Socially, the distinction between the indoors and the outdoors has always been made clear—the idea of home as ‘shelter’ is built on this very separation. Home is the space to let your hair down after a long day, whereas the world outside belongs to everyone: a space of collective ownership assured to you and your painfully loud neighbour in equal measure.
It’s no surprise, then, that coming home offers a sense of relief that few aspects of public life can. At home, you finally have the chance to truly be yourself—to not spend your day in performance, assuming roles you either feel you must live up to or that have been thrust upon you. Pretending is exhausting; that is one of the reasons popular actors are paid so well.
Yet all our everyday acting does play a crucial role in civic life. As highlighted by Debra Efroymson, Tran Thi Kieu Thanh Ha and Pham Thu Ha in their paper “Public Spaces: How They Humanize Cities”, a cycle of trust and dependence is needed to guarantee civility in the outside. The hallmark of developed human settlements, they argue, is equal and equitable use and access to the outside. If the inside is personal, the outside is public; here there are far more stakeholders, and everyone has a say. It is, in effect, where the performance takes place.
That’s not to say the inside doesn’t demand other kinds of performance. Being told to “use your inside voices”, for example, is a reminder that the indoors is analogous to notions of civility. And social graces, though less demanding, are not yet fully suspended. In a way, it’s funny: the separation of the inside and outside was a clear and simple solution to the challenges of interpersonal relationships in society and so naturally, we rejected it. Our boundaries between indoors and outdoors, while appearing impermeable, are actually fluid and dynamic—any humanities student worth their salt will deem them “social constructs.”
This gives rise to what are known as liminal spaces: spaces that are neither inside nor outside, and yet both at the same time. But what is liminality? In anthropology, liminality refers to a period during a ritual or rite of passage in which an individual is no longer part of the former stage, but is yet to be granted membership to the latter. It is a period marked by doubt, uncertainty and a suspension of the rules that govern either stage, somewhat like a group of students at their graduation ceremony—they’re no longer students, but haven’t yet entered the grind of life on the outside either.
Similarly, places that cradle the transition between the indoors and outdoors can be thought of as liminal spaces. They provide freedom, unpredictability and the opportunity to bend the rules a little bit. Take the example of palaces across South Asia, where royal women practiced the purdah system—these had spaces where they could observe court proceedings or public festivities without being seen. The women were thus able to be a part of the outside, without having to actually be outside. Closer to home, the porches and verandahs around some of our houses serve as safe spaces to interact with the outside world within the safety of one’s own compound.
Architecturally, and in the public imagination, there has long been an attempt to merge these spheres of the inside and outside. Architectural Digest, Conde Nast’s flagship interior design and landscaping publication, has attempted and promoted just this, with their features on indoor-outdoor living. But one need not look that far to see liminal spaces in contemporary architecture. Apartment complexes and gated communities are designed around common areas that lie outside of the front door but are not public property; these help maintain both a sense of prized exclusivity and shared inclusivity.
And who doesn’t dream of owning a home? The words “come inside”—whether uttered at one’s doorstep to a friend, or in the backyard to a child—are an invitation to safety. Because the indoors offers precious respite from the perils posed by nature, socio-economic forces, and even one’s own role-playing. At home you can marinate in the same pyjamas you have owned since high school, or spend your day lying on the couch, ugly-crying to the newest revival of Pride and Prejudice. Home means freedom and shelter—basic human needs essential for one to flourish.
When one is no longer able to control what happens outdoors, what the indoors offers becomes all the more valuable—a retreat or fortress, a place where circumstances are predictable and free of uncertainty. Yet as the outside starts occupying more space, what was meant to be the ‘safe inside’ begins to feel claustrophobic and finite.
Back when our parents played outside their homes as children, there was an understanding that much of the neighbourhood, or at the very least a couple of adjacent lanes, was safe to be in without having to inform anyone. Today, our parents wouldn’t dream of letting us gallivant around town without telling them exactly where we are, at least until the age of fifteen. Similarly, in college, my mother went on a set of travels around India with her classmates; she had no mobile phone, and simply checked in with her parents every few days. My little sister, on the other hand, must religiously notify the family WhatsApp group once her bus parks into school each morning.
But I cannot fault our parents either. The world around us is becoming more dangerous every day—or, at the very least, we are now more aware of problems that have always existed. My grandfather walks me down the road when I try to hail an auto rickshaw from his house. My aunt sends me videos and police statements about con artists or thieves who are suspected to be operating in the city. All the sing-song about technology and globalisation having shrunk the world may be true, but it shrunk our idea of the indoors, too. The trust that is so essential to Efroymson’s version of Hobbes’ social contract is being broken down everyday. And each time the outside is reported as unsafe, the peripheries of the indoors recede an inch closer.
Furthermore, in the wake of a pandemic, when the threat itself is one of global proportions, the only place where we feel any semblance of control and security is in our homes. The wording of the refrain being echoed all around—“stay home, stay safe”—is no accident. The outside represents risk, while the inside holds certainty—or at least as much as is possible in the midst of a pandemic. But such a binary isn’t all that simple; people’s disregard for lockdown norms is a testament to the fact that they’ve always craved the outside, or simply don’t like being told what they cannot do.
Here, the liminal space once again becomes a way to bend the rules. We have already begun returning to our balconies, terraces and courtyards, as a means to reclaim our connection with the outside. We appreciate the fresh air and tree cover more than we have in the last few years. These in-between spaces, where the rules of confinement are temporarily modified, have, once more, become areas of yearning for blurred lines. They offer glimpses of what could have been, while grounding us in the reality of what is.