To AC or not to AC: The middle classes’ struggle for privacy

For middle class families, summer is a choice between comfort and privacy — the dilemma posed by the AC wala kamra.
Published July 28, 2022

Summer in Pakistan is a lot of things.

Summer is mangoes in all their juicy varieties and summer is vacations, days spent idling around. Summer is trips to Murree, Naran, and Keenjhar and summer is scorching heat made worse by load shedding.

For the middle classes, summer is also a choice, a rather difficult one at that, between comfort and privacy — the dilemma posed by the AC wala kamra.

The AC wala kamra, a seasonal feature of most middle class homes, is born out of financial necessity more than anything else. The accelerating rates of inflation and electricity price hikes make it unfeasible for households to have multiple air conditioners running simultaneously.

Come summer, the family grabs their mattresses and engage in their own summertime welcome ritual — relocating from their private rooms to the AC wala kamra.

For many, the AC wala kamra is not just the place where the family sleeps but also where they take their meals, where the parents watch TV, where the children catch up on their studies and where the guests are entertained.

This multi-functionality makes this room an anomaly in the modern home which is designed with the principle of function-specificity. However, its multifunctional character as well as its proclivity to becoming the hub of the household align it with a tradition of South Asian domesticity — the aangan.

The reboot

Traditionally, three or more generations of the extended family lived under the same roof and the aangan served as the hub of their commune. Starting from subha ka nashta [breakfast] to shaam ki chai [evening tea] to mehmaan nawaazi [entertaining guests] and all the way to sleeping in the summers, the aangan was the space where life happened.

As families shifted towards a nuclear system, so did the structure of their homes. A multifunctional space was neither necessary nor always accessible. Instead, the modern family opted for function-specific rooms. This new ethos to domestic life and its design did not mean that the common living space was entirely out of fashion —  not yet at least.

The increasing popularity of household gadgets led to the TV lounge becoming the new nucleus of the modern home. Decades later, the TV lounge continues to maintain its status as the centre of the house —  albeit only on a material level.

The younger generation no longer watches TV; they watch Netflix — a crucial distinction — on their phones and laptops. Increased access to personal gadgets has resulted in the decline of the ‘common living space’ in favour of personal bedrooms.

That is until summer hits and everyone huddles into the AC wala kamra. However, I exercise caution in reading and romanticising this room as some sort of a traditional utopia.

Privacy issues

Changes in materiality of the house not only impact but are impacted by changes in cultural attitudes around ideas of family, self, personhood, and privacy. Even the aangan, conserved in its original form, is no longer governed by the same traditions and ideals of the past — let alone its ‘reboots’.

While the AC wala kamra may function similarly to the common living space, the ever-changing dynamics that govern it make it a site of frictions and negotiations between the old and the new. Nowhere are these frictions more visible than around questions of privacy.

For those in their teens and early 20s, the concern around privacy impacts how they use their phones, for example, in these rooms. Their reasons include disturbing others and being disturbed, being questioned about their activity, and being snooped on. They negotiate around this by leaving the AC wala kamra, preferring their own private but warm, AC-less rooms instead. These attempts at negotiation, however, are not only acknowledged but also condemned by the parents.

Sumaira, a 53-year-old mother of two, was of the opinion that the person who “sneaks out” of the room is often up to no good, especially if it’s at night. For Sumaira, evil thrives in the dark, making the night a time for the sinful and the immoral.

Sumaira’s daughter, Myra, present during this interaction since it took place in the AC wala kamra, protested against her mother’s perception. Myra’s take is that the night is the only time when her friends can hop on a group call and speak without interruptions and for that, she needs privacy. Sumaira is not convinced.

This mother-daughter interaction highlights the inter-generational disconnect around the concept of privacy, begging the question: how does the parents’ generation conceptualise privacy?

As it turns out most parents are supportive of their children’s need for privacy, albeit with certain caveats.

Hina, a 57-year old mother of four, said: “We built separate rooms for our children because I know how hard it was to grow up without any privacy. Our brothers would come in at any time … there was nowhere for me to study … we’d get into a lot of fights … I made sure my children had their privacy. Now the entire day, the doors [of the rooms] are closed.”

The disapproval of closed doors was echoed by a lot of parents, often questioning what is it that happens behind closed doors that cannot be done with the door ajar. The AC wala kamra not only neutralises this threat of the closed door, making everyone visible by bringing them in a common space, it utilises the very door in its favour as some sort of a harbinger signalling the family’s movements.

Secrecy vs privacy

What is interesting to note is that despite their strife with the idea of privacy, the older generation does value their own — the  only difference is that instead of the language of privacy, they frame it in language of routine.

For Maheen, 48, this seasonal living arrangement upsets her “normal routine”. In addition to extra cleaning and housekeeping, she is unable to watch her dramas, scroll through Facebook, or catch up on her WhatsApp conversations without getting interrupted by her children. Her husband, 53-year-old Said, had similar concerns in terms of not having the space to “relax”.

The parents’ concerns are not much different from those of their children, yet they were unable to link their desire for routine and its promise of peace, solitude and relaxation with that of their children’s need for privacy. This routine/privacy discourse isn’t simply a matter of differing words for the same idea or ‘just semantics’, but rather a crucial, semiotic distinction.

Routine is regular. It is banal, it is predictable, it bears no secrets. There is nothing clandestine about a routine. Compare that to privacy which, like secrecy, is predicated upon, what Warren and Laslett term as “the denial of access.”

However, unlike secrecy, privacy is a social contract — “privacy is consensual where secrecy is not.” Its consensual nature allows privacy to be read as protecting behaviour, which is “morally neutral or valued by society”, whereas secrecy is read as hiding something that is negatively valued by those excluded from the secret. Privacy is secrecy regulated. Secrecy is privacy depraved.

Understanding the familial conflict through this lens, we notice that there are certain instances where Pakistani parents are happy to oblige to their children’s needs for privacy, making it consensual.

Cases where they deem it necessary such as for reasons of modesty and for those of study/work. Beyond these specific scenarios, they are unable to fathom their children’s need for privacy. “What do kids even need privacy for?” was a sentiment echoed by many. As a result, the denial of access is no longer consensual. Privacy becomes secrecy which is in turn equated with immoral and negative behaviour — sin or deception. The children must be up to no good.

Contextualising this in the greater cultural discourse around ideas of family and of self, while privacy of the family from the outside world is highly prioritised — reflected also in the materiality of the house such as in the structure of the gate — privacy within the family is a novel concept as is the idea of individuality. One isn’t an individual but a part of the collective, of the family and keeping secrets from the family threatens its cohesion.

The AC wala kamra thus plays a crucial role in strengthening familial cohesion. Parents and children alike shared that in the summers, they had more family time — being actively involved in each other’s lives, being able to talk to one another, be there for each other and learn habits, affairs, concerns that they were otherwise not privy to. They were engaging in more family activities such as watching movies or playing board games. The kind of intimacy that is inaccessible in their ‘normal’ living arrangement.

The modern house, with its separate, function-specific rooms and doors that can be closed, if not always locked, neutralises the intergenerational friction around ideals such as those of privacy. The AC wala kamra, in its multi-functionality and centrality, disrupts the domestic order, unsettles ‘routines’ and lays these tensions out in the open.

Header illustration: Ramcreative/