The guests who stay on…and on

ByMihir Srivastava

May 29, 2020

Some people decided to be with a friend, some ended up being with a romantic partner during the 60-day lockdown (so far) when social life came to a grinding halt. This is their unique experience of coexistence…

There are people who live in big houses, mostly alone, and were forced to deal with solitude for months during the lockdown. Such people are also candidates for friends and cousins who volunteer to live with them. An uninvited guest, within a week, becomes an unwanted guest, almost an intruder — not always, but mostly. Then there were some who were desperate to smuggle their girlfriends into their homes, which didn’t result in happy endings for many.

Some had their maids stay back for months to help them with daily chores. Most of it was done in good faith, and for convenience’s sake, but the young maids suffered, forced to live away from their folks, homesick in an alien setup. The silver lining was that they were saved from the trouble of being forced to walk back to their villages hundreds of kilometres away in the oppressive heat.

This story is not a value judgement but looks at house guests during lockdown as a phenomenon. Elena Tommaseo, an Italian who resides in the capital, invited two friends over–one Indian and the other French–to live with her during the lockdown. They stayed with her for 11 weeks before they went back to their own dwellings a few days ago. “I felt it would be better not to be alone during the lockdown and they were staying in a place not as safe as mine.”

The experiment was a success as all of them contributed to the daily chores, performed their respective duties, and most importantly, accorded each other their personal space. “The good thing was that all of them had their own things to do and I was glad that they were here,” she says and adds, “After a few weeks I was craving for my space.”

When people live together, they tend to enter into a daily routine. One of Elena’s privileges of working from home and living on her own was that she could resist from entering into a routine that, according to her, makes life “repetitive.” For her, there’s no right or wrong time for doing things. But she, being the only woman, had to do “more work,” she says.

As it turns out,  Elena’s successful experiment was not the rule but an exception. Rahul B is a corporate executive who rents a house in a multi-storeyed housing in Sector 100 in Noida. During the lockdown, he smuggled his new girlfriend, Divya, who’s in his age group, late 20s.  They had never lived together before this; Divya stays in rented accommodation with her college friends, and they work in the same multinational, albeit in different divisions.

“It was illegal and risky (to get her home),” concedes Rahul, “but it seemed the most logical thing to do at that point in time. When people were hoarding food, I was busy getting my girlfriend home,” he says. Their families don’t know about it. The idea was to have quality time together, cement their relationship, and hopefully, this stint of living together will convince them to join in matrimony.

The five weeks of togetherness, being locked together in a flat, actually resulted in a rift, and Divya was happy to get back to her shared flat in South Delhi. Divya explained on the phone, “I don’t know what happened, nothing specific I can think of that soured our relationship. We were very nice to each other. With time, the qualities that attracted us to each other seemed to repel.” Initially, they were polite enough not to put words to their feelings. “We knew it’s not working and that we shouldn’t be together,” Rahul explains. Marriage is now out of the picture, they are trying to save their friendship and for that to happen “we need to stay incommunicado for at least a month,” says Divya.

Elena Tommaseo invited two of her friends over to live with her during the lockdown

Kiran Bhushi is a kind-hearted professor in a central university. One of her friends expressed “suicidal ideas and was very sensitive” because of some recent unpleasant developments in the friend’s life. “Aa jao (come over)” she offered. And before she knew the friend had arrived. Initially, the hostess thought her friend would stay for a few days at the most, but she ended up living with her for more than a month and a half. She helps Kiran with the upkeep of the house, “It has not been so bad,” says Bhushi, for “we hardly interact. In all honesty, she offers to cook, helps me in documenting, even cleans the house.”

Ironically, marriage is a similar ‘lockdown’ situation, when you’re “forced” to live with a spouse, particularly in arranged ones. It’s a “complex interaction,” says Bhushi, where partners are able to create “pockets of seclusion” despite people around. She is contemplating models of coexistence with friends without subscribing to conventional and institutionalised arrangements like marriage or a relationship.

A couple in Noida, who doesn’t want to be named, had a friend over after she lost her mother and couldn’t attend the funeral in Bhopal because of the lockdown. The friend took a flight yesterday with her aggrieved family. “It’s not possible to stay calm and go about doing your things when someone in your house is grieving” explain the host couple.

But the worst sufferers of this forced coexistence are the maids and young help. They couldn’t go back to their native places because of the lockdown and felt awkward staying with their employers for they have different social milieus and felt like the odd one out, never at home. This feeling of alienation with no escape and a lot of drudgery made their life miserable.

Shanti, an 18-year-old girl, a native of West Bengal, lives with an affluent family in Gurugram (not named on request). “They (employers) treat me very well. I’m well fed and get to watch television. But I miss my family and my baby brother,” she whispers on the phone. She lived with her uncle’s family before the lockdown in Gurugram, who have travelled back to their home.

As someone famously said, circumstances don’t make the man (or the woman), they reveal them.

(Cover: When people live together, they tend to enter into a daily routine)