Does Where You Live Make You Who You Are?

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by Anandi Mishra at the Psyche: Ever since my husband (M) moved to Germany to pursue his master’s late in 2022, we’d been living apart on two continents. The summer following, I got a chance to spend two months with him in his rented apartment in Frankfurt. With its insulated glass doors, automated windows and extremely organised interiors, the apartment was shut off from the outside world. If you rolled down the shutters, you could easily forget if it was day or night. Everything we needed was indoors. If M’s room didn’t come with a balcony attached, it would have also been easy to forget that there was a world outside, too.

This mode of living was so unlike what I was used to in Delhi that my stay with M created a subliminal shift: it forced me to consider life and its cadences, and their direct dependence on the spaces we call home.

Back in Delhi, I was renting a two-bedroom ground-floor flat that came with two (tiny) balconies, a large living room and a dining space attached to the kitchen. The neighbourhood cats were always dipping in and out of the place, reminding me that mine was a porous and accepting way of living. Such a fluid arrangement of space suited me. Cats, people and seasons could come and go but I was the constant, unmoving, governing factor. Head of the household. I’d decide when to leave the balcony doors open, when to invite people over, when to step out. In the backyard, there are unending views of trees and the constant cacophony that comes with living in a bustling and bruised city like Delhi. Next door is a massive secondary high school where hundreds of children screech in the playground every morning. I hear them singing during assembly, and the music of their carnival practice and performances is the background to my days. When my upstairs neighbours prepare their Bengali dishes at weekends, my entire house is pervaded with the mouth-watering aromas of mustard and fish. Their kids drop by sometimes, in the evenings, to take Hindi language lessons from me or just to say hello to the cats. This carousel of tangible human activity makes up the interiors of my day-to-day life. In a sense, it is a tactile existence, requiring more from me than is immediately apparent.

In Delhi, it’s almost impossible to be self-involved, for a boundaryless living arrangement invariably pulls me into other people’s worlds; that of Raju, the door-to-door vegetable vendor; the grocer who home-delivers past business hours; the stray cats who come to visit and sometimes stay. My local chemist, the house help, my upstairs neighbours, the society guard – all constitute my daily living as much as I do, making me a more social, dependent, interactive person. This kind of constant exchange with the outside world alters the very fabric of an individual.

M’s Frankfurt flat has dedicated rooms for different people from different parts of the world. There’s a shared kitchen and hall area and a massive balcony intended for everyone’s use, but it ended up coming in handy only for me. Over last year’s extended summer, the endless stretch of that balcony became my island of comfort. I took work calls as I paced its length, the blue sky stretching above, allowing for a kind of shelter from all that was unknown: a new organisation, new colleagues, new projects to get lost in. The German sun worked like a balm, soothing my anxious nerves as I spoke at length about ongoing projects. Up in the air, in a sterile, muted space, cordoned off from the world below, the balcony became an oddly private space. A space like this in Delhi would be a window through which the outer world – the turgid air, the noisy monkeys, the neighbour’s drying laundry – would seep in. But the Frankfurt balcony gave me space to be by myself, suspended between a self neither fully here nor there.

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Anandi Mishra is a critic based in Delhi. She has written for publications including The Atlantic, Los Angeles Review of Books, Virginia Quarterly Review, Public Books, Al Jazeera, and elsewhere. She is a former reporter for The Times of India and The Hindu.