The centrality of the family unit in India has many side effects, chief among them being the fact that living alone is an unusual thing – even in its most progressive metro areas, like Mumbai or Delhi. Those who do so are often regarded as strange, and the possible assumptions tend to be scandalous answers to questions such as the following: Why is a man in his thirties not married, let alone staying in an apartment by himself? What is this unaccompanied foreign woman doing in her flat that she wants to keep anyone else from seeing? Was that smell I noticed wafting out of 403 a taboo-blasting non-vegetarian dish?
If you're looking on your own, securing a comfortable place to live can be more a test of nerves than anything else. First you have to win over the landlord or landlady, sidestepping (not shattering, that would be too ambitious) whatever judgments they may make upon meeting you. If you're still standing after that, there's the small matter of winning over the neighbours – who will be nosy (if you're lucky) and/or scheming to get you out (if you're unlucky).
In those neighbours' minds, the equation is often simple. If a person is living alone, particularly a woman or a middle-aged man, there is either something rotten in that person or – worse – something rotten in that person's family that they are trying to escape from.
This is all so different from New Zealand, where almost everybody leaves home at 18 and often takes a trip overseas once they save up enough to do so. I followed this exact path; my two brothers did more or less the same. By the time I left New Zealand, we had all been spread out for over a decade and contact was understood to be sporadic. Even less likely was the idea of spending longer than a week or so staying with each other. Compared to an Indian family, we had drifted apart – and that felt completely normal.
During my three years in the tourist town of Varkala, in southern Kerala, I was lucky enough not to face any hassle in finding a place to live. I even had a friendly and unobtrusive landlord (in my first house, at least) and neighbours who were very nosy, yes, but who were always there for me whenever I needed help. For the final year of my stay in Varkala, I lived alone, and whatever the other difficulties of living there, my neighbours were not confused by that fact. Foreigners were understood to live a bit differently than Indians, and with the tourism trade growing year on year, local landowners were more than happy to smile and look away from that different lifestyle in exchange for a fistful of rupees.
As a result, I passed an idyllic and mostly solitary existence. And while my closest friends around me lived out lives that were constantly intertwined with relatives, often living with their parents well into their thirties and even after marriage, I interacted less and less with my own folks back home. We would email and Skype sporadically, and 'Like' each other's Facebook updates, but the distance between myself and my family was increasing all the time. Meanwhile, my best mates were giving regular missed calls to cousins abroad and going home each night to their doting mothers.
It even came out during proper Kerala-level drinking sessions with the boys. “This peanut masala is tasty,” one friend would say any time we downed a few beers at B6 Bar. “But of course, the best peanut masala is made – [dramatic pause] – by my Mom.” This same friend would often ask me, with obvious compassion, if I felt lonely living by myself in rural India. No, I would say. I don't. And I didn't – at least, no more than we all occasionally long for different company. But his concern was touching: given my remove from kin, he was asking me in order to establish whether I needed a surrogate family – something he and my other friends would gladly provide if required.
I began to wonder: am I missing out on something fundamental? And not just missing, but impassively pushing away?
As often seems to be the case in life, my fears were crystallised by a crisis. Through a blunder at the Foreigners Regional Registration Office, my exit from India was delayed and I lost all my savings in re-booking flights. A planned one-month holiday to New Zealand became an indefinite stay, starting effectively from scratch. My days of solitary peace and quiet were over, for the time being at least. I had no choice but to ask my family to put me up for a while.
The way I saw it, I had failed to hold up my end of communication with my folks for close to four years. I couldn't imagine they'd be too pleased about me suddenly leaning on them after years in the wilderness, but I hoped everything would work out okay in the end.
I needn't have worried. Of course my family welcomed me with open arms. Of course my oldest brother took me in to help me get back on my feet. Of course my mother and other brother would have done the same. So too would my father, even though he now lives a cramped life in the Middle East. I know this because they all told me directly. I thanked each of my family members for their generous offers of support, but I can't imagine I conveyed exactly what it meant to me.
So thank you, my mother and father, my brother and brother, your spouses and your children, for making me shed my doubts as soon as I arrived and for supporting me through a difficult time.
I continue to reside with my brother and his family. I get to watch two of my nieces as they grow up (Ms 4 still says 'jarf' for 'giraffe', but she know what it means) and hang out with bro and his partner, getting to know them again too. And them me. I had suspected that there was a basic behavioural difference between Indian families and my own, that we allowed the distance simply because we allowed it. The truth is that the bonds of Indian societies may be more overt than ours, but they aren't necessarily stronger or deeper. How wrong I was – and what a blessing that is.