After 100+ days in quarantine, I am asking myself how the pandemic will change our relationship with our homes.
Before Coronavirus: the City as Home
Before coronavirus, we thought of our cities as extensions of our homes. We walked amongst nature in its leafy lanes, parks and promenades. We entertained ourselves in its cinema halls, theatres and concert halls. We looked at art in its museums, art galleries and graffiti-filled streets. We read and worked and people-watched in its cafes and co-working spaces. We ate and drank and gathered in its restaurants and bars. We shopped for new skins in its boutiques, high streets and malls. We sold our car, or never bought one, and took a train or an Uber instead. We rented a tiny, minimalistic apartment close to work, or close to the train station. We used the city as our living room, kitchen, and garage, and went home only to sleep. Except that we even avoided sleeping in our own beds, and escaped on business trips, vacations, weekend getaways and staycations, whenever we could.
We spent our money on experiences, instead of things. Even though experiences are often costlier than the tools we need to have and master to create experiences ourselves. But, mastering anything outside work is hard, so we limited ourselves to consuming experiences and left the creating to others. We made a fetish out of traveling and eating out. We ticked off destinations from our travel bucket list. We flocked to the hottest new restaurant or bar in town. We curated a second-hand life from photos of hotel rooms, AirBNB apartments and restaurants designed by others, with food and drinks cooked and styled by others. When we did stay home, we watched cooking shows on Netflix instead of cooking in the kitchen. We watched home tours on YouTube, instead of hosting a gathering at home. We immersed ourselves in reality TV, or virtual reality, to escape the reality of living in our own homes. We did learn to take the perfect selfie for Instagram, flawlessly framed from a high angle, styled with fast fashion and fake plants, enhanced with photo-editing apps and preset filters.
My Own Story: Digital Nomad
I was an early convert to the cult of minimalism. In 2007, when I was 27, I decided that I already had everything that I could ever want, and the only way to discover what would make me happy was to create space for it, by buying less. I decided to spend a year buying only the bare necessities — mostly groceries — and documenting my experiment on my blog ‘the Marketer Who Went Off Consumption’. I could use what I already had in my house — a roomful of books, a roomful of DVDs, a barful of bottles — but I could not buy anything unnecessary: no clothes, no books, no wine, not even chocolate. More importantly, I could not “go out” in any way: no cafes, bar or restaurants, no movies in cinema halls, no plays, no live music. I mostly met my friends at home, theirs or mine: I went to house parties, I hosted all night movie marathons, sometimes we went for a walk. If I met a girl I was interested in, I said: I would like to get to know you better, but I don’t go out anymore; come to my house and I’ll cook for you, or invite me over and cook for me. Surprisingly, I still got some dates. In the middle of the year, I decided to go further and gave up my job and the lovely house that came with it. I ran a contest on my blog, catalogued all my possessions, and invited people to take them. I had an open house most weekends when people could walk in and take a book, or a DVD or a lamp, and call dibs on the bigger furniture and appliances. In the end, I got everything I owned packed up in two trucks and delivered to half a dozen people in two cities.
I spent the next seven years like a nomad. I moved to Washington DC, then to Delhi, then to Mumbai, then to Shanghai, then back to Mumbai, with the same five bags. I lived in hostels and hotel rooms and service apartments. When I did rent an unfurnished apartment, I bought the minimum amount of furniture, and left it behind when I moved to the next city. I bought costly gadgets, and told myself that everything I needed fit in my messenger bag, as long as I had my Macbook, iPad, iPhone and Kindle with me. In between moving cities, I traveled non-stop, mostly for work, sometimes to speak at conferences, less often on vacations. Sometimes, I would plan three weeks of travel around the cities where I wanted to spend my weekends: weekend in Shanghai, then Beijing, Taipei, then weekend in Hong kong, then Singapore, Tokyo, then weekend in Paris, then back to Mumbai. Often, I came back from a trip to discover that the house didn’t have electricity because the auto payment had lapsed, or all my clothes had mould from the monsoon humidity, or the fridge needed a deep clean because I had forgotten to empty it out before I left.
I was Steve Jobs sitting on the floor in an empty house with a Tiffany lamp — for many years, I only wore black because it meant I needed fewer clothes. I was George Clooney in ‘Up in the Air’ living out of carry-on bags in airport lounges — for many years, I always had a bag packed for the next trip and I never checked it in. I was Christopher McCandless in ‘Into the Wild’ renouncing all my possessions — it took me many years to learn that it doesn’t matter what I own or don’t, what matters is how attached I am to the idea of owning or not owning. I was Elizabeth Gilbert in ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ trying to find myself by traveling elsewhere — I am still learning that the only way to find myself is by learning to stay still.
Minimalist No More
When I came back to Mumbai five and a half years back, with my five bags, I felt like I was starting with a blank slate. I did not own much, except my Apple gadgets and my black clothes. I rented a small furnished apartment with a wonderful view, expecting to move on in a year or two. In the first two years, I bought clothes in whites and greys and khakis and blues to broaden my wardrobe. When I renewed my lease after two years, I asked the landlord to remove his furniture. I bought houseplants and coffee table books and real furniture after a decade. One day, I found that I had almost 100 houseplants in my tiny one bedroom apartment, and I was shopping for gardening tools on my trips to London. Next year, I got into sneakers; before I knew it, I had more than 50 sneakers, more than 20 of them in white. When the lease was up again, I moved to a bigger house with balconies, so that my houseplants could breathe. Last year, I discovered board games; I started hosting game nights thrice a week, and bought 200 games in a year. Then, in quarantine, I learnt to love cooking and baking, and, three months later, I have a growing collection of kitchen gadgets, cast iron cookware, and baking tins and moulds. I feel like I have come full circle: from two truckloads, to five bags, back to two truckloads.
The thing is: two truckloads feels just enough for this moment in life. If I was to do a Marie Kondo test on my possessions — does it spark joy — almost all of it would tingle. I am still holding onto some clothes from my running days, when I weighed 80kg and had a 30” waist. I have a gadget or two that doesn’t work anymore that I haven’t bothered to get repaired. There’s a futon mattress that I use as a floor cushion, and a desk chair that I cover up with a shaggy throw, that I am not in love with. I was not sure about a box of photo frames I no longer used, but now that I’m into photography, I want them again. I have some five-year old cheap non-stick cookware that I would like to give away. I have a few more boxes of rice and flour and lentils that I bought in the early weeks of quarantine than I want in my pantry, but they are slowly getting consumed. I have discovered that there’s very little that I own that I store away in boxes; and most things that I don’t want today, I end up wanting to buy again in six months. All things considered, I think a post-pandemic declutter would yield maybe two or three boxes of unloved items.
Plus, it’s wonderful to have all these things at home during quarantine. Watering and pruning my 100 plants one afternoon a week is a ritual I look forward to all week. I spent a delightful day dusting and organizing all my coffee table books — decor books in the living room, design and photography books in the den, cooking and gardening books in the passageway, fiction and mythology books in the bedroom. LeelaCat and I take immense pleasure in moving from room to room, chair to chair every day, and the world looks and feels different from each of our 20 chairs. The pots and pans in my kitchen are constantly moving back and forth between the stovetop and the oven and the drying rack. Several times a week, I look at the board game shelves in the living room, and think fondly of the hundreds of game nights I hosted last year. Even the things that I am not using — like my PlayStation 4 console, or my rack of sneakers, or my Mac desktop — promise hundreds of hours of pleasure in the future. And, now that I am learning photography in quarantine, when I can’t go on a trip to shoot scenic landscapes, or go on a walk outside to shoot street life, or invite friends over to shoot portraits, every little thing in the house becomes a potential subject, a new shape to capture shadows, a new texture to bounce off light, a new dash of colour to brighten a composition.
After Quarantine: the Post-Pandemic Home
In quarantine, our homes have had to become multi-purpose spaces. Our bedrooms and living rooms are still our nests and retreats and lounges, but now they also serve as cabins and meeting rooms, coffee shops and fine-dining restaurants and cocktail bars, cinema theatres and concert halls, gyms and yoga studios. Our balconies and porches and backyards now do double duty as street corners and town squares and promenades, sometimes even as parks and walking trails. For a full household with a couple, and parents, and teenagers, every room will need to do quadruple-duty, on demand, often simultaneously. And, in parts of the world where we relied on household help till recently, we are not only learning how to work from home, but also how to dust and vacuum and wash and wipe between Zoom video-conferences. How might our homes cope better with these new demands, and how might they help us cope better?
To begin with, at least one couple I know is taking the opportunity of lower rents in South-Central Mumbai to move to a bigger house. At least two friends have adopted pets, even though they live with their parents. At least three friends have bought robot vacuum cleaners; I don’t know how I would have survived quarantine without my iRobot Roomba, I bought a Dyson vacuum cleaner at the beginning of quarantine for deep cleaning, and I might even buy the iRobot Braava for mopping. Almost everyone I know is cooking more, and I am sure that the sale of kitchen gadgets, cookware and bakeware have increased; I have bought a cold-pressed juicer, an oven and a stand mixer in quarantine, plus a lot of bakeware and cast iron cookware. Friends who stay with family have asked me for advice on the best beginner family board games; I recommend Azul, King of Tokyo and Ticket to Ride. Other friends have bought gaming consoles (buy the Nintendo Switch, as PlayStation and XBox have new generations being released later in the year); I should really take out my Nintendo Switch more and fire up The Legend of Zelda, even if I don’t spend 100 hours on Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order on Sony PlayStation. I am sure sale of home office equipment saw a surge in the first few weeks of quarantine, and I won’t be surprised if home entertainment systems are a popular item on Amazon now, with people still binge-watching Netflix. With gyms still closed, I expect home workout gear sales have increased; as I am waiting for my treadmill to get repaired, I ordered an exercise bike yesterday. As we look at every detail in our house day after day, we are likely to find possibilities for improvement, and it’s not surprising that Ikea is experiencing delayed deliveries due to high demand. Going forward, I expect a bump in the sale of smart home systems, and I would love to know how many of my friends have bought an Amazon Echo or Google Home during quarantine.
Beyond the home, I expect sale of entry level cars to increase, as we begin to venture outside, but are still afraid of taking public transport. In dense cities like Mumbai and New York, I expect that many of us who have chosen not to own cars will reconsider, and houses with parking spaces will gain a premium. I wonder how our already fragile urban infrastructure will cope with more cars. I wonder if people will move out from city centres to suburbs in search of bigger houses, lower rents, and the promise of being able to work from home. I wonder if people will want to grow roots, and buy homes, after decades of renting. I wonder if people will tire of living by themselves, and move in together, or move back with their parents, or even get married. Finally, the economy will most likely be in a prolonged downturn, many independent retail businesses will close down, our city centres will hollow out, and money will be tight both for city infrastructure and household budgets. We may find ourselves hunkering down both literally and figuratively, instead of investing in our homes and our cities. But, those are other posts for other days.