25 September 2014
A small two-storey building between Aluva and Chengamanad, ca. 30kms north of Ernakulam
Visit before going to the construction site
While walking on the road that climbs up towards Chengamanad with Shahabuddin, I feel slightly proud: finally, after one year, he seems to feel easy enough about me and my research interest in his livelihood in Kerala that he’s invited me to drop at his place before we’d go together to the construction site. He and another 20-25 Bengalis – all between 16 and 28 years old, all masons and skilled construction workers – occupy five rooms on the ground-floor of a two-storey house conveniently located along the main road, which eases the commuting to their changing workplaces: apart from Chengamanad and Aluva, the majority is currently occupied on sites around Perumbavoor and Angamaly. The sixth room, at the corridor’s end, is functioned as kitchen, and opposite to it is the bathroom; floors and walls are properly finished and the overall outlook is tidy, if a bit crowded. Shahabuddin moved to this place last year; one of the roommates established the contact with the owners and convinced them to rent out the place to him. They must have given in to his offer, more than for his readiness to pay in cash and in advance, because the first floor accommodates a retail shop and storage space: no way they would have allowed migrants in, had a local family stayed there.
The makeshift kitchen – a gas stove on the floor, surrounded by plastic boxes and containers for rice, dal and spices – is clearly operative; day by day, each occupant is assigned the task to cook for all and in fact, the boy who’s on today seems to have just finished to wash up. In the rooms, the minimum for dwelling: light mattresses or mats laid on the floor, clothes hanging from ropes, plastic shelves with few personal affects; in one, a TV on a small table. Compared to the housing situation of many other Bengalis around Ernakulam, who struggle to find accommodations due to their status as migrants and to their fluctuating stays, it is a privileged set-up and Shahabuddin is very happy with it. Until one year ago, for lack of options, he used to stay by the respective construction sites, in barracks or in the same rooms that he worked in all day. The room he occupies now is better finished than any of the rooms of his parental house – though he’s determined to make it a really beautiful one, with plastered walls and decorations, little by little. Yet what’s probably most important to make it a “good place” is that the need to limit the rent expenditures and hence share the rooms has determined a form of habitation that, helped by the homogeneity and/or compatibility of the occupants, ensures a high compliance with their habits and needs, and at the same time fosters a flexible and dynamic use of space, essentially understood as collective resource.