Culture Mulch Society

In-between spaces like porches and shared balconies are crucial for building community

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At the seeming end of yet another wave, as there is a cautious re-entry to the world, we all need strategies to manage this vertiginous see-saw between hope and fear. We need halfway houses between home and the world. I’ve been thinking, as I stayed cooped up this past month, about the thing my dog and I miss most in the architecture of my home — a porch.

Architecturally, cities might seem porch-unfriendly. In the bid to maximise space lived in, space lived out is usually compromised. Notice, for instance, the shrinking of public spaces, the barely-breathing room between buildings, and the gagging of footpath and road alike by cars and motorbikes. In such a scenario, a porch seems like a luxury from a long-forgotten time. And yet, even in cities, densely populated as they are, one can find forms of the porch among whole communities, localities, and housing forms.

For this principle of claiming outside space to make it partly your own has always been deployed by those that do not necessarily have the luxury of generously walled-in homes.

Chennai-based anthropologist Karen Coelho writes about how the slums in the city have always carried out everyday activities in what she calls “spillover” spaces outside the home. In her understanding, these liminal spaces with their daily arbitrations of both joy and conflict are what knit solitary lives into neighbourhoods. Such knitting has also been made possible through particular urban forms such as the chawl.

Theatre of life

The Chawls of Mumbai: Galleries of Life, a chronicle edited by the architect and urban researcher Neera Adarkar, pays heed to the chawl as a remarkably flexible construction of relationships between the private and the public, especially for migrant workers in the textile mills of Mumbai. It was the mobile character of its changing façade, and its long linear balcony, that rendered the chawl a prime example of the joys of “gallery” space between the inside and the outside, transforming it, in Adarkar’s words, into a veritable “theatre of life”.

What manner of liminality or in-betweenness do we currently need? What kind of spatial arrangements must we invest in as we move beyond fears of the pandemic? If contagion — expanding upon the work of anthropologist Mary Douglas — is primarily about matter out of place, and boundaries and fences and walls claim to keep things in place, is it possible to maintain the world as a tightly ordered network of exclusive spatial arrangements?

The past year suggests otherwise. For if anything, the pandemic reminds us that we need community. Even as chawls fast disappear, as does public space, it becomes necessary for public and private housing alike to incorporate the constitutive function of in-between spaces for such community formation.

A cursory search on the Internet reveals to me that people continue to be compelled by the romance of such liminal space. Thinnai Talkies in Chennai, for example, is a venture seeking to promote dialogue and discussion between filmmakers, aficionados, and critics with the thinnai or porch at the heart of the concept, a space to host different kinds of dwellers and passers-by. Ananya Jahanara Kabir and Ari Gautier’s Le Thinnai Kreyol is a beautiful and ambitious counter-hegemonic venture intending to challenge any unitary idea of Indian pasts by focusing on culture as a product of encounters and amalgamations of difference. Their thinnai is a space of encounter as much as shared food, music, art and culture. Closer to home, the good folks of Madras Inherited continue to showcase century-old lived-in homes with thinnais and verandahs as pandemic-ready transition spaces.

Small-town blues

Many years ago, I lived in the beautiful, cold and genteel city of Madison, Wisconsin, in a home by the river. Assailed by the particular loneliness of small-town America, I found a little solace in afternoons on the porch, waving out to strangers, temporarily feeling like I belonged. I remembered the classic anthropological essay where the author Sue Bridwell Beckham argued for the American front porch as a space where women could negotiate social norms that demanded they stay inside while retaining connections with the outside world.

In these months of various levels of isolation, I have found great succour from people in their porches. Cautiously masked, we have encountered each other in these spaces that are neither home nor the world, neither in nor out, but a bit of both. My neighbours downstairs commune with us across the fence, and sometimes the intrepid dog goes in, allowing us to hope that this too shall pass.

The writer teaches anthropology for a living, and is otherwise invested in names, places, animals, and things.

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2021 12:07:04 AM |

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