Posted by: gdevi | November 27, 2010

The Geometry of Amity

The house that we lived in when we lived in Dallas was a good-sized house by Dallas standards. It had a large living room with a fireplace–a fireplace in Dallas? Someone was dreaming!–a modest-sized dining room, a good kitchen, two offices, three bedrooms, three bathrooms, tiled and wood floors, laundry room, a beautiful back porch, a nice-sized backyard, and a two-car garage. Compared to the Northeast, houses are cheap in Texas. When we moved to Lock Haven and called a realtor to list the house for sale, the realtor looked peeved. What is the matter? we asked her. Well, the realtor said, you have only one living room and one dining room. Yes, we said, that is right. We are just three people, one living room and one dining room is good enough for us. Well, the realtor continued with a worrisome expression on her face–most buyers look for houses with a formal living room and an informal living room, and a formal dining room and an informal dining room, she said. It will be hard to sell a house that has only one living room and one dining room. That was news to us, but true we found out, when we talked with others. Apparently in the Dallas real estate market, there are definite expectations of formal and informal everything. Will you at least try, we asked her. After all, we bought this house that has only one living room and one dining room. It is a good house and it has served us well. There might be some idiots out there like us who would want to buy a house with only one living room and one dining room. The realtor looked uncertain; we felt as if we were asking her to do something illegal. Okay, the realtor resigned wearily; it will be a hard sell, but I will try. Thank you, we said.

In some ways,  I understood the “formal/informal” divide. I instinctively felt that this was the society’s way to differentiate people and their personal, communal and social status. Your household space could very well be turned into a space of hierarchies, liminalities, thresholds, its abstract geometry utilized to sort people into important and unimportant, acquaintances and friends, friends and family, outsiders and insiders. This cultural geometry was the norm in India, for instance. Everyone knows their place. Only a very young child will violate the norms of personal and social space. When you visit a house for the first time, you will stay in the living room; you will never walk indoors uninvited or unescorted. In Hindu households,  for instance, the dining room and the kitchen are strictly off-limits to visitors unless they are specifically invited and escorted to these inside areas of the house. These are gendered spaces where the women of the house work and had all kinds of unspoken but atomized rules about who is allowed and who is not; children are allowed, fathers, brothers and husbands are allowed.   The architects who designed these old Hindu houses knew these rules of exclusion and inclusion; for instance, there is usually a long corridor that separates the dining room and kitchen from the front quarters. If you want to reach these inner rooms you will have to walk for a while in full vicinity of whoever; if you are in the wrong place, someone will tell you to go back. These old houses also had back kitchen verandahs where workers, the vegetable vendors, the fish or the meat vendors or the daily laborers could stop by and ask for water or something to eat. They have to stay outside of the verandah though; sometimes they are allowed to sit on the verandah. These are the architectural projections of the rules not only of caste but also gender divide. Conversely, family members rarely congregate in the living room; that is reserved for strangers and acquaintances, those who cannot come to the inside regions of the house. Most family conversations and meetings happen in the dining room or the kitchen. When the whole family is present, perhaps the front verandah. Men, women, children, old, young everyone mingled without any separation. You discussed anything and everything; your uncle’s alcoholism, the young aunt’s miscarriage, the rakish adventures of a cousin, blood pressure, cataract, glaucoma, gall bladder disease, the sterling achievements of so and so at the University–nothing was taboo and everything was allowed. Family space was a space defined by experience. Experience shared defined the space.

After five months being in the market, the realtor sold our house; this all happened five years ago. A young couple moving to Dallas from the San Francisco Bay area bought our house. Apparently they didn’t even notice the absence of the formal or informal living room and dining room. We all have our own rooms in our current house as well, but everyday I look at the dining table and I know I will have to spend at least twenty minutes clearing things off of the dining table before we can eat. What do I see on my dining table every single day of the year?  Dayani’s  bookbag, her homework, her comb, her hairbands, her Fushigi ball, her Ipod, her crayons, her paintings, drawings, scrap paper after scrap paper, two laptops, salt, pepper, Krish’s wine bottle, biscuit tin, dog biscuits, flowers, my books, student papers. It is unbelievable. I used to be an organized person but I have given up. We never take any of these things to our own offices anymore; they are consigned to the dining table, pushed aside to make room for a meal then promptly scattered once again. If we are not eating at the dining table, then we are working, working while talking, talking while working. I think the single most useful piece of furniture in this house is the dining table. Everyone does everything on this dining table; do homework, prepare for classes, make slides, eat meals, cut patterns and designs, do coloring, sew designs, sort mail and do bills. Our friends walk into this mess; we stand around in the kitchen or go directly to the dining table though we have a nice living room.  Our living room is a cozy room; the dogs love it. Jesse loves the sofa. Sally sleeps on the chair. And Daisy lies on the carpet and chews one end of it.

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