20 November 2012


Milton’s rented room, first floor of a three-storey house behind the central wholesale market; 26° C

Accompanying Milton back home after “routine” visit and breakfast at Kawran Bazar

While unlocking his room, like every time, Milton apologises: ‘I cannot even offer you something warm in this place of mine! You’ve been at my home, you know how well I treat my friends! My wife would have prepared us so many good things by now… you’ll have to see me there next time’. None of my arguments – that we love to see him whatever the food, that we should get to know his life in Dhaka too, that his room is actually very nice – can comfort him for what he finds an “undignified” accommodation. His room, if small, is tidy and well-kept and we can sit quite comfortably on the big bed, which occupies probably three quarters of the room area. Under it are kept three travel bags – one for each of the roommates – with personal affects, while freshly washed laundry is hanging on ropes that run along two walls. The only additional piece of furniture is a small bamboo shelf that accommodates a variety of cooking-pots and a few plastic containers for spices. Differently from other commuters, however, Milton and his roommates haven’t had to learn to cook: the owners of the three-storey building, who probably have found in male commuters with their little requirements and expectations a very convenient kind of tenants, pay a housemaid who regularly cleans the rooms and, if the tenants require it, also cooks. Yet nothing seems good enough for Milton.

When I think about habitation as a series of practices that relates to habits, I always like to refer to the distinction between <bari> and <basha> in Bengali. Both mean, by and large, “home”, yet with different connotations: <basha> describes a temporary, and generally rented, house; <bari> by contrast indicates one’s own ancestral house and entails a sense of permanence. Issues of property, tenure and of land ownership obviously underlie the distinction; as a very little number of people in Dhaka and Calcutta have a <bari> in the city, in everyday language it is common to hear them speak of <basha> when they are returning home from work, and of <bari> when they are preparing to visit their hometown or village. The crucial difference between these two concepts pertains, however, to the temporal rather than to the spatial dimension, as <bari> also stands for the place of birth, in which one will be laid to rest after death; it demarcates, so to say, beginning and end of an individual’s life –  it “localises” this person all through her lifetime, thereby also linking her to the lives of her ancestors and of the future generations. Here, we can read the perduring importance of an agricultural tradition relying on sedentariness and land ownership, for which every family lives and stays in their own house and the concept of tenement, and even more so that of rented apartments, hints at “unaccomplished” life forms in the cities; <basha>, in fact, has a negative connotation to itself. The majority of city dwellers, whether they have settled permanently in the city or keep moving between latter and another place (or other places), and however different their livelihoods might be, live with this distinction between “less true” and “truer” homes in mind. So happens with Milton. He could never identify with Dhaka, he’s never tried to engage with the city or invested in an everyday life, because he doesn’t have a place of his own there – and reversely, because he has got one somewhere else.