Cynthia was an Indian American, who lived in Chicago but was vacationing in Kolkata, where she had family members. She was a friend who did not know how to be friendly, except occasionally, but we still struck a chord. Perhaps we both felt tossed by events beyond our control and longed for some quiet.
She spoke of the time she moved from Paris to New York.
“I had a good job in a fashion house. I looked good, I felt good. It felt good to be admired and pursued by presentable men. Then suddenly it was all over. The house had problems and wanted to downsize. I had no option but to return to the city I had known earlier.
“In New York, I found a job quickly, in a radio station. With the recruiter, my looks went far. The fact that I had lived with my dad in different countries and spoke a bunch of languages was also a help. To find an apartment, anything near the station, proved very hard, nearly impossible. The rent was sky-high and I was to make a huge deposit. I couldn’t. I kept looking, desperately and almost despairingly.
“Finally, I hit on a tiny apartment in the West End, in a dilapidated building. There was nothing right with the apartment: noisy heating, poor plumbing, pathetic bathroom, ‘cozy’ meaning minuscule bedroom, and noisy any time of the day. But the rental was reasonable. I took it. I didn’t have another option.
“The first two weeks I found everything wrong with the apartment and bitterly thought of looking for another. In the next two weeks, I found out what I already knew. I couldn’t get anything better that I could afford. At the end of the month, when I had to pay the next month’s rent, I had an epiphany. I looked at my miserable apartment and said to myself, ‘I could live here.’
“That changed everything. I was suddenly calm and reconciled. I made a list of about ten things that I could fix, or at least replace at a low cost. That kept me busy for another month. My whole life consisted of office, hardware stores and fixing things at home. I found, to my surprise, I could do it. The apartment began to look presentable.
“By the next month, I had a list of another ten things I wanted improve. In the third month the landlord came to take a look at his new tenant and liked what he saw of the changed apartment: new curtains, new lamps, new bookcase, even a new fancy bedcover and a new center table in the living room. He melted and offered to pay for some of items.
“But the big change was not in landlord’s mind, but in my heart. I no longer wanted to look for a good apartment. I loved my own apartment, what I had made of it – and making of it every other week. I enjoyed it, wanted to come back to it. Impetuously I invited all my colleagues for a party in my small apartment. They thought me rather mysterious, for I never joined their after-office parties. They all came, with wine and food, and made it into a scintillating party.
“At last, I had a home that I liked, where I felt peaceful and happy.”
I never thought of Cynthia as a level-headed person and I did not think of her story as a parable with a practical implication. But I was looking earnestly for a change. Her story had strange reverberations in my mind. In ten days, I made up my mind.
The company had earlier offered me a leased apartment, which I had refused, considering the hassle of a move. Now I told them I would accept a leased home in the southern part of town.
I sold all my furniture and prepared designs for furniture for each room. As I was inexperienced, I would show the designs to manufacturers, get their comments, revise the designs and go back to show the new designs and get more comments. Finally, I had the sofa and chairs and bookcases of my choice. The upholstery and the cushions had to be white of course.
In the large dining room, I placed a small oval table. I wanted people to sit close together; the food could be on two trolleys. When guests asked why a tiny table in a large hall, I said, “To encourage promiscuity.”
I dumped all the furniture from the old apartment and took only my books to the new house.
It remained to add the color to a home which so far had only white and black. I created calligraphic paintings out of poems I liked, from Yeats to Jibanananda, and made huge enlargements of my photographs. I made a solarized cutout of myself, in a stance of taking a photo, and placed it at the entrance of my home: it was an unconventional greeting for every visitor who deigned to visit my home.
My home even had a name, Bandersnatch, a la Lewis Carroll, suggesting a mythical, monstrous beast. Me.
Finally, it was my home. I felt peace. Even joy.