Barbara Bertolani: “Towards a way of researching into migrants’ houses: empty rooms, objects and images as substitutes for the absent ones”

Towards a way of researching into migrants’ houses: empty rooms, objects and images as substitutes for the absent ones

Barbara Bertolani (ERC HOMInG – UniTrento)


Last August I went to Punjab, India, in the district of Ropar, to conduct my fieldwork for about one month. I returned to Punjab after seven years. The first time I had been there simply to know my in-laws. This time, I was there as a researcher and as a relative at the same time. My husband and children were also with me. This gave me the chance to stay with people as a family member in different moments of the day, spend with them time during off-hours and share some of their everyday routines. I conducted more than twenty interviews and had the chance to do participant observation in the houses of in-laws, friends, and acquaintances. People hosted me generously and, especially with my in-laws, I engaged in lengthy discussions about home and homemaking, distance and proximity, absence and presence not only form a physical but also from an emotional and symbolic point of view. All this occurred in a transnational space of reference embedded in India but embracing also Italy, Canada, Switzerland (where other members of “our” kin-network, as well as common acquaintances live or used to live). We shared memories and gossips, updates and future projects. Indeed, my position as both insider and outsider in an extensive and transnational network forced me to pay close attention to the different roles that I played. In several circumstances I felt the need to make clear, first of all to myself, in what role I was doing or asking certain things. I defined with my interlocutors how much of the content of informal conversations or confidences could be revealed, even anonymously, and what had to remain private. My dual role put me in a sometimes tiring in-betweenness. Yet, it also allowed me to observe very carefully what external eyes could not have easily perceived. My fieldwork aimed to study people’s transnational engagement, understand their views of home and homemaking (as well as those of their friends and relatives abroad) and investigate possible forms of “home circulation”. This fieldwork will continue in the coming months, by following up with my informants in Italy, including the relatives and acquaintances of those I met in Punjab.

Undeniably, many people I met in India share a sort of migratory culture, as if migration for them or their children – possibly to countries such as Canada, Australia, or the UK – were an inevitable fate. This is especially true for the young middle-class males who still live in Punjab in rural areas and are in their teens or twenties. Continuing the work of their fathers in the fields, or engaging in trade or public service are not considered as attractive alternatives. Migration and economic success abroad, by doing precisely those jobs one refuses to do at home, seem to have become a sort of ritual of initiation to assert the male identity. If in the past Punjabi and Sikh “hyper-masculinity” (Jakobsh 2014; 2017) was measured by courage in battle or physical strength in the countryside, now it is measured by psychological, physical and emotional resiliency in emigration, as young Punjabis may imagine suffering from deprivation, loneliness, harassments, and precarity for a long time. Some young men simply wait for the opportunity to leave, sponsored by a relative and thanks to job contracts which might be fake or precarious, or with the help of a smuggler. Other young men and women study English to pass the “Yelts” exam and get a visa for Canada, where they will then enroll in university and work in their spare time or night shifts for several years, hoping to obtain a permanent visa sooner or later. In many cases, the migratory projects of these young people presuppose continuous economic support their families, which are willing to keep paying university fees and the costs of maintaining their children abroad. Especially for those who want to leave (or have left) as students, the expectation is to settle abroad, from the very outset. They seem to have little interest in repaying the investments that the family will bear (or is undergoing) to maintain them. Those who are already abroad are at an early stage in their migration project and are very focused on themselves and their future. For some of these young men and women, the link with Punjab does not seem to be so obvious. Remittances or the desire for investment in the land of origin are not issues on the agenda. These are likely to be renegotiated and redefined in the future, just in case.

Those who have already emigrated in the past, for instance in Italy, are now in their forties or fifties. Those who have not yet reunited with their wives and children seem to maintain a more robust link with their country of origin and with their relatives, through periodic visits or real estate investments, sending gifts or remittances in cash. For those who indeed have reunited with their families, the economic commitment to relatives who live in the country of origin may decrease over time, as the economic needs of the nuclear family living abroad increase. They may find themselves in an ambiguous necessity to reassert their role and belonging in the parental network of origin (repaying the debts contracted by their parents to allow their migration, supporting them in old age and hosting them in Italy, managing any real estate in Punjab) while, at the same time, living elsewhere. Therefore, their migration phase and project may influence in different ways the life of their relatives in the country of origin.

Among the “left-behinds” I met in Punjab, some had still to support economically their recently emigrated children. Others were supported economically by their relatives abroad and maintained a strong emotional relationship with them. However, their everyday life was practically and routinely anchored in Punjab and not in the diaspora. In some cases, the presence of the absentees was evident in the houses which I visited, primarily through the use or preservation of specific spaces or objects or in the practice of certain rituals (like the periodic Whatsapp calls). At the same time, everyone carried on his life “here and now”, living in a sort of bi-focality (Vertovec 2004) of affections and emotions.

Considering spaces and objects, I was very intrigued by empty migrants’ rooms in some remittance houses and by “memory objects” inside them. Family and absentees’ pictures were often displayed on the house walls together with all sort of gifts (toys, electronic devices, make-up boxes and fashion accessories, small kitchen appliances and utensils, as well as food) that had been gifted over time, or brought back to Punjab after periodic visits abroad.

I had the chance to visit three houses that had been built from their foundations thanks to remittances. All of them reflected the structure of the traditional patrilocal and agnatic Punjabi enlarged household, where different nuclear families live together under the same roof (Ballard, 1982). In particular, the elderly and their grown-up sons with their wives and children are supposed to live together, as traditionally sons should carry on the family activities. Daughters, instead, live until marriage in their parents’ house and are then supposed to settle in their in-laws’ house. Grown-up daughters may come back to their parents’ house just in case of divorce or widowhood: traditionally and especially in the rural contexts, the house of their parents (as well as any real estate inheritance) will not belong to them but will be passed to their brothers, as women are given a part of the family patrimony through the dowry at marriage.


One of the houses I visited had been built about twenty years ago by a man, whom I will call Sukhwinder Singh, who spent many years in Saudi Arabia and Italy, had reunited there with his family, but then decided to return to Punjab for retirement. He came back with his two daughters and wife, while his son decided to remain in Italy. He had built this house while living abroad and before reuniting with his family. When I met him, he was living in this house in a rural village with his wife, his unmarried daughter and his mother-in-law; his elderly and married daughter was temporarily there for a visit, while his son (who permanently lives in Italy) was not there and was supposed to come during winter holidays, if possible once a year. I was impressed by the fact that the daughters had not any private bedroom (and never had it) in that house, whereas the son had a room that remained permanently empty. The two young women were sleeping with their grandmother, or together with their cousins in other houses nearby. The fully furnished room of the migrated son was there, waiting for him and his family. It was well kept and clean, the double bed was made, and the air conditioning was on as if he could arrive at any moment. An unlit flat-screen television stood on a wall, surrounded by a series of photos of the adult son, sometimes portrayed with his family but more often alone as if to further testify who was the owner of this room. At the same time, the room was fix and immobile as a “museum of nostalgia” whose primary function was to memorialize: no object out of place, no mess, only emptiness frozen in time and the presence of the absent through this uninhabited space (Pistrick and Bachmeier, 2016).


The second house I visited was inhabited by an old lady, whom I will call Harpreet Kaur and her widowed daughter. Married to a soldier, Harpreet was very soon a widow and had to raise four children by herself, facing significant financial difficulties. The house had been built about twenty years before in a little town by her elderly son. He had emigrated to the Philippines and still lives there with his family, running his own trade business. Another son, who is now dead, had joined his brother there, but then had come back to supervise the construction of the house. The third son, who now lives in his own house in a city nearby, had spent some years in Germany but did not contribute financially to the construction of the house, which is a large three-storey building with numerous terraces. It stands in the centre of the town in a privileged position and with a large courtyard area. Indeed, it is a symbol of economic redemption and a form of social security for the widowed and lonely mother and sister. When I visited the house, it looked well maintained and plastered from the outside. Inside, many rooms were semi-empty or used as warehouses. The only well-furnished, clean and “alive” rooms consisted of the kitchen, the mother’s and the landlord’s bedrooms. Again, despite the abundance of space and empty rooms, the adult daughter did not have her bedroom. She slept with her mother, also to take care of her.


The living room was equally well cared for, but the shelves and the most precious objects were covered with sheets of newspaper to protect them against dust, wear and the passage of time. It was almost as if it were an uninhabited house, ready at any time to be put back into use, in case of visits by the landlord. In the room of the absent son, some objects had nothing to do with it. For example, his scooter was parked there and covered with a sheet, evidently to preserve it from the possibility that someone else would use it. In the living room, a series of objects (pictures, digital and mechanical clocks gifted by relatives living in Australia and in the Philippines, other “souvenirs” from abroad) were placed on the shelves, and also covered with newspapers.


There were only signs of life in the kitchen and in the bedroom of the two ladies: a colourful bedspread on the beds, a series of photos hanging close to the flat-screen television, a series of appliances and pots in the daily used kitchen.

The third house I visited was inhabited by a widowed woman in her sixties, whom I will call Kulwinder Kaur, with her two daughters. The eldest, Manjit Kaur, had come back to her parents’ house with her child after divorce; the second is still unmarried. This house belongs to Kulwinder’s eldest son, who lives in Dubai, managing his own truck company together with his brother. The three-storey building was built on the foundations of the old family house, demolished to make room for this new edifice. It stood in the centre of a small town and was finished one year ago after three years of building under the supervision of Manjit. With the help of an architect and interior designer, she planned a series of innovative and “modern” solutions to optimize the inner spaces (built-in wardrobes with sliding or revolving doors, double foldaway beds), which were proudly shown to me when I visited the house. In this house, every member of the family had its own space, except for the unmarried daughter. She slept together with her mother. The house was completely furnished and well kept, and all the bedrooms seemed to be in use, including those of Kulwinder’s two sons who live abroad. The double beds were made with elegant sheets and only one pillow was placed in the centre, the bathrooms were clean and furnished. All was well in order and clean.


On the wall of the landlord’s bedroom, a photo of his wedding was hanging. However, the bride did not live in that house, nor in Dubai with him. Due to a conflict with Manjit on the control of the family ménage, she had returned to her parents’ house, leaving only a few accessories in the wardrobes (make-up and nail polish, scarves) that testify to her presence “frozen in time” and her material absence at the same time. The still-unresolved family conflict manifests itself through objects and spaces, in the same way as the present physical distance of the landlord.

All three houses tell a lot about different family histories and situations. In particular, the empty rooms of emigrants are the materialization of their physical absence. They work as their “material substitutes” (Pistrick and Bachmeier, 2016). They mostly have a symbolic function as they seem to guarantee the continuity of kinship and traditional family structure: the spaces (and the non-spaces) embody a precise family hierarchy between gender and generations. Migrant sons, who are supposed to be only temporarily absent, have their permanent spaces (a stable double bedroom) as they carry on economically the enlarged household. On the contrary, unmarried daughters, who are supposed to be only temporarily present in the house, do not have a personal bedroom, even if they physically and stably live there. Empty migrants’ rooms are ambiguous as they are physically permanent, but only temporarily inhabited during periodical visits. Unmarried daughters, who regularly share the bedroom with their widowed mothers or with other sisters or cousins, inhabit permanently those rooms, which are considered their temporary spaces.

Two of the three houses I visited belonged to the older sons, but women of the family – the widowed mothers and the sisters of the owners – managed them. Male presence and authority were only symbolic and remote, embodied in the material property of spaces and objects, in the empty rooms and in memories of the past, while everyday and present life were feminine and concrete.

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Besides empty migrants’ rooms, I was also struck by the presence of objects gifted by emigré relatives over time. These objects did not have any practical function anymore, but where nevertheless maintained in showcases or sideboards and put on display in the living room or it the corridors: among others, old automated toys (like robots, walkie talkies, game-boys), headphones and old cell phones. Some of them had seldom been used, in order not to spoil them. They seemed to be like relics, useless in their original functions but still crucial in themselves as reminders, to witness the long-lasting emotional bond with people’s emigrated family members. These objects were often placed alongside old and recent framed photos of family members and local souvenirs.


In every house I visited, pictures of the absentees were also present. Some of these absentees had died, many others had just emigrated. Pictures could be displayed in living rooms as well as in more private spaces like bedrooms, depending on their different functions. If placed in public spaces of the house, pictures often taken during rites of passage like wedding ceremonies were portraying together all family members of different generations. These objects were identity reminders, as they were telling foreign people (as well as kin members) the history of the family, its current composition, and the members’ authority and roles, despite the physical absence of some of them.


On the contrary, pictures present in more private spaces testified to the identity, as well as to the relational and emotional points of reference for the single person sleeping in that room. In this case, several photos of the different family members (some of whom had already passed away) were hanging on the walls of bedrooms, and the reciprocal positioning of every single picture was important. They were often displayed together with wall clocks (marking the inexorable passage of time) and flat-screen televisions (testifying to modernity in coexistence with the past) and told the course of life of that person through her affections. Finally, in other cases, the portraits hanging on the walls of the empty migrants’ rooms simply seemed to perform the function of reminding who was the owner of that space, once again symbolically testifying to the presence of the absent ones.



Roger Ballard, “South Asian families”, in Robert Rapoport, Michael Fogarty and Rhona Rapoport (Eds.), Families in Britain, London, Routledge, 1982, pp. 179-204.

Doris Jakobsh, “Gender in Sikh traditions”, in Pashaura Singh and Luis E. Fenech (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 594-605.

Doris Jakobsh, “Gender”, In Knut A. Jacobsen, Gurinder Singh Mann, Kristina Myrvold and Eleanor Nesbitt (Eds.), Brill’s Encyclopedia of Sikhism, vol. 31, 1, Leiden – Boston, Brill, 2017, pp. 243-255.

Eckehard Pistrick and Florian Bachmeier, “Empty Migrant Rooms: An Anthropology of Absence through the Camera Lens”, Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, vol. 3, 2, 2016, pp. 121-294.

Steven Vertovec, “Migrant Transnationalism and Modes of Transformation”, International Migration Review, vol. 38, 3, 2004, pp. 970-1001.