On Not Owning a House

Last week I attended a memorial service and was impressed by the event. It was in stark contrast to our ceremonial mourning which, in a footnote in the Arabian Nights, Sir Richard Burton characterizes as “the visits of condolence and so forth which are long and terribly wearisome in the Moslem east.” Instead, the event was intended as a celebration of the full life of the deceased.

Everyone in the audience who wished to offer a reflection was allowed time to do so and while none of them were truly inspiring, the purpose of sharing remembrances was fully served. There was, however, one recurring mention that finally began to strike me as incongruous – that the deceased had lived all his life in rented quarters, did not own a house, and had not accumulated any riches.

I too had known the individual and was a member of the fan club having admired him immensely for his breadth of knowledge, his passion for the arts, his commitment to perfection, and his dedication to the highest ideals of humanity. I did not know whether he had owned a house or not nor had it occurred to me that it was a piece of information relevant to my evaluation of his contribution.

The repeated mention of this fact at the memorial service forced me to rethink this opinion. Why was not owning a house considered such a badge of honor in our society? Did it imply that there was something the matter with those who did own houses? If so, why, and for what reason?

To my mind, this was a personal decision. After all, living in a rented house does not come free – one pays in rent what one would have paid in interest on the loan required to purchase a house. If calculated right, the lifetime cost of renting a house would end up higher than that of owning one. The personal decision could stem from any number of reasons including the very plausible one in the case of the deceased that individuals like him could not take away time from their passions for the mundane necessities of everyday life.

It is true that in our economy, without a well-developed institution for housing finance, the lump-sum required to acquire or build a house is a formidable barrier for many but I really doubt this was the determining reason for the deceased. And so, the implication that not owing a house was somehow an indicator of honesty and integrity struck me as misplaced. It was simply a personal choice and ought to be left at that.

It is nevertheless true that in every society there are individuals who have acquired assets by unfair means. Some have built houses with those riches while others have consumed them differently. It is also true that the prevalence of unfair acquisition seems to have increased over time. Still, it does not follow that all those who have built houses are tainted and guilty of some malpractice or the other. Nor, in a country in which over the half the population is poor and without financial assets, can it imply that all such individuals are paragons of moral uprightness.

Two aspects of this conflation, one general the other personal, struck me in particular. First, looking around at the audience, I saw many who owned houses applauding the mention of non-ownership of a house by the deceased. I was aware that some of them owned more than one house and that a few of the houses were so extensive that it would take a fair number of hours to walk through them from end to end. I couldn’t quite figure out what exactly was the motivation for their applause except that it was being joined ritualistically without really thinking through the subtext.

Second, at a personal level, I was surprised to observe that what was deemed a mark of honor for the dead was not considered so for the living. I saw applauding vigorously people who had been castigating me for decades for not owning a house. I recalled all the names I had been called and all the character defects attributed to me for being so callous as to deprive my family of a home. I must admit that in my case there was no very noble reason for this choice. Rather, it was a combination of procrastination and a fearful inability to deal with the transactional nature of life.

Be that as it may, we had arrived at the point where I had acquiesced in the judgement of my massive failure as a human being, the immense stupidity of my intellect, and the sheer callousness of my neglect of those unfortunate enough to have become dependent on me. All the misfortunes of life it seems stemmed from that brick not laid – a huge burden to carry for any one individual. Day and night now I was haunted by just one prayer – give me a house or give me death.

In that sense, the memorial service offered a flicker of hope. Forgiveness, it seems, does accompany death – a bit too late to savor but something to anticipate with relief.

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2 Responses to “On Not Owning a House”

  1. Fiaz Khan Says:

    It may come from the misplaced moral value that a life lived in neglect of material possessions is more moral and noble than a life lived in the pursuit of material gains and assets. You can see it often in reference to historic religious figures when they are described as stitching and mending their own clothes, copying Quran and making prayer hats.
    In the chronic financial insecurity of our society where people have little assets to show, it is also a mark of a higher class to have house in particular locality. Therefore, to ‘fit in’ you have to acquire that attribute.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Fiaz Sahib: Neglect of material possessions and pursuit of material gains and assets are the two extremes on the spectrum. The majority lies somewhere in between – normal life requires the accumulation of some assets and a house is included in those. For some reason, instead of the middle, the upper extreme has become the reference for characterization of individuals. I am not sure what accounts for that. Is it the sheer opulence of the upper-end lifestyle or envy of those who are lucky enough to be well-off? In any case, the ownership of a modest house cannot be considered a negative in society without doing damage to it.

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