum—to treat your space with tenderness, make it hospitable for others.
But it grates on me a little, the prevalent cultural equivalence here between one’s home and one’s competence as an adult. Because the most admired homes here aren’t just diligently maintained, they are also full of things—pretty things, and things on a spectrum of usefulness, from the necessary (a sizeable closet) to the sophisticated (a cabinet of wine glasses). The implication is that maturity needs to exceed the spare and functional, that the aesthetic is necessary not simply to intensify joy but as evidence of a thriving life and personhood. Personally, I feel that one’s furnishings are risky as a badge of one’s maturity—it comes too close to investing property with virtue.
The first few months leading up to my current relationship, I refused to let my then almost-boyfriend enter my apartment. It was so much starker than his, my bed was tiny (little did I imagine I would have cause to share it) and my room was in a terrible state—something for which I had no excuse, other than that I was overwhelmed with a system and a pace of life I had never known before. My feelings about my apartment then were a mixture of good intentions and defensiveness. I intended to neaten my space, I had plans of making my apartment more inviting but I also wanted to stand by the lack of stuff as a valid choice, knowing young professionals back in India who happily put up with far smaller and more run-down places at no cost to their dignity or evolution.
Plus, I enjoyed the eccentricities of my apartment. One of its best features, which admittedly I played no part in, is its fat, ancient cathode-ray TV. Pallavi’s old roommate (my predecessor, as I say when I want to feel fancy) spotted the TV outside the elevators on our floor. Students in the midst of moving out choose this spot for piling their stuff to make the elevator trips more convenient. At this very moment, a ghostly, shifting pile sits at the landing of each floor—a mattress, a sunken couch, half a table with a dustbin perched on it, a worn-out chair. Sometimes, as in the case of our TV, the Lobby Things carry a little note saying they’re up for grabs.
While possessions came in part from our neighbours’ apartment-purges, they have also grown thanks to the kindness of friends. My old aikido instructor gave me a chain of origami cranes, swinging now from a bookshelf. Pallavi’s brother bought us a coatstand which flaunts scarves, jackets, and a head of colourful hats. An eclectic menagerie is arranged on the TV—a solemn catoctopus plushie, a wooden dragon, a ceramic frog with a flourishing potbelly. When my partner left Bloomington, he passed on his little red lamp to us, bringing the total lamp count to three, and we haven’t turned on the overhead lights since. In soft lighting, with some cushions and some art here and there, our apartment is—we never thought we’d say it—cosy.
Pallavi and I could never have predicted that we would end up becoming the best of friends. We keep each other sane, playing our music out loud as we study, rolling our eyes at late night comedy, and talking for hours about politics and ethics. But we were both tentative about pursuing Indian community at large. Nobody wants to live out the stereotype of insular desis in denial of diasporic reality and intercultural possibilities. And it seemed that those who most aggressively went down that route were also more likely to be nationalist and sympathetic to the current Hindu right-wing horrors. But neither did we want to do the full-blown diaspora thing—bonding over being brown when back at home being brown goes unnoticed, it’s all about your class and caste privilege—the very privilege that often enables an education overseas. But that hesitation didn’t last long.
In Bloomington, Indiana, your classroom is “diverse” when there are more than three students of colour. The loveliest, smartest POC friends who would fight unfriendly whites for you stare blankly when you say you feel utterly alienated by foreign bureaucracy—things like visas, university paperwork and taxes. The sole Indian shop has moved farther away. Conversations at parties run parallel rather than criss-cross; Indians tend to talk over each other and listen simultaneously, with tons of overlapping and meandering conversations. People exclaim over how colourful you are and admire your “Woodstock aesthetic” when you wear a pale imitation of your culture’s print and fabrics.
So when we started encountering other graduate students from the subcontinent who shared at least some of our politics, we began to reach out. Someone we met at a conference, or a protest, or at the tail end of an India Studies event when we snuck in for the free chai and samosas. Sometimes our advisors suggested we might reach out, and we did. Our social lives began to overlap, and in time we made the ultimate move—we started a group chat.
The biriyani party began as a joke, when I ran into our dear friend Aijaz from Pakistan and discovered that he was proud of his biriyani-making skills—as is Pallavi. I suggested the two of them have a biriyani cook-off, and once I saw how excited he was, I realized this could actually happen.
“I can’t compete with a Pakistani!” Pallavi exclaimed. But I could see the seed had been planted. Not only would her biriyani have its distinctive Hyderabadi flavour, my food restrictions would compel her to add a coastal twist and cook with prawns. We both knew her biriyani could be a solid competitor—or better still, be worthy of a jugalbandi.
And so it was that the biriyani cook-off took place at Aijaz’s farewell party a few weeks later. The scent of rice and prawn simmering in spices rose and spread through the afternoon and slow evening. I offered to be in charge of the music, but we had no speakers. Pallavi revealed that she had learned how to connect our TV to an HDMI cable, and while it didn’t work for the visuals, we did get a more booming audio through the TV speakers. In the true spirit of jugad, we turned the screen brightness and picture down to zero to get rid of the pixelated lines, and let the music take over.
Soon, friends started milling in, laughing and bearing bottles of wine. Before we knew it, our apartment had been transformed. From the couch to the floor, there were people everywhere. The table boasted two kinds of biriyani and two kinds of raita. In an unintended extension of the corny India-Pakistan jokes, a friend had brought Kashmiri-style dum aloo—a dish that transforms the humble potato into a culinary gem. If border disputes could be solved through food-symbolism, we’d have been at peace for a long while.
Once all of us were a few drinks in, another friend took over the music and turned it to Bollywood hits. And in case you were wondering, yes, this was the party that drew complaints—for the dancing, we were told apologetically, by the kind bearded man. “Bollywood music and my thunder thighs, what to do?” Pallavi mused afterwards.
Now this party has become a ritual. We can only afford it once a semester, but it’s always a highlight on our calendars. I’ve stepped up to help with the cooking and made fish for the last two parties, taking intuitive liberties with the Bengali recipes I dug up online. Since I’m always scrambling to keep pace with the demands of my age, I never pictured myself as someone who could host—make room for the kind of joy that people remember, talk about, and ask for. But a few things came together to make that possible: I wound up living with someone who inspired me to cook, we realized the need to cultivate South Asian community, and we had a space that could be the backdrop to our exuberance.
Moving in next door is funny. After having built a life in this apartment, I am slightly sentimental about leaving it behind. But it is difficult to give in to sentiment when you are moving next door into a nearly identical apartment. Will our former on-campus predecessor residence bear no traces of our three-year long haul? And what about the one we move into? We were close enough to our former neighbours to hear signs of a thriving social life, and I can remember the unrestrained giggles that occasionally pierced through the walls into our apartment, making Pallavi and me smile. I like the idea that as little worlds cycle through these walls, a continuous legacy is built—a legacy of not just life, but living as neighbors.