This post is the edition of a text I wrote in August 2010 about my visit to one of Kishan’s sisters, Lakshmi, who lives with her husband’s joint family in a very non-touristic town in the heart of Madhya Pradesh. Their home is a big, old traditional Hindu house, in which perhaps seventy years ago about hundred family members used to live together. At the time I visited, Lakshmi lived in two pretty dilapidated rooms of the building with her two young children and her husband. Today they have a couple of extra rooms and their flat is slightly better equipped. In this post I invite you for a visit of this traditional Hindu house.
Traditional Hindu house : building & joint family
This household probably represents Hindus’ ancient family tradition in the most authentic way that I have experienced. The building is situated in an old picturesque and very narrow lane off the main road. It is over one hundred years old and it resembles a huge labyrinth of interlinked flats all opened to one another. ‘Flat’ is the only word I can think of and it may not be the most appropriate term to describe the sections of this traditional Hindu house, which consist of just one or two rooms, mostly small, in which each nuclear family lives.
After marriage, Indian women have to leave their biological families to go and live with their husbands’ families. Thus, patriarchal families may become very extended under one roof. When Kishan was about three years old his father left the joint family home to build his own house and live only with his wife and children. So since his father has passed away, Kishan has lived only with his mother and his unmarried siblings (fortunately for me!) In Lakshmi’s house, however, the whole paternal structure has remained: Lakshmi’s father-in-law still lives with his brother, and both of them live with their own wives, their married sons and their wives and children, and their unmarried children. So Lakshmi’s husband lives not only with his own nuclear family, but also with the families of his uncles, brothers and male cousins. Although Lakshmi and her nuclear family live pretty independently in their own little flat or rooms, all ‘sub-families’ live within the same enormous house with their doors always open and they can visit one another at any time.
The property reminds me of a huge, interlinked doll house organised around a main open area. Of course, all the rooms of the house are very traditional with thick painted walls and inbuilt shelves. They are simply furnished, perhaps with a hard wooden bed that serves both as sofa or table during the day, a big trunk for storage covered with a decorative cloth, some rugs and frames and a television kept on a small table. Often there is no cupboard for the clothes, which are kept hanging off a thick laundry-type rope, and kitchen hobs and utensils racks have their place on the floor in a corner of the room. On the walls, the stains that have come with age add to the décor’s beauty (in my opinion!) Most of the house is still in a reasonable state, but some peripheral rooms have fallen into rubble. One room on the rooftop has been abandoned because it could break down at any time.
The core of the house consists of a (big) main room in which Lakshmi’s parents-in-law live and which could be considered as the primary, welcoming room. Next door is the main kitchen (although separate couples cook in a corner of their small room/ flats) and opposite the kitchen is the common bathroom, which really is just another room but with many big water buckets and pots for bucket-shower. In this bathroom there is no toilet. One can pee in a corner on the floor that is slightly tilted, so the pee is directed down and underneath an outside door, into an abandoned room. If you must poo you’ll have to go on a small adventure upstairs!
Traditional Hindu house: the ‘number two’ expedition!
When you need to go to the toilet, the family asks you if you need to go for number one or number two. Yep, there is no privacy in traditional India even when toileting is concerned. So basically everyone knows when you’ve gone for a shit! Such is life!
In a traditional Hindu house, if you’re going for number two, you must go for quite an expedition. You have to put on the untouchable flip-flops which are dedicated for that operation (they are kept in the main bathroom), take a small bucket of water with you upstairs and head to the rooftop where the two toilet cabins are located. If you are a visitor, a member of the family will give you the right bucket and take you there. Careful! Beware of the monkeys on the rooftop! There can be many of them – an entire clan – so you may need to scare them away with a big stick (or ask a braver man to do this for you). Once the path is free, before you enter the meter-square toilet you must pour the water of your first bucket into a second bucket that never leaves the cabin, for Hindus do not mix untouchable and touchable buckets. After you’ve done your business and washed your behind with the water from the untouchable bucket using your left hand, you step out of the room and take the touchable bucket (which you had left outside in front of the toilet door) with your right hand. Off downstairs and back to the bathroom to wash your hands, remove the untouchable flip-flops, and rinse your feet with water. (To get an idea about purity-related Hindu rules, you can read 21 Hindu rules I’ve had to live with.)
Traditional Hindu house: a visit of Lakshmi’s flat
To access Lakshmi’s flat you need to walk along a half open, half dark corridor towards one end of the house, which is not exactly inviting. On your way you can look down onto the ruins of what used to be another room long ago, but which has now become an kind of garden filled with red bricks.
Lakshmi’s home consists of two old-looking rooms and two small back rooms that are only used for storage, as they have no outside windows and are therefore very dark. I have come to this house about four times before but had never noticed these storage rooms because their doors were always closed. It is very old, with cracks in the ceiling and on top of the walls and layers of dusts and cobwebs in unattainable places and corners, which seem too old and shabby to bear the effort of renovation. At one end of this big room, there is a bed in one corner and a cosmetic area in the other. At the other end, a kitchen corner (i.e. a small shelf and two hobs and a gas bottle on the floor) on the left, and the TV on the right. A big rope hangs across the room on which the daily clothes are kept. There is only one bed, but the family keeps a pile of quilts and mattresses on the bed or on a trunk, which they spread on the floor at night and when they have visitors. During the hot season the family prefers to sleep on the floor with just pillows for their heads – not even a bed sheet – because the floor feels ‘cooler’. Today they have an air-cooler and an inverter, so they are not too affected by the regular power-cuts.
And now they even have a real (squatting) toilet, thanks to which I have been allowed to avoid the ‘number two’ expedition described above! I have not always been allowed to poo there when there is a power-cut though, because the water is supplied using an electrical device which pumps water from underground below the house, and when there is no electricity there is too little water in the buckets and the toilet is too close to the washing up area!