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Nishita Chheda

Sand, Skin & Sky Home, Through Three Migrants Written by Nishita Chheda Edited by Neerja Deodhar Photographs: Sand by Nishita Chheda, Skin by Parthiv Shah & Sky by Nishita Chheda and Ishaan Raghunandan

Typest in Cormorant Garamond Printed at Allywn Jumbo, Andheri Thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the Undergraduate Program in Communication Design at the Indian School of Design and Innovation, Parsons, Mumbai.

To, ‘The Homebounds’


The idea of home is one which is universal and yet so subjective and personal. It is a feeling we try to realise at various points in our life. We try to define it, often romanticise it, other times put in boxes, and lay it out in structures, within houses. What started out as a personal attempt at understanding this multi-dimensional concept in terms of place and emotion soon expanded when I started interviewing people about what home means to them, and drew parallels between these myriad conceptions. I soon realised that our state of being with regards to the home falls into one of three categories: the homeful, the homeless and the homebound. The home, as most of us view it, is perceived to have permanence and stability to it; it is a point of fixture. The idea of home and movement

often don’t go hand in hand. Those who are constantly on the move are

In my grandmothers case, it is one that evolved from her house and

often viewed as being different; they are believed to be wanderers with

habits of the familiar, to a deeper understanding of the soul. It also

no concrete framework of living in place. This fear of them stems from

explores home as read through mathematical figures, in square feet area.

the fact that nobody can or wishes to conform them. Their movement

An idea of home within a geographical space, the concept of home

is central to their story of freedom, and their stories and experiences

ownership and the emotive realisation of home within structures.

are more liberating than terrifying. This is why the homebound — those who were in movement — ­ in search for a sense of home and belonging

The second, ‘Skin’, explores the idea of home through the Hijra

interested me the most.

community of India, the oldest transgender community in the world, many of whom struggle to come to terms with their own bodies —

My thesis is an exploration of the idea of home through movement. It

arguably one’s first home or place of belonging. It also explores the

is a journey in three stories — a book that looks for meaning through

concepts of nationhood and citizenship i.e the idea of belonging to an

writing, a combination of personal experiences with facts, home as I

entity music larger than oneself.

imagine it, but also the way the wonderful people featured in it think of it. I am glad that I had the opportunity to meet each of them and come

And the third one, ‘Sky’, is an exploration of the idea of home through

one step closer to understanding home.

the eyes of the Maldharis, the pastoral nomads of Kutch, and their unique conception of home that is not embodied in one place, but is rather a reflection of their state of mind. One that is built, rebuilt, and

“Home is where I lay my two feet on & the sky above that piece of land”

‘Sand’ is an exploration of home through my maternal grandparents and their migration from Kutch to Bombay. An archival research of the aspired home, of the home of the familiar and understanding home as an evolutionary idea — one that adapts with time and circumstances.

carried in memory and space through recreations.

2. Being at Home in the Country..................69

3. SKY



1. The Sky Above.........................................77





1. My home............................01

2. The Physical as Home.........07

3. Shifting Sands, 1967............21

2. SKIN 1. The Body as Home..............47


Sand My Home


The Physical as Home


Shifting Sands


Home, Beyond Frameworks

My Home

Man, a master of frameworks, a master of boundaries. Control is an acquisitive instinct of man and we practice it by organising and arranging both, the tangible and intangible into skeletons of understandings, forming a web of systems and sub structures. Over these years, with revolutions and movements such as privatisation, we have learnt to exert control over space available to us in any form, and with great efficiency. We break it down into finer systems and lay it out in compartments. Then: Stones, fire. Shelter, a cave, Resources of nature. Of intangible frameworks within the tangible

Today: Walls, a partition, Boundary, a territory. 1

within roads, within apartments, within houses, within rooms, within

one spatial setting for more than 20 years of my life and of building the

beds, within the tangible.

meaning of home within it. Amidst this comfort, in the year of 2013,

Within politics, within power, within caste, within religion, within

I moved to an unfamiliar space, of unfamiliar people, and unfamiliar

gender, within roles, within art, within the intangible.

experiences. I kept coming back, to a sense of familiarity. I tried to take back what was warm and familiar to recreate home. But my

Within one such framework, I grew up. It lay an archive to my

understanding of it still lay so deeply ingrained in place. I came back.

My Home

There was a certain ease that came with the familiarity of growing up in


Home, Beyond Frameworks

All these frameworks, within nations, within states, within cities,

memories, my stories and those I called mine. This location is what I called home. I called the city mine. Within it, I grew up in an

Once again, in the year 2017, I moved to a new space. The same feelings

apartment, and within these walls lay my meaning of home.

of unfamiliarity ensued — of scapes, of people, and new experiences. However, this time, I felt a sense of belonging like never before; within this unfamiliarity, I found ease, I felt secure... I felt ‘at home’

Memories of Belonging, 1999 & 2017 And sometimes you belong to a space in the same manner you would to a loved one. 3


Home, Beyond Frameworks

My Home

So what then is ‘home’

Time | Space | Place | Memory


Home, Beyond Frameworks

The Physical as Home In the midst of our separations exists the ‘Home of the familiar’. Of the house; of wandering, but going back to the same address; of navigating through the corridors, knowing exactly where the edge of the dining table lies, carefully avoiding it and walking straight ahead; of reaching one’s bed, taking in the scent of the sheets, the warmth of the blanket; of routine, of habits and of the comfort that is found in familiarity. The idea of home also carries with it a treasure box of memory, myths and legends; of stories of origins; of one’s homeland, of travelling back to ancestral soil; of tracing the roots and routes taken, of adoption and recreation, of carrying pieces of identity through landscapes. It also lies in what we create and come to cherish within our homes, of Of housing the home

the scent of the bread being baked in the early hours of the morning, 7


measure of a saucer. Though intangible meanings, abstract conceptions exist, there are also

:an establishment providing residence and care for people with special needs, homes for the elderly


:the objective in various games, eg: Ludo

Most of the definitions and meanings associated to home align it with a physical structure or a dwelling. We even ask new acquaintances where


they are from as a way of locating them physically and culturally,


making assumptions about their class, education, ethnicity, interests


and influences by placing them in a recognisable setting.

The Physical as Home

several dictionary meanings of the word home:

a: one’s place of residence: DOMICILE . has been away


Home, Beyond Frameworks

of butter being churned by hand and of chai that can be held in the

from home for two weeks, a place to call home b: house . several homes for sale in the area “Perhaps, the idea of home as a place — a physically delineated,


: the social unit formed by a family living together

geographically locatable place — is the most common way of

trying to make a good home for her children comes

understanding home. We instinctively think of home and

from a broken home

people’s relationship to it in spatial terms. It is the landscape providing the setting for our lives.”


a: a familiar or usual setting: congenial environment;

Helen Taylor, There’s no Place like Home, The Spatial Home

also: the focus of one’s domestic attention . home is where the heart is b: habitat . the home of the kangaroo The island is

However, this understanding of home as physical comes from a more

home to many species of birds.

psychological understanding of our evolution and our behavior, that of control and territorialisation which are subject to changes in


a: a place of origin, one’s own country . having

the space around us.

troubles at home and abroad 9

space in terms of measurable area, which is occupied and owned by an

relation to humans, the basic instincts and principles regarding

individual. It is the territory one occupies while standing up or sitting

territorial behaviour remain the same, however owing to intellectual

down, and this measurement becomes significant especially in the

and social evolution, we tend to exhibit it in sophisticated ways, not

context of house occupation in a crowded city like Mumbai, and a

just for food and reproduction but for simplification and order. We

populous country like India, where only so much space and so many

exercise control in societies through the imposition of rules and

resources can be afforded to each citizen.

regulations over members, over intangible concepts such as time and distance — by dividing them into finer and orderly measurements, in our own countries and houses through borders, fences and closed doors,

The Physical as Home

reproduction by using auditory, visual and olfactory mediums. In


Home, Beyond Frameworks

The ‘Physical Home’ or the ‘Spatial Home’ carries with it the notion of

to mark clear indications of what is ours and not. A sense of control over a territory communicates to outsiders the notion that the place is private and to the members that there is a sense of safety, a physical comfort and an emotional ease within.

“A man’s Self is the sum total of all that he can call his” William James, The Principles of Psychology, 1890

Quantifying home and it’s inhabitants

Control and territorialisation are exhibited by us in various ways, intangible as well as tangible, however in the material-obsessed culture that we are growing up in today, the most readable way in which these

Territory by definition refers to the behaviour of animals of marking

two concepts are expressed are through possessions and ownership.

space to secure a personal or a group’s geographical area for food and 11

home we can think of and is perhaps the reason why this answer comes

to ‘what makes you feel at home?’ or ‘what/where is your home?’ were

to us so instinctively.


‘home’ or ‘my home’. This refers to the physical structure that people consider their homes. It is the tactile base one feels belongs to them, or

In fact, the house holds such importance in the understanding of home

perhaps which they share with others, the stable place in their lives.

that it has been suggested that one way of conceptualising home is to consider it within an equation:

Home = House + x

The Physical as Home

Home, Beyond Frameworks

Hence, it comes as no surprise that the answers I received frequently

While the x factor represents the social, psychological, and cultural values which a physical structure gains while being occupied as a home, the house forms an essential element in the equation, as it provides physical shelter and the locus for the experience of home. This is the argument for why it should be considered as an independent and Home by the Noun Project: a structure, an object,

essential entity.

a family, a structure, a structure, an animal, a strcuture, your heart, a structure

In most research studies too, prior to the surge of interest in the concept of home amongst environmental psychologists in the 1970s, scholarly literature often identified home with the physical structure of

Whether it’s children or adults playing a game of pictionary, whenever

the house or residence, as the tangible was always considered to be the

we are asked to draw ‘home’, most of us still draw a rectangular base

more rational approach.

topped by a triangular or trapezoidal roof, occasionally accompanied by some trees and stick figures, resembling our family. It’s the most iconic

Today, even though we deny equating the home to the house by 13

ideologies which once originated from wider belief systems have today

control and pride to an individual. These emotions further strengthen

reduced to material culture and the survival of the richest. After being

other factors that contribute to the ‘x’ in the home equation. The

present in this scenario, witnessing it first hand, here is an attempt to

security and continuity that comes with such ownership makes one feel

understand this obsession behind home ownership and the reduction of

safer and more attached to the physical space. However, there are other

this beautiful concept to a mere financial investment.

studies which suggest that people who rent houses can feel at home too.

“The cultural meanings of home are compounded by the

The Physical as Home

Many studies have proven that house ownership brings a sense of


Home, Beyond Frameworks

multiple theories and supporting arguments, it is true that our

additional cultural meanings of home ownership. Culturally, if not in reality, home ownership is perceived as conferring greater freedom and independence, and as giving the home owner a greater degree of control. Furthermore, the status conferred by home ownership may be relevant in the context of an occupier’s self-identity.” Lorna Fox O’Mahony, Conceptualising Home: Theories, Laws and Policies

“Home is something I own, something that is mine”

Today, political and economic policies and ideologies have contributed

Tirtha Mandal, Calcutta

much to the meanings and values associated with the owner-occupied home. Indeed, the idea of home as a financial investment is probably the most readily comprehensible aspect of ‘home’ today.

The commoditization of ‘home’ emerges when an individual has access

Many researchers claim that home embodies greater significance when

to the legal freedoms that accompany owning a house, but does not

the property in question is owned by its occupiers, and that this

have the emotional experiences that come with appropriating the

enhancement of the home experience, in conjunction with the value

sentiment of ‘home’. 15


Home, Beyond Frameworks

The Physical as Home

Home = House = Home At this juncture, it is important to ask, Have we started talking about ‘home’ and ‘house’ as synonymous terms because of the ideals that we have been fed with all these years? Do we really feel at home in our house? Or with our family? Or are we conditioned to believe that this is the most secure setting? Has this comparison always existed or is it a recent development?


multi-faceted construct. However, there still remain disagreements

on the ideas of the community as collective. Hence, even though

between linguists and etymologists over this word. Based on

the meaning of home always lay in space, whether it was the world, the

assumptions, its roots can be traced to a cluster of old Germanic words.

village or the homeland, it connoted a deeper sense of security, of

However, linguists remark that by far, the idea of home has no true

happiness and of just being. It did not simply refer to a territory or a

equivalents, even within cognate languages.

concrete structure, but to an abstraction that was not limited to an exclusive physical habitation, but included concepts of dwelling and

The Online Etymology Dictionary traces its origins as:

affection, even within its boundaries.

Middle English - Hom, Old English - Ham, Hamlet, meaning: small village, a piece of pasture land, enclosure, dwelling

Home is thus not just a house or a repository that contains material

place, house, abode, fixed residence, estate, region, country.

objects, nor is it just a shelter or a product that commands market

The Physical as Home

home today, often controlled, the notion of ‘home’ in the past built


Home, Beyond Frameworks

Many have attempted to trace the origin of home and define this

value. The concept of home is one of abstraction and it is indeed very Old English “ham” has been derived from Haimaz, a Proto Germanic

shallow to read it in terms of a mere material structure or a location.

noun, allied to the modern Engl. home.

Though the house provides the locus for family life, a place of safety, a place of privacy, continuity and a sense of permanence, home as a mat-

Haimaz is also source of: Old Norse and Old Icelandic “heimr “,

ter of fact, is rather a space where personal and social meanings are

residence, world, Gothic haims “village”. The most general senses of

grounded, an emotional place. It is both material and imaginative, a site

home have been retained in two Gothic adjectives with prefixes: ana-

and a set of meanings that very often transcend the idea of place,

haims “present,” that is, “at home” and af-haims “absent,” that is, “not

structure and stability. It is locatable, but not necessarily within a fixed

at home” Dutch too, has a close analog: inheems “native, homebred”

space. It does not need bricks and mortar, it can be a wagon, a caravan,

and uitheems “foreign” (heem “home”) Old Frisian hem “home, village,”

a boat, or a tent. It need not be a large space, but a space it must be, for

Danish hjem, home, Middle Dutch heem, home, German heim “home,”

home starts by bringing some space under control.

modern German Heimat means “homeland, native land.” As traced by etymologists, the origin of ‘home’ meant the place owned by the community, village, or settlement. Contrary to our understanding of 19

Home, Beyond Frameworks

Shifting Sands, 1967 Room no. 34, Mithibai Chawl, A Donde Marg, Sewri. Mumbai- 4000015

“Ghar jo sapno mujho vo ane dhandhe jo sapno anijo vo” My dream was of a house, and his of a successful business Prabha Nemchand Rambhia, Bai

It was a small 10 x 9 sq. ft room on the second floor of a 100-room, three-storey Maharashtrian chawl bought at Rs 6500, on pagdi, with “Parn voh kholase vaaro. It was spacious though! Bai and Bapu’s first

a monthly rent of Rs 10. The first and second floor had more rooms,

house in Bombay. Mithibai Chawl, Sewri

around 35 each and the third floor had around 30 rooms. 21

on the opposite side. In front of the window was a raised platform

of dreams, habits, and social, political and economic factors. In the case

where the kitchen was set up. On the right side of the door was a shelf

of migrants, there are usually two kinds of situations; in the first, they

for clothes and on the left, two mattresses and a thicker blanket were

are forced to move from their place of origin due to circumstances

kept folded on top of a brass trunk; they would be laid out on the floor

outside of their control, such as those who shifted and had to make

at night and folded back in the mornings.

permanent base in the newly-formed neighbouring country during the Partition, in 1947, and the second kind, which is of a voluntary

Everyone has an imagined home — the place where they feel they will

nature, wherein one leaves the state or country out of choice and

belong, an aspired space that feels like an extension of our dreams, the

not out of force. For my grandparents, the migration that they went

‘ideal place’. For my grandparents, like all others who dreamt of

through was of a voluntary nature.

Shifting Sands, 1967

The ideals of home are those are intrinsically woven into the fabric


Home, Beyond Frameworks

It was right opposite the staircase; four walls, one door and a window

monetary success in their times, their aspired home was Bombay, the city of dreams. Kutch, where they hail from, is largely an arid land with a poor economy. Establishing and sustaining a family there was very difficult, especially for a family with big dreams.

Original caption from LIFE in 1947 Bapu photographed in his early years against the

Margaret Bourke–White (1904–1971)

rising skyline of then Bombay.

The Great Migration, Pakistan, 1947 23


Home, Beyond Frameworks

Shifting Sands, 1967

Migrants I, Nemchand Hirji Rambhia & Prabha Nemchand Rambhia Nemchand Hirji Rambhia, Bapu as we fondly address him, grew up in very poor conditions, and his sole dream and the aspiration that drove all his decisions was to make money, have his own business and have a name in the industry. He was a young boy of 13 with dreams bigger than his eyes could see and shoulders could carry when he made the decision to move to Bombay, in the hope of a better future. He worked in the textile industry, at the Azad Hind Clothing Company, under Dungarshi Bhai for 10 years and by 1967, he had started his own business, Sero. When his prospects bettered, he bought a modest house in the city, a small room in Sewri and upon the arrival of his wife, Prabha Nemchand Hirji Rambhia (Bapu) and Prabha

Nemchand Rambhia, Bai as we call her and their two girls, Masi and my

Nemchand Rambhia (Bai)

mother, a home was set up. 25

aunt, then only near a year and three years old respectively. She

our dad would take out his branded video camera that he had fondly

undertook this arduous journey because my grandfather believed that

inherited from his uncle and capture us, going about our daily lives.

better things were to be found here, as compared to their village in

Today, these clips stand as memories of times that cannot be re-lived in

Bhadia, Kutch, Gujarat.

temporal and spatial terms, but can be remembered through such simple acts of archiving. Ever since I was young, I have laid on material

Many, like my grandparents, would move to Bombay and other cities

the importance of memory — from my first concert ticket, pine cone

in an attempt to look for better jobs, or simply to leave the village life

roses fr0m a trek in the Himachal to my first letter of acceptance from

behind. But they would carry with themselves a piece of their homes,

a design studio and my first earnings. This is why the idea of not

akin to a seed from an old tree which they would plant in their new

carrying objects or material goods that one is fond of did not seem to

surroundings, in order to be reminded of the tree’s presence once again,

make any sense to me.

Shifting Sands, 1967

unfamiliar, especially for a hoarder like me. Growing up, every Sunday


Home, Beyond Frameworks

My grandmother was en route to Bombay by train, with my mother and

to be reminded of one’s origins and stories of where they came from. However the only things that my grandmother carried with herself were, a pital (brass) trunk filled with 10 handwoven cotton sarees that she had received in marriage, some clothes for my aunt and mother, ordinary vessels that were already present at their home in Kutch; 6 pital dabbas that were gifted to them in marriage by 12-15 of Bapu’s Karigars and 3 sets of vessels given to her by her mother-in-law during her wedding; each set contained one steel plate, one steel glass, one steel spoon and one small steel bowl. None of these were peculiar to her house or Kutch, and I wondered why anyone would choose not to carry with themselves a piece of their homeland, in order to remember the stories of their soil. It seemed so

Spatial memories from 2015 27


Home, Beyond Frameworks

Shifting Sands, 1967

Bai photographed at her current residence, in her iconic spot and in her iconic pose. 29

Fifth floor, Savitri Building,

forth into corridors and opening cupboards, searching for things

Malviya Road,

that might be ‘usefull’ for me. She tells me that in the circumstances

Vile Parle East,

they lived in, they did not own much to carry with themselves in the

Mumbai- 400057

form of material culture, hence only “essentials” were carried; there was no item that was for “show” or “just memory”. However, I insist, there

It is a spacious 2500 sq. ft house on the topmost floor of a 5 storey

must be something!

building. The two houses have been combined into one generously sized house with four rooms, two living rooms and one kitchen.

After close to two hours of searching, we are back in the living room

Shifting Sands, 1967

I am with her in her current house, following her as she moves back and


Home, Beyond Frameworks

Current Residence:

with some remaining vessels from her initial collection, 4 brass dabbas that fit into each other, 3 steel plates, 2 steel glasses and a steel vessel “Parn ayun aj kholase vaara ta made ghar eh eda apein”

with engraved greetings on them. With these is a bag full of fabrics

We as people are very open, so we have always chosen houses

containing her wedding saris and borders, a broken gold necklace and

that have a certain openness within them.

matching earrings. Most other jewelry she says has been converted into

Prabha Nemchand Rambhia, Bai

something else and has taken a new form, and some old black and white photographs from her wedding, one of their wedding, one with her best friend Devyani, and one of her with her siblings at the field in Kutch,

You will always find Bai seated on the right corner of an olive sofa

where they used to spend many a Sunday’s roaming around after

diagonally opposite the door and next to a side table with the landline

lunchtime. She fondly remembers her elder brother, Babubhai as she

phone on it, either playing Solitaire on the sofa, talking to a relative on

calls him, take his camera to the field and click pictures of them. She

the phone, or with her legs stretched out as she watches Savdhaan India

doesn’t remember carrying these pictures with her to Bombay, but I

on the television. Sometimes, you will also catch her seated on the

see in her eyes the remembrance of a simple past, the full grown wheat

ledge of the open window of the living room, looking outside and

swaying with the slight breeze of the wind, the smell of the soil and

appreciating the grandeur of the neighbouring bungalow or

fresh air and of a past shared with those close to her heart.

enlightening you with some dharmic philosophy from Jainism. 31


Home, Beyond Frameworks

Shifting Sands, 1967

“And if you were to look carefully, you could still read the marriage greetings engraved in Gujarati, Four brass dabbas from the original collection of six, each fitting into the other like a puzzle match.

‘Shah Raghavji Hirji Devraj taraf thi prabhavani, lagna prasange saprem bhet.’ 33


Home, Beyond Frameworks

Shifting Sands, 1967

Broken pieces of gold jewellery from her marriage, so limited in quantity that it could be wrapped into a knot — the size of a child’s palm, with just a tiny A bag full of wedding saris and intricate broders

piece of square cloth. 35

dreams. Mumbai to them was like The American dream of today, better


Home, Beyond Frameworks

The meaning of home to her in those days lay in the realisation of their opportunities, better living conditions and the assurance of a better future. Mumbai also has always had a certain magic to it, in its air, of triumphs over the little sorrows and a certain warmth that puts you to sleep after a hard days of work. Though they lived in a small apartment, the difficulties of the field, of carrying water in pots from far away, going to the fields for defecating, seemed to have gone away.

Shifting Sands, 1967

the million expectations and the realisation of the same, the greater

I soon came to realise that it is not just material culture that memory is carried in, it is values and habits from the homeland that stand as memories for her. When migrants move to the host city/country they situate their existing habits and try to adapt them in the new setting. In the same fashion, the simplicity of the life in Kutch had been carried to Bombay by Bai and Bapu. The entire family lived in a manner by which resources were optimised. Everyone had only three to four pair of clothes, two for daily wear and one for fancier occasions, travel was mainly by bus and train, uniforms were stitched two inches longer so that they could go on for two to three years, Naanaji’s pants were opened up and sewn back into shorter pants for the boys or skirts for the girls. However, money was only saved where it should have been, never even in their years of struggle was food micro managed, seasonal Old photographs from the field, one with her best

fruits were bought on a daily basis, even mangoes were eaten twice a

friend, Devyani and one of their marriage.

day and dry fruit was purchased during the diwali days. 37

However, food too lies in the terrain of the familiar; it does not

the greater value for material that Bai and Bapu believed in that was

encompass within itself the entire meaning of home, but it does have

practiced and carried forward even with a change of setting.

the quality of nurturing one’s soul, like an old friend. Every morning,


my naani used to knead dough made from jowar, churn butter, make chai, burn the sagdi and bake rotla for Naanaji before he left for work. “Every cloth, every pot is created using resources of the earth,

This wasn’t just breakfast that tasted good; in it lay the comfort and

soil, water, dyes. They all come together and play their role to

familiarity of home in the unfamiliar city.

create what you and I are wearing today, and it is this that we need to pay respect to, to the hands that created it and to the

In the arid climate where my family had lived for generations,

resources that were used for the luxury of your use today.”

serving buttermilk to guests was the norm, considering its abundance

Prabha Nemchand Rambhia, Bai

in comparison to that of water. But moving to the city did not make

Shifting Sands, 1967

Home, Beyond Frameworks

I believe that these actions weren’t a result of only saving money, it was

them abandon this practice — we still welcome guests with buttermilk, because water just doesn’t feel like an invitation to our home. Sliced These ideals come from the soil and people of her homeland, who have

bread is easily available in the city, but we still eat rotla for breakfast.

tilled the land, people with indigenous knowledge so much greater than what we learn in schools and colleges today. Even today, at the peak of

This has been passed down generations, with no change. Grains are still

their economic stability, these values haven’t vanished. Bai still recycles

sourced from our fields when possible, they are ground at home too to

her saris, she takes out the borders and sews them in repetition to make

avoid possibilities of adulteration, the pan is still made out of clay and

cushion covers, the other material is made into rags for cleaning or into

mom still uses her hands and not the rolling pin to even out the dough.

bathroom mats. Everything is still valued like the olden times.

The taste of the burnt clay is a reminder of our ancestral land. This year, my mother finally taught me how to prepare an authentic Kutchi

Another more visible manner in which memory is stored and revealed is

breakfast, starting from the butter to the rotla, and I intend to pass on

through taste and smells. Food, even in its most basic form, is the most

the tradition, too. This habit then, does not remain a mere ritual but

accessible way to recreate the feeling of home. It ignites all one’s senses

is embedded with a melange of meanings, of history and of a past that

and takes one back in time to a place and memories shared.

speaks of a homeland. 39

have gone through a radical change. While the house here in Bombay


Home, Beyond Frameworks

Through these years, while some habits like these haven’t changed, some seems to have imbibed Kutch in its presence through habits recreated over time, the old house in Kutch was redone three years ago. The new walls and a layout that fits ideal for a city. There is little or no resemblance to Kutch architecture. As a matter of fact, if you were to see it in a photograph, you would mistake it for a house in Bombay.

Shifting Sands, 1967

house stands tall, a three storey structure with marble flooring, cement

Nem Kalyan, Bhadia, Kutch

In a similar manner that habits and memories are carried from our homeland to our host country, the migrant over the years creates a new Morning breakfast rituals, Rotla, Makhan & Chai

set of language that borrows from both the spaces. After more than 50 41

carried back to Kutch were newer habits, newer understandings of

more often than we think inhabits the idea of home within it. In the

space and architecture and a tangible reality of the aspired dream that

case of my grandparents too, initially, the realisation of a deep-seated

was once, Bombay. The meaning of home for Bai lay in these aspirations

dream of house ownership in a city like Bombay and economic success

and dreams, of the imaginations of an ideal home and the realisation of

embodied their idea of home. However, the idea of home is one that is

the same. The business grew and so did the size of the houses. And as

constantly worked upon, broken, built and rebuilt, it is more of a

we sit here, Bai explains to me what home means to her today.

journey than an ideal concept. The discontinuous and fractured setting that came as part of their

“Today I’ve reached a stage in my life wherein home ceases to

movement, their migration, helped them in dissolving existing ideas

exist, and this (referring to her body and house) is not home

and exposing them to a multitude of experiences, leading to a more

either. All of these are ‘ksharink’, meaning momentary. It’s a

deeper and complex understanding of belonging, and therefore home.

temporary house, it lasts only for a specific time period and

Movement dissolves frozen identity images and fixed ideas about what

with the passing of the moment, it ceases to be. Home as a

people are and should be like. Being without material to having an

definition, as a concept, is absent, but what really is the

abundance of it has taught Bai the importance of such a culture in our

permanent home, is where there is ultimate happiness, where

lives, and to not fixate in it, attachment. Hence today, home for her

I don’t have to leave and go to the next, from where there

has been a journey, an evolution of mind and soul and less of stability,

is no point of return. It is only that which has the quality of

fixture and material.

Shifting Sands, 1967

Living in the age of the ‘bigger house’ and ‘bigger car’ dream, the house


Home, Beyond Frameworks

years of living in Bombay now and adapting to its tune, what was

permanence and that which does not perish. We receive life through the cycle of karma. Today, we sit here, because we are tied by the law of karma, however these attachments too are all temporary. It is a continous cycle of formation and disintegration. The only permanent home is the soul; it is within us. Other than that there is no real home.” Prabha Nemchand Rambhia, Bai 43

Home, Beyond Frameworks


Home, Beyond Frameworks

The Body as Home If they see breasts and long hair coming

“Be easy, take your time, you are coming home to yourself.” Nayyirah Waheed, The Becoming | Wing

they call it woman, if beard and whiskers

Many consider the soul to be the ultimate home, but it is only after

they call it man:

a process of self-realisation that we even embark upon the journey of soul searching. Even for Naani, it took 60 years to understand ‘home’

But, look, the self that hovers

as an idea that evolved from her body to a physical structure, and

in between

finally, the soul.

is neither man nor woman

In the most primary sense, our bodies are our first homes. They not only house the soul but are also the vessels we are born into. It is through

O Ramanatha.

the body that we occupy space at any given time or place, and it is

Dasimayya (10th century Virasiva poet)

through this outer shell that we first form a relationship with the space 47

time and the maintenance of one’s identity requires the continuity

later, building a relationship with the society, nation and world at large.

and stability of such experience, and hence, familiarity. The loss of the


familiar leads to a loss of identity, and since we tend to belong within The body thus has an innate familiarity, a natural embeddedness to

spaces that we identify with, the loss of identity leads to a loss of

which a majority of us form an unconscious attachment. It is a space of

belonging. Hence even the displacement of one leads to a displacement

tangible expression and emotive realisation. However, it is also at the

of the other, leading to a discontinuous experience of home.

centre of all our struggles with identity, with our understanding of the


self in relation to others and the space involved and the point through which we often formulate boundary control.

#mytribe #youcannotsitwithus

The Body as Home

Home, Beyond Frameworks

around us, starting from the womb, to understanding our inner self and

Familiarity is found in the sharing of the same or similar norms, practices, cultures and traditions. This is also why we tend to call our inner circle of people our home. We share a level of familiarity and comfort with them, and even go as far as labeling them as our “tribe”, also as an indication of marking an invisible-yet-clear territory around them. Those who do not share and partake in the same culture and Clothing, jewellery, make up, tattoos, piercings,

values are often alienated and deemed as rebels and outsiders.

are all mediums of tangible expression.

Gender as an aspect of culture is also realised within the framework of certain norms as set by society at large. In heteronormative cultures Familiarity, belonging and identity are the cornerstones of our

where being cis-heterosexual is the norm, one is considered to be born

understanding of ‘home’. One factor intersects with the other, and in

either as a man or a woman, there is no in between. The math is simple;

the absence of one, the other is de-stabilised. For example, identity is

one’s gender is in direct correlation to one’s anatomy. One is either a

formulated through habits, rituals and values that are familiarised over

man or a woman. 49


Home, Beyond Frameworks

The Body as Home

Migrant II, The Hijras The ‘third gender’, arguably a problematic term in itself, is termed a deviation and are thus a violation of the norm, and hence viewed as outsiders. They lie at the intersection of those who do not conform to gender norms, and those who are homebound in terms of feeling comfortable within their bodies. In this book, I will specifically focus on the Hijra community of India. People may imagine that it is the style of dressing or mannerisms that cause people to be wary of the Hijras, but this has more to do with the fact that they are ‘men’ who dress up and behave ‘like women’. They are seen as ‘different’ from us all. Even today, the general perception of their lives and identities are so biased that belonging and a feeling of They are seen as different, as the ‘other’

being at home feel like unattainable privileges to them, and home as a

Gender: Male, Female, Other

feeling to ponder about seems, not like a comfort, but a luxury to them. 51

nor woman” Hijras don’t fall under the binary framework of gender as

in India through different perspectives. In my interactions with three

viewed by modern society at large.


hijras, I found that they had greater battles to fight than to romanticise about home with me. As I started breaking down expressions of home from the personal to the physical and the abstract in relation to them, I

The Body as Home

Home, Beyond Frameworks

Much has been written and documented about the Hijra community

did gain an understanding of their encounters with the self as home. This is, of course, far from being a perfect, a holistic study or interpretation; it is more an attempt to comprehend how a loss of a sense of familiarity with one’s own body can take place.

“I think how nice it would be to unzip my body from forehead to navel and go on vacation. But there’s no escaping it, I’d have to pack myself along. Encased thus within the baggage of a false restrictive outer shell.” Leslie Feinberg, Journal of a Transsexual, 1980: 20

The Gharana system is an exclsuive hierarchal community of the Hijras that one joins after leaving one’s family behind.

The hijra identity is considered as being the ‘third gender’; they are neither man nor woman, and both man and woman. Hijra is an Urdu

They are perceived to have some “physical defect” or to have been born

term [Origin: Arabic (híjra, “migration, departure, exodus”)] referring

of “sin origins”. All through their lives, they are alienated from

to Muhammad’s flight from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE; from the verb

mainstream society. When faced with rejection at the hands of their

(hájara, “emigrate, to abandon”). It literally translates to leaving one’s

own families and society at large, they often move away from their

own tribe behind. In the Indian context, “tribe” refers to the

families, leaving them behind and join an exclusive community of their

community, the family, the society one is born into. As “neither man

own, forming networks across the landscape of India. 53

movement of a body from point A to point B. Never before this have I


Home, Beyond Frameworks

I have always looked at migration in terms of physical movement, the looked at it in the absence of space and body, but for the hijras, it is the movement within the mind first and the body second that

The hijras disregard socially constructed forms of gender identities. They do not abide by the frameworks of the male-female binary and move beyond these traditional notions, blurring the rigid ideas

The Body as Home

characterises their migration.

related to the body. Owing to their fluidity between sex and gender, hijras were revered in pre colonial times. They were the only ones who had the power to blur lines of privacy and access in courts. Apart from singing and dancing, they used to earn a livelihood by becoming servants in the women’s quarters of the house. In the old days, women of wealthy families had a separate “zenana�, a ladies only area. The Hijras worked in such houses as they could bridge the male / female divide in the house. They could go out and do the errands, do the shopping for the ladies and also be their guards. Emperors kept them as trusted guards. Some even The Hijras held the most power during the

became generals in the Mughal armies. They played a famous role in the

Mughal Empire, which ruled the Indian

royal courts of the Islamic world as well, particularly in the Ottoman

subcontinent between 1526 and 1858.

empires and the Mughal rule in the Medieval India. They rose to

The zenanas were amongst the many structures

wellknown positions as political advisors, administrators, generals as

where their roles and boundaries blurred.

well as guardians of the harems. Hijras were consider clever, 55


sections of population, thereby playing a crucial role in the politics of empire building in the Mughal era. They also occupied high positions in the Islamic religious institutions, especially in guarding the holy places of Mecca and Medina the person of trust, they were able to influence

The Body as Home

Home, Beyond Frameworks

trustworthy and fiercely loyal and had free access to all spaces and

state decisions and also received large amount of money to have been closest to kings and queens. The binary of gender are in fact western concepts. Western religious texts, various constructive sciences, and the advent of western religions tried to resolve, repress, or trivialise sexual contradictions and ambiguities, claiming frameworks of only two genders. And it was only in the second half of the 19th century, under the British Raj that the Hijras lost their reverance and were criminalized. The British presence in India implemented institutions, discourses and laws to help constrain Indian norms to those that the British were creating at the time. Homosexuality, or to be more precise, sodomy, was becoming a constrained category (in the past it has undergone 2000 years or more of being a fluid category: at various times adultery, pre-marital sex, and many other practices had been placed under this category) and one policed by the newly expanding power of colonial and scientific knowledge. Prostitution was on the one hand similarly policed, while at the same time given a kind of privileged order. In India, under the auspices of Orientalist assumptions of a civilizing call,

“Then why did God create just Adam and Eve, why didn’t he create the third gender?� 57


the Oriental essence. Hijras were labeled prostitutes. And yet, while it may be the case that at this time some were prostitutes, it is more likely that this label was affixed to Hijras because their sexuality was beyond the pale of marriage. Hijras, like Devadasi (temple dancers), were

The Body as Home

Home, Beyond Frameworks

Hijras were considered a prime indication of the implicit deviance of

religiously justified in having autonomous sexual choices. This indulgence did not accord with the strict policing of sexuality that was being constructed at the time. So called deviant sexuality was another focal point for colonial distaste for Hijras, who were both transgressing gender boundaries by their gender performance, but also transgressing sexual boundaries by 1) having sex with men, and 2) having sex outside of the bourgeois family structure. Their place in religious and cultural life in India was seen as a threat.

Nineteenth-century British colonial officials and travel writers, in their papers and sketches often

All in all, in the second half of the 19th century, the British colonial administration vigorously sought to criminalize the hijra community

referred to Hijras as “the vilest and most polluted beings” and “the most hideous eunuchs.”

and to deny them the civil rights. Hijras were considered to be separate caste or tribe in different parts of India by the colonial administration. The Criminal Tribes Act, 1871, this included all hijra who were

These claims and notions against the Hijras evolved over time. To make

concerned in kidnapping and castrating children and dressed like

matters worse, misconceptions and negative stories exist in equal

women to dance in public places. The punishment for such activities

measure.Much has been achieved in terms of activism and the

was up to two years imprisonment and a fine or both. This pre partition

championing of rights, as well as landmark judicial rulings such as the

history influences the vulnerable circumstances of hijra in this

2014 Supreme Court judgment which recognises transgender people as

contemporary world.

being the third official gender. Their invisible plight was made visible,

but only partially. 59

of acceptance of such norms, it has become deeply ingrained in our subconscious. But if one assumes that it is merely a construct, one

conformity the mind feels safe, secure; it establishes itself in a

realises that the body has no priority or privilege in shaping gender

well-oiled groove so that it can run smoothly without

identity. Gender is indeed a performance for all, not just hijras. It is a

disturbance, without a quiver of doubt. When the mind

construct of society and it is only through the repetition of acts that we

establishes itself in a groove, in a pattern, haven’t you noticed

familiarise ourselves with roles as deemed particular to our body and it

that it is always prompted by the desire to be secure?

is only through this act of performance that we become gendered.

That is why it follows an ideal, an example, a guru. It wants to be safe, undisturbed, therefore it imitates. The instinct is to

The Body as Home

drives you to conform, toe the line, and through


Home, Beyond Frameworks

“You are made to imitate by tradition. The weight of the past

imitate people at large, to try to become like them, and that is one of the factors of deterioration because the mind then sets itself in a mould. Furthermore, society does not want individuals who are alert, keen, revolutionary, because such individuals will not fit into the established social pattern and they may break it up. That is why society seeks to hold your mind in its pattern, and why even your so-called education encour-

For hijras, however, it is at this primary level that things cease to make sense, because the performance that has been assigned to them feels

ages you to imitate, to follow, to conform.”

alien. The first sense of familiarity and comfort

Jiddu Krishnamurti, Philosopher, Speaker, Writer

that should be felt feels unfamiliar, their bodies feel alien. A hijra that I had the privilege of meeting told me that she will feel a sense of belonging to her body the day she undergoes a sex

To understand the dynamics of body and gender, for all of the hijras,

change operation and transitions into a woman.

the body has always served as a metaphor for home.

This unfamiliarity leads to a displacement, due to

Man is in a constant state of imitation. Gender, too, is an imitation, a

living in a body which is not of one’s choosing and

social construct, a set framework. Today, with the passing of centuries

being unable to identify with one part of yourself. 61

make sense, because the performance that has been assigned to them

familiar, of the feeling of nostalgia and a warm fuzzy comfort. And to

feels alien. The first sense of familiarity and comfort that should be felt

live and survive, one finds ways to recreate their home and build a sense

feels unfamiliar, their bodies feel alien. A hijra that I had the privilege

of belonging, through people, animals, objects, places and sometimes

of meeting told me that she will feel a sense of belonging to her body

like the transgender community, by forming one’s own tribe — an

the day she undergoes a sex change operation and transitions into a

exclusive community of their own — the gharana, a world in itself

woman. This unfamiliarity leads to a displacement, due to living in a

which shelters them in the biased world that we live in today.

body which is not of one’s choosing and being unable to identify with one part of yourself.

The Body as Home

the next stage of our life. The unfamiliar often leads to a quest for the


Home, Beyond Frameworks

For hijras however, it is at this primary level that things cease to

Clad in a bright red sari with a fashionable blouse, her hair tied into a bun, some quaint gold jewelry, she had no qualms about standing very close and speaking. “This is the fun part of my day, travelling in trains and meeting strangers!” said another. As someone who prefers maintaining some space while interacting with people, I found this unnerving at first. Later, I realised that it is an indicator of how comfortable she seemed to be with her body, and with being in close proximity to people. But this is perhaps because she has a better semblance about her identity and how she wishes to express it. Even if one is comfortable with oneself, one still feels the need to connect, relate and to fit in, to have a structure to belong to. We often forget how much of a structure the family is and how much we are dependent on it’s support — moral, financial or even just physical — of

The gharana provides to their soul, familiarity, a

a roof over our head that we are always assured of, when we move to

sense of comfort and a shared sense of belonging. 63

obligated to be loyal and obedient. No distinction is made on the basis

basic structure. For instance, they must give most of their earnings to

of caste, origin or religion, there is acceptance for all.


their master in the beginning, but it also means that in the future, in circumstances where they are unable to earn either through blessings or begging, care will be provided to them. It’s not perfect, but it works. But

The Body as Home

Home, Beyond Frameworks

The gharana for the Hijras is an assurance of a certain kind of base — a

no family is either.

The gharana system is a close-knit community of hijras. Those who don’t find acceptance in their houses join the community. It is a ‘parallel’ support system. Membership into this community helps them feel accepted as a natural member of society. The absence of the experience of living in houses with families like other cis-hetero people leads to a creation of a structure that is based on familiar patterns and activities. It reduces the stress associated with alienation, a loss of home, and hence if one analyses the system closely, it is similar to a family or a community structure. It imitates the communal atmosphere of society, by restructuring elements that evoke their connection to their houses. It is a space wherein they can express their gender and sexuality and manifest their accepted role with dignity and freedom. It consists of five to 15 members and there is a strict hierarchy. It seems like a fictive kinship. At the top level, there is a guru, under whom are 5 to 6 sub gurus. The sub gurus take on chelas, and once there are initiated, they are to share a lifelong bond. The guru is obligated to the chela and the chela is

A guru initiating a chela into the community as her daughter and giving her blessings. 65


rules, and though there are minute differences within each system, it stays the same at large. The chela is taken in as a daughter and goes through an initiation ritual, wherein her mother, the sub guru who takes her in, performs a ceremony. She pierces her nose with a needle

The Body as Home

Home, Beyond Frameworks

The process of getting into this system is one imbued with rituals and

and thread and lays an ornamented dupatta on her forehead as a sign of her being part of the community. In return, the chela has to pay an initiation fee as decided by the guru, who then gives her a new name and some gifts. She is then entered into the record book and becomes a lifelong member of the community. They all have roles designated to them as per the hierarchy and live in harmony with each other. It is this system that gives them a sense of belonging to first the body and second as part of the community and society at large. However, because they are not seen as ‘real’ women, they can still feel like they lack something. They are also not afforded many roles associated with

There’s a deep longing, of being a woman, of being recognised as one, of passing, of marrying, of giving birth to a child and of world acceptance.

women, such as that of a mother, house maker and wife, which they may aspire to be. Even within the gharana system, as per rules, one is not allowed to have a sexual life. Even if one does have a sexual life, it is necessary to keep it under wraps or to not talk about it publicly. It is frowned upon. One is also expected to cut ties from one’s native family. Now, the system has opened up a little bit and one finds many hijras in contact with both their birth mothers and their loved ones. Some of them openly live with their partners, which was unheard of 10 years ago. 67


Line of Control

Peshawar ¯


v R¯a

Multan ¯







Allahabad ¯ ¯










¯¯ Aizawl


e M ou t h s of t h

n Ga

Paradip ¯ ¯ Bhubaneswar



Cox’s ¯¯ Bazar Akyab






Vijayawada ¯


Panaji Marmagao GOA


Chennai (Madras)









Laccadive Sea MALDIVES


non- citizens the out-group. This familiarity is attached to shared

Port Blair


lli d am


PONDICHERRY Coimbatore ¯ TAMIL NADU Madurai alk Strait P Jaffna

Tuticorin Gulf of Mannar

outside. Familiarity is generated because of a shared feeling of patriotism and membership, thus making citizens one’s in-group, and








within the boundaries of a country, and the exclusion of those who exist




carries with it the connotation of solidarity among those who stay


Vishakhapatnam ¯ Kakinada ¯ ¯

Hyderabad ¯ ¯ hna


intrinsically linked to larger communities, such as the country. This notion is part of the discourse surrounding the nation-state, and it


da v a r i

Sholapur ¯


Beyond the ideas of the self and physical spaces, the idea of home is also





ddy wa





Imphal ¯

Irr a


Silchar Agartala


Baleshwar ¯ Mah Cuttack ¯ana d

Kohima ¯ MANIPUR



Being at Home in the Country




Ranchi ¯ ¯


Nagpur ¯


Thimphu Shillong




Dibrugarh Itanagar ¯



¯ Ganges BIHAR











400 Miles





Jhansi ¯


Surat ¯ Daman ¯

¯ Diu




400 Kilometers 200

Kathmandu ¯ ¯ UTTAR PRADESH Lucknow Gorakhpur Kanpur ¯ G

¯ Agra


Bhuj ¯ Gandhinagar ¯ ¯ Kandla ¯ Jamnagar ¯ Ahmadabad ¯ ¯ Okha Rajkot ¯ Vadodara ¯ Porbandar GUJARAT







Lambert Conformal Conic Projection, SP 12 N / 33 N



Jodhpur Hyderabad ¯ ¯

The city of Chandigarh is the capital of Chandigarh Union Territory and is also the capital of Punjab and Haryana States.




Delhi New Delhi Bikaner ¯¯


Karachi ¯





State or union territory capital

Chandigarh ¯ ¯ Dehra Dun





National capital




e utl


State or union territory boundary



Amritsar Ludhiana ¯

International boundary





Pathankot ¯



Indian claim


¯ab en




Srinagar ¯

Islamabad ¯ ¯ ¯ Kandahar ¯

Chinese line of control

uri ¯ala¯








lmand He


Yar ka


Mazar-e ¯ Sharif


r Da





In du s

Home, Beyond Frameworks





histories and culture, which future citizens thus become born into.



In this manner, the nation provides the main political and institutional





Boundary representation is not necessarily authoritative.

Base 802813AI (C00213) 10-01

frameworks within which human transactions an take place, thus becoming an influential factor in determining our identities.

India (Physiography) 69

by virtue of being born in a particular place. It has political sanction,

you are given rights in return for these obligations. It is not acceptable

and it is the one thing that keeps us legally bound to a country. With it

to extract more from the society than you give back to it. It is a

come to rights and duties and a passport, citizenship and the related set

tightly bound system designed to make life easier and more secure.

of responsibilities we are bestowed with as a result, exercises a strong

Since security is one of the factors which constitutes the meaning

influence on the first choice of a home. The place where you pay your

of home, citizenship is a logical starting point when one begins to build

taxes and go see your dentist, is eventually the place where you always

a home. These facts about citizenship might sound more cut-and-dry

have to return back to, whether you want it or not. It is a custom we

and ‘official’ as compared to the romantic idea of ‘feeling at home’, but

participate in because it feels natural to do so from the start.

it tends to be one of the factors that help you feel like you belong to a certain place.

Being at Home in the Country

As a citizen, you also contribute to the society, following which


Home, Beyond Frameworks

Citizenship is a mandatory institution we automatically partake in,

A friend who has been living in London for two years, who was back in the Netherlands temporarily to wait for a visa for Australia, mentions this as well. As someone who is not registered in any nation at the moment, she says that she feels like she doesn’t belong anywhere. Any country or city that she stays in feels more like an in-between place before she will finally settle somewhere. The absence of this security can act as a hindrance to feeling at home. The solidified, permanent attachment one has to one’s country is the first step we take while defining home. The nation we take part in offers us security and comfort, as there are customs and practices arranged for With citizenship come socio-political rights and

us to easily engage in, such as national events, symbols and reminders.

duties and an emotional belonging to an entity

It is a firm, largely unchanging idea that caters to our first needs for

much larger than the self, that of the nation.

functioning in a familiar environment. In fact, one could argue that it is 71

when citizenship is a relationship shared with the nation and a way to

human, considering the weightage given to a document such as the

be part of our community?


birth certificate. Without it, you do not officially belong to any place on the face of the Earth.

It remains to be known if the expectation of proof of residence is fair for those who do not have a a fixed, immobile home, and for those who

The idea of citizenship is also becoming inextricably linked to one’s

have no street address.

house ­— that is, the physical location of the place where one resides. Many proofs of identity and legal documents require one to have

The people whose homes are not on the map, who have — by choice or

a permanent home, and this is also true of other benefit schemes

otherwise — laid no stones on the ground; they mark home down the

and essential resources.

generations without any permanent structures. For them, the vast landscape and its boundless, inclusive nature encompasses home, and

Being at Home in the Country

Home, Beyond Frameworks

the first form of identity that one assumes at birth, after that of being

they are thus robbed of the sentiment and termed ‘homeless’. Proof of Date of Birth?

Some legal scholars go so far as to criticise the special legal status

Proof of Identity?

accorded to physical homes. To them, the “social costs” involved result

Prood of Address?

in excessive investment in residential real estate, raising the cost of credit, creating regressive tax subsidies, and frustrating land planning.

Why should a physical structure determine

Nonetheless, the physical home remains one of the most revered

who can become a citizen? Why should it be a

institutions in the eyes of both society and the law, since the right to

prerequisite when citizenship is a relationship

live in and protect one’s home is a fundamental right.

shared with the nation and a way to be part of our community?

Without a home, a person is generally invisible to society and is not officially recognised by state authorities. Without a home, a person remains on the margins of society, subject to ostracism and

This begs the following questions: Why should a physical structure

stigmatisation. Without a home, a person is an outcast, uncared for.

determine who can become a citizen? Why should it be a prerequisite 73

Home, Beyond Frameworks

The Sky Above Our roots have always been essential pieces of information that weave ‘Where are you from?’

together stories of our past, only to really locate ourselves and understand who we are in the present. The question: ‘Where have you come from?’ has always been a conversation starter between strangers, for it allows one to place the other in space, in a geographical context, within spaces of familiarity. Even though today we live in urban spaces, we still follow the most basic, primal instincts that have been carried from lands of our origin.


It may have been reimagined today and undergone a process of No, but where are you

evolution and adaptation, but at the heart of it, the essence, the

originally from?’

practices remain the same. ‘Oh, Kutch.’

We build a sense of home and belonging by uncovering our past, from 77

I am, the way I dress, the ideologies I subscribe to, and my very

and our roots. It is after this journey of self-discovery that we tell sto-

understanding of life and the world.


ries of ourselves, to make sense of who we are and what place we occupy in the universe.

During my vacations in Kutch, I have spent time on the road and in the field, learning about people, migration and what it means to belong.

In this context, the idea of one’s homeland gains importance, because

Oftentimes, we would come across men and women clad in colourful

it serves as a tangible point from which our past can be unearthed and

outfits wearing an abundance of silver jewellery, wandering. Sometimes

our stories can be traced. I’d like to believe that this was one of the

accompanied by their herd, and sometimes alone. On the move, and

main reasons why my grandparents kept taking me back to Kutch, to

sometimes stationed, on the side of the road, lying down beneath a tree

understand the culture, traditions, and really, stories of where we come

on a single piece of cloth. I always wondered who they were and what

from and understand the self in the wider range of the world we live in.

they were doing. Once, my grandfather described them as being

The Sky Above

Home, Beyond Frameworks

the understanding that we have origins, by forming links with our self

Banjaaras, and because of what popular culture had taught me, I assumed that they were hippies of sorts. I disregarded them as people who wander aimlessly, spending their time singing ballads rather than earning a livelihood. I imagined that they were without money or goals. Little did I know that it is this same group of people who would give to me the perspective to understanding home that I was looking for. We term their existence as being characterised by poverty, but they would define it as being free from maya. Aimless wandering, as we may perceive it, and fakiri as they call it, really encapsulates their The homeland is a tangible point of an origin story

meaning of home.

Today, I understand that the places I’ve visited and the stories I’ve heard have taken root deep inside my existence — they influence who 79


Home, Beyond Frameworks

The Sky Above

Migrant III, The Maldharis When I first set out to understand home from the lens of those on the move, I was wanting to meet sadhus, astrologers and the like, not a community more grounded in reality. I stumbled upon the pastoralists of Kutch only by chance, after visiting an exhibition on Pastoralism in India, in Ahmedabad, titled Living Lightly curated by Sushma Iyengar. I found myself embarking on a train journey, just like my grandmother. Through conversations and the learning I gained at the exhibition, I developed a keen interest in these nomads. When I finally met them, they weren’t Banjaaras. They were the pastoral nomads of my homeland, a well-built, tall man holding on to the only technology he cared for, a He serves as a reminder of history, of the

long wooden stick with which he communicated, moving with a herd of

trading communities of Gujarat, who had lived in

animals I had seen many times in the past. A water pot hangs from his

Kutch for many generations.

shoulders, and a small cotton bag is tucked in his dhoti. 81


Home, Beyond Frameworks

Yet my kingdom stretches wherever I see,

The Sky Above

A bowl and a staff is all I carry, My heart has taken to living free! The joy that lies in poverty, Can’t be found in plenty, My heart has taken to living free! Your body will bite the dust one day Why strut about, so smug, so vain? My heart has taken to living free! Don’t praise or damn others, Live a life of restraint My heart has taken to living free! Says Kabir, listen seeker The lord is found in contentment My heart has taken to living free!


They are now concentrated in the regions lying between Saurashtra and

of their abilities. Over a millennium ago, 20 pastoral herding

Kutch, and due to a slowing down of income, have resorted to herding

communities moved from areas as far as central Asia, Baluchistan,

cattle, water buffaloes, sheep and goats.


Afghanistan and neighbouring Sindh into present-day Gujarat. Their livestock of choice was the camel. They came to be known as the

‘Kuchi’, an Afghan Persian word, means ‘those who go on

Maldharis, the pastoralists of Kutch.

migrations, those who travel’. It is commonly said that all Kutchis are originally nomads, and I believe that this journey and the instant bond I shared with the Maldharis is indeed built over a similar past and

The Sky Above

Home, Beyond Frameworks

They roamed the land, learning about it and protecting it to the best

a shared origin. I soon realised that I had found the people I wanted to learn about home from — those who were homebound, homeless and at home, all at once. Throughout this journey, I was always clear about understanding the person, the community and their identity in theory as well as practice, as it would help me define what gave their idea of home the meaning that it carried. Initially, I tried really hard to understand the Maldharis first in theory, in definition, trying to put them in boxes. Now, I’m not going to do that. For a community that lives beyond frameworks, it would be unjust to confine them to a definition. Defining ties you down to one single meaning that needs to be held true, to something static, but for this moldable and dynamic They move along with their most prized possession,

community, no such attempt would do justice to them. Maybe it’s also

their cattle and livestock that today includes cows,

the reason why no one has arrived at one fully accepted definition of

buffaloes, goats, camels, and sheep.

the Maldharis. I would like to describe them as they like to describe themselves, rather than define them. 85

che Maldhari.”

suffocation would plague them within a day or two. They needed their


air and their only world possessions with them — their animals.

Only one who has the knowledge and knows to care for animals can be called a Maldhari.

Their reverence for these animals is evident in their lifestyle; they don’t

Jeshangbhai Rabari, Maldhari

sell or eat the meat of their livestock. Even the number of the herd is maintained in a way that utmost care can be given to them even in the worst of conditions. The maximum capacity of the stock depends on

In the time of rajas, they were the traditional dairymen of the region,

what they can manage even during a drought. Decisions regarding

who once supplied palaces with milk and cheese. Through the years,

migration and other factors are also prioritized and moulded largely by

they have adapted and evolved along with the range of ecosystems

what is good for their animals.

The Sky Above

Home, Beyond Frameworks

“Jene jaanvar saathe no sehwas karwa aawde, ene aj kehevaye

found in Kutch, forming a complex web of relationships that sustain them all. They believe that they were sent by the Almighty to raise livestock and be their guardians, hence the name ‘Maldhari’, where ‘mal’ means livestock and ‘dhari’ means the one who guides them, the direction giver. However, the pastoralists themselves assert that the real Maldharis are the livestock themselves, who are the source of the community’s survival and sustenance. Their way of living is so deeply rooted around their livestock that if you were to take it away from them, they’d lose their moorings and orientation, and undergo a radical cultural change. I’d been told then that whenever the maldharis travelled to cities and stayed in houses made of concrete, they suffered from claustrophobia and a sense of

Their relationship with their livestock is really unique, as that of a mother and her child. 87


Home, Beyond Frameworks

Adaptation is an inevitable part of such a lifestyle, and there’s a strong belief within the entire community that the only way to sustain is to alter oneself as per nature and not alter nature to suit one’s needs. One may regard their way of living as being ‘regressive’ or backward, but the science of nature. During incidents of drought, when the livestock starts decreasing, they believe that it is a sign from the gods above, it is nature’s way of balancing and should be regarded as the ultimate truth.

The Sky Above

they do subscribe to the belief that there is no greater science than

As of 2017, this is a 25-lakh member strong community, of which 10 lakh Maldharis migrate frequently. Set apart by the exact nature of their nomadic existence (fully/semi/settled), clothing and manner of building houses, what unites them are the same values for their land and a shared love for their herds. While understanding them and their unique relationship with their They know their animals so well that from a quick

land and their herds, I was also simultaneously trying to unravel their

survey of a herd of a hundred that they milk, they

understanding of home. Theirs happens to be a unique one, so

can tell exactly which cow produced it.

multidimensional that I’d have to live it to really understand it. However, my first few encounters did lead to what I later understood of their idea of home.

Even today, despite the destitution into which they’ve been thrust by economic, political, and environmental changes in modern India, they

While going through the exhibition in depth, I had fairly understood

remain revered for their mastery of raising livestock and are said to be

that their animals and their native track, the land they tread on and on

better at healing sick animals than trained veterinarians.

which the animals survive, is home for them, I was of the opinion that 89

imbued with the familiarity of past experiences. It is the environment

and philosophies they follow, all my assumptions about them came

that, through permanent inhabitation, becomes taken for granted and

undone. Attachment to land is against the larger philosophy of the

becomes a part of the self-conscious mind. This sense of familiarity is

community; as a matter of fact, attachment and ownership were never

rooted in bodily routines, a space that becomes a field of pre-reflective

considered virtues.

actions grounded in the body. It is a way of relating to the environment that may be transposed from place to place, and in this way the

The Madharis have a 700-year-old tradition of shared space, and

meanings of home may be revoked if the patterns are recreated. The

function on the idea of common land, that no land was ever yours and

migration route that the Maldharis took, if examined, are really just

will never be. They say that Allah had provided land for all, and

recreations of patterns. I realised that the land they moved on, even

claiming it would be to go against him. Their ideals are followed so

though they shifted, was of a similar topography, of a familiar terrain.

religiously that even binding land or confining it to a territory is not

The Sky Above

However, after having gained a deeper understanding into the routes


Home, Beyond Frameworks

familiarity is key to shaping one’s idea of home. Home is thoroughly

allowed. Dividing land and creating borders is considered a sin. Recently when one Maldhari laid a fence to a piece of land where his animals could graze and he could seek shelter, the community disowned him and only took him back till the fence was removed. They in fact, have a unique conception of place and territory, one without traditional notions of borders and non-attachment to land. They have relinquished all ideas, desires and nostalgia for fixity and this may also be why it’s easy for them to find home on all lands. But all of this sounds extremely romanticised and I found myself back at square one, still not ready to believe that home could be found in strange places and in unfamiliarity. And even in movement, they felt at home, because there was familiarity to the land they tread on. 91

moustache and a sombre expression on his face. He was dressed in white

fortune of meeting at the Living Lightly exhibition, what home means

clothes and a turban draped in a characteristic style. You’d never

to him, he promptly replied with, “My livestock.”

imagine that the picture of a young man he showed me was his son, save


for the similarity in their facial features. His son, proudly wearing a blue suit with a rose pinned to it, sporting no facial hair, did not look like a Maldhari. Jeshangbhai later told me that though he was his own son, he would not be called a Maldhari as he had chosen the urban life, and if one did not know how to care for animals, regardless of the

The Sky Above

Home, Beyond Frameworks

When I asked Jeshangbhai Rabari, one of the Maldharis I had the

pastoral heritage he was born into, he wouldn’t be regarded as one.

L-R: Rambhai and Jeshangbhai Rabari

62-year-old Rabari was warm and very forthcoming with stories about the community. When we met for the first time, he told me about himself, his family and the gods he prays to. He sported a bushy

A passport size photograph that Jeshangbhai took out from his wallet of himself and his son. 93

willingness to oblige, to converse and with pride, about their land, their

not exist without possession, if not place. This revelation made complete

people, their animals and their way of life.


sense — the livestock were their sole world possessions and companions, and hence the fact that their home lay in animals seemed natural. The Sky Above

Home, Beyond Frameworks

It was also during this time that I was trying to prove that home could

But this is a relationship shared by two entities, not a conception of ‘home’. Undoubtedly, their livestock contributed to their philosophy, but it wasn’t what constituted the meaning; they were merely catalysts. I had realised that the only way to understand their idea of home was to spend some time with them outside of formal settings, in their own surroundings, and hence, I decided to spend two days with the Maldharis, drinking countless saucers of chai. I shared a meaningful conversation with the very humble Gafurbhai and Hanifbhai — the way they liked to introduced themself — over the concept of home as understood by their community. What followed was a delightful insight into a sense of home, a belonging that is shared with the soil, earth and sky and not a block of square or walls. There is a certain magic to the Maldharis, and the circumstances in which you meet and talk to them. They are known to be covert masters of adaptation and manipulation. It is said that many of them do not reveal their real names to strangers, let alone talk about the details of their life and philosophies. I wasn’t hoping to gain much out of my conversations with them. However, these warm souls always had a

And we sat under the shade of a tree, drinking chai from ceramic saucers, which I was told travel more easily than cups. 95

nowhere at the same time. Home is in the need; it is a way of living, not

by speaking in Hindi but slowly realised that Kutchi would be a better

a space. It comes from the soil, runs in the clouds, and can be found in

option, and as I started conversing in a language familiar to the land

all things, places and memories.


we shared, the differences between us vanished. Simple, shared habits, the feel of the very ground we were sitting on, and the common sky and

The Sky Above

Home, Beyond Frameworks

We found a corner, folded our legs, and sat on the ground. I started off

stars we were sitting under brought together two people who could otherwise be perceived as being stark contrasts. Hanifbhai and Gafurbhai both hail from the Muslim village of Nani Dadhdhar in Bhuj and are in their 40s. Gafurbhai fit less into the idea of a nomad; he wore a salwar and kameez, and a pair of sunglasses. He dyed his hair and beard with mehendi, and red streaks blended into his natural black. Hanifbhai, too, didn’t wear traditional clothes, preferring his blue salwar and kameez, but he carried along a very colourful scarf. His smile exuded mirth, and he spoke excitedly as he sat on a charpai and drank tea from a saucer. Their appearance was indeed an indication of the changing times and the extinction of their community, though in every other way they shared the same philosophies and principles as Jeshangbhai, their outer appearance spoke darker truths. And on our way back, as we stopped for yet another saucer of chai, I asked Gafurbhai what home means to him. And he explained to me that this notion of home and a hearth is believed in only by us, the city dwellers. There is no such thing as home. If you were to ask him about belonging, not home, then he would say that we belong everywhere and

L-R: Hanifbhai and Gafurbhai 97

soil and with their animals, rather than a single, stationary place. It is

wide area with the sensation of home. They feel a sense of being at

reflective of a portable state of mind which can be built, rebuilt and

home in the world rather than merely being at home at a specific loca-

carried in space and memory. Something that is constantly dispersed

tion. For them, this home is always mobile, as long as their herd stays

and destabilised, equipping them to reimagine it wherever they go.

healthy and content. They are at home everywhere, but on the other hand lack any fixed ground. What’s more essential to him, are the “paths” running through space,

The Sky Above

They find meaning in the ephemeral over the physical, and imbue a


Home, Beyond Frameworks

Home for them is thus a relationship shared with the world, with the

connecting important places, linking the past to the present. Their identity is grounded on the physical and mental movements in time and space constructing a “feeling of home”, creating the experience of home. The Maldharis truly believe and keep re-affirming that urban dwellers are very different entities than them. When I asked Gafurbhai questions, he laughed in an almost cynical way, and said that such concepts of home and life, such philosophies are only romanticised and explored by people from cities. “We don’t even concern ourselves with these questions, owing to such a lifestyle. We just live it,” he told me. Despite belonging to the same region as the Maldharis, my idea of home today is more similar conceptually and physically to the average urban upper middle class Indian. It is important to question the how and why of such a phenomenon. Barring the changes that accompany migration and the blending of the migrant’s culture with that of the new culture A Maldhari is homeless and home-full at once.

they have assimilated into, the main reason for this seems to be a need 99

It is unfair to believe that a home cannot be found in mobility or move-

idea of such an ‘average’ comes from the perceived ‘convenience’ of

ment, to be biast and to refuse the identity of home to a practice which

living in a homogenous setting which makes ‘ergonomic’ use of space,

does not resemble our own in terms of culture and to be


which is easy to tabulate and easy to run for society at large. Our notion of home is surrounded by fixture, settlement,

“The difficulties begin when one tries to draw neat lines on

ownership, boundaries, territory, place attachment, citizenship, objects

maps with colour coding to indicate which land belongs to

and mostly material and tangible culture that helps us centre ourselves.

which community. It usually happens that communities

We are masters of making and marking boundaries. Today our homes,

coexist and it is impossible to create ethnically pure

neighbourhoods, cities, states, countries, continents, hemispheres, and

homelands. On ground, identities were, and even now, still are,

planets are all entities defined by boundaries by us. We even cut time

more fluid than Census forms can express.”

up into boundaries and use these bounded entities to establish routines.

Samrat Choudhury, Senior journalist and author, Shillong

The Sky Above

Home, Beyond Frameworks

to fit into the stencil of homogeneous urban living. In fact, the very

We draw a clear distinction between “mine” and “yours,” “ours” and “theirs.” We view people as bound individuals. Because home really doesn’t always exist in a physical location, it can be Our notion of home is given more support by society (in terms of

a territory, a relationship, a craft, an expression. It is an experience —

access, aid, funding, registration) than a nomadic tribe such as the

of belonging, a feeling of being whole and known, sometimes too close

Maldharis, which are an exception to the general rule. Open spaces

to comfort. It need not lay in fixture, it could exist in change. And what

make us nervous, and the people who occupy them, who do not share

it may be for you, it might not be for me. It is all those attachments

an affinity for the permanent and bounded, such as the Maldharis are

which do not bind and constrain, but rather liberate you, because home

perceived as untrustworthy, uncivilised, and primitive. Their mobile

is where you sigh, it is where you begin to be.

existence challenges the very notion of boundaries, and calls the meaning of home and identity into question. Yet I admire them for the

Just as we come full circle, I can’t help but find a resemblance in

relationship they are able to share with the wider world.

narrative to where I started with my grandmother’s understanding of home and to finally conclude, 101

Home, Beyond Frameworks

“Home is where I lay my two feet on & the sky above that piece of land�


Home, Beyond Frameworks

Acknowledgements Firstly, if I was there at this moment, as you flip to this page, I would give you a big warm bear hug. I’m so glad you’ve reached this far, and for proving my constant fear of no one will ever reach the end of this book wrong, so a big thank you! This book has been such an amazing journey, a learning experience for me to graduate with and there are so many people that have helped me as I stumble through and find my way. Only if it was this easy to express gratitude, to my first homes: Mummy, for keeping me grounded, for the Rotla every morning and for your genius decision making skills, Daddy for the warmth, the laughter and reaching out to me with a simple “no tension free mind” whenever I’ve been stressed, Dhvani, for just existing and being the person you are, I look up to you every single day and I genuinely don’t know what I would do without all the facetiming, the venting out, and explaining things to you a million 105

Home, Beyond Frameworks

times only to realise how bad my communication skills are, to Baa, for

To Dhvani, Harshi, Sonam, Poulomi and Harsh, who took out the time

all the stories and mainly for pampering me and to Dadaji, whom I miss

from their busy schedules to read the first draft and for giving me feed-

every single day and for all the wonderful memories you’ve left behind


and the life lessons you’ve taught me. Forever grateful. To ISDI, for four years of a love hate relationship, for this opportunity To the amazing people who have featured in this book and with whom

and for all the wonderful batchmates. The professors from 1st year till

i’ve shared the meaning of home with, Nani and Nana Ji, members of

now, for being such amazing guides and opening up a million doors

the Hijra community and the most inspiring community I have come

that I never knew existed.

across, the Maldharis, especially Jeshangbhai, Hanifbhai and Gafurbhai. To Parthiv Shah for sharing images from Kaaya: Beyond Gender and

To Anando, my guide, this journey has been wonderful! Of learning

Ishaan Raghunandan for his photography of the Maldharis. Thank You.

more life lessons than design lessons, for all the creative freedom that you’ve given me during this course, for making me question every move

To Neerja, for believing in this project, being so enthusiastic, for all the

and every decision I take, for not always showing the path but letting

tos and fros and for your amazing editing skills. This book would not

me make mistakes and learning from them and more importantly for

sound the same without your contribution.

believing that I could translate this journey of home into a book.

To Imran Sir, I’m in constant awe of you, you have been such a guiding

Special thanks to Sonam, Echostream and Sikkim for it was there that

light in these past few months, for putting in so much faith in me and

I felt a sense of home away from Mumbai after so long, for the learning

this book, giving me confidence, for reading hundreds of drafts and

experiences that I took back, for your warmth and constant feedback.

mainly for giving suggestions in regards to the planning and

To Kruti Ma’am for being an inspiration and for being so welcoming,

rearrangement of chapters, for all the wonderful references and people

for taking out time, for those chats with wonderful views, for all the

you got me in touch with and for that final, beautiful hand done edit,

books you lended me and for clearing things out during my research

not getting over that handwriting anytime soon. That document is a

phase. To Mahendra Sir for greeting me in Kutchi everytime I meet you

forever to keep!

and for telling me stories of Kutch, its past and the habits of it’s people. 107

Home, Beyond Frameworks

To Mario De Penha, for taking out time from your busy schedule, being so kind, sharing your knowledge about the Hijra community with me and for all the references. Thanks to all the people who i’ve met during this journey, for being a part of the interviews, research, for telling me what home means to you. Meera, Sushma Ma’am, Ramesh Bhai, Mahendra Bhai and Kiran ben from Sahjeevan, Katrin Parotat, Sangeeta, Malesh, Ranti and the countless more. To my big fat family for sharing countless stories and listening to mine, to my closest friends, Hely, Pavani, Pallavi and Nihar for listening to my constant whining and entertaining me through these stressful months. Thank you for your unconditional love and support. This would not have been possible without you’ll.


Profile for chhedanishita

Sand, Skin & Sky: Home through three migrants  

Is it within our nature as bounded individuals to confine the notion of home within fixture, within permanence? Or is it within our need to...

Sand, Skin & Sky: Home through three migrants  

Is it within our nature as bounded individuals to confine the notion of home within fixture, within permanence? Or is it within our need to...


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