Posted by Isha Ray
Has your new job, new college, internship landed you in Delhi? Are you in a fix looking for affordable accommodation? Do you have relatives living in the city? (Very important for the quintessential ‘tu jaanta hai mera baap kaun hai?’) Will you earn enough to spend half of it on a barely decent place to live, albeit in a very nice locality? Yes? Then you might have a very slim chance of renting a house while you are in Delhi. Once you find yourself at the end of the long adventure called house hunting–that started with a simple Facebook post on ‘Flats and Flatmates’ and ended up in a tiny shed that doubles as a brokers office – you will perhaps be more worldly wise than Gandalf. It is slightly easier if you are a man, even better if you can spew sexist, misogynistic communal venom on cue (as a joke, of course!).
Moving cities is an intimidating prospect for most people in India and one of the biggest challenges is finding a suitable place to live in. While college hostels, and Paying Guests (PG) accommodations address and help in resolving this problem partially for the bright-eyed, optimistic student population, finding decent homes for young working migrants continue to be a challenge. Not just Delhi, the ubiquity of the phenomena is such that ScoopWhoop recently published a meme on the impossibility of bachelors finding affordable, safe accommodation in India.
In Delhi, however, one is spoilt for choice. Tenants can choose between location, affordability, or aesthetic. Finding a house that allows for all is equivalent to the elusive perfection of the Fibonacci ratio. An ad film by Sunsilk in the early 2000s showed young women changing hairstyles to meet the demands of ‘traditional’, ‘modern’, and ‘high-class’ landlords. What felt like nothing but an obnoxious over-exaggeration to my pre-pubescent self, becomes a part of my lived reality every time I find myself looking for yet another house to move in to in this city, owing to the steady 11% increase in rents every year.
Brokers are the elected representatives who have been chosen to be the authority of your moral, and social compass.
As someone who has found myself house hunting more often than I’d like to, I have learnt a thing or two about the entire ordeal. Firstly, brokers are the backbone of this renting racket in Delhi. They are the elected representatives who have been chosen to be the authority of your moral, and social compass. They will tell the landlords, “She is a very quiet woman…from a very good family. She has no friends…no one will come home” and never would I have been happier about my inexistent social or romantic life. Although, whenever possible, they will aim to change that situation by spamming the unsuspecting tenant on WhatsApp with innocent ‘Good mornings’ and occasionally call to ensure well being. The broker is not just any other professional in Delhi. Whilst house-hunting, they become your biggest confidantes. “Every broker within a 2km radius (of a posh South Delhi locality) is aware of my relationship status!!” said Riya, a resident of Delhi for the past 15 years, with anecdotes of house hunting enough to base a Shriram Raghavan movie on.
One the one hand, where women must have no men coming over, or they are legitimate suspects for running a sex racket out of their homes, men don’t seem to be associated with such character judgements, “My landlord is really chill. He actually said, ‘I am very progressive…I want you to have girlfriends, and bring them over“, a male colleague said, as I shrunk at the cringe-worthiness and their collective inability for self-reflection.
Secondly, landlords/landladies can and will infantilise adult unmarried women looking to rent houses in the city – as they do with their own. They pre-empt the possibility of ‘girls’ (broker speak for unmarried women in Delhi) having a social life, and they limit it with the ‘security ka issue‘ for those who appear gregarious. Riya exasperatedly recollected a feud she had with her landlady when a female friend came to visit for a couple of days, “…we need to know who comes and goes, security ka issue ho jaata hai na (it becomes a security issue)” she mimicked. Riya who lives in 2 room set in South Delhi, was furious at the powerlessness of tenants. “…for all of her ‘security’ tenants don’t have any…” she said. Tenants have neither rights, nor any privacy, but as ‘girls’ we are repeatedly told that ‘Aap toh humaare beti jaisi ho’ (You are like my daughter). Never mind the fact that even their adult ‘betis’ deserve to not be constantly monitored for the company they keep or chastised for how they choose to spend their leisure time.
After multiple experiences of house hunting in Delhi, I have come to understand “Acche ghar ke log” (People from good families) and “Acchi ladkiyan” (Good girls) is also broker speak for women who are celibate teetotallers, who control air pollution levels by not smoking. But of course, as working women in what is renowned for being the most unsafe city in India, women, especially unmarried ones, are the ones who pose a security threat to the landlords.
House hunting is one of the few challenges that even men face while moving cities, but for religious and sexual minorities, the experience is the stuff that stand-up comics joke about. Kanika who identifies as non-binary, and crossdresses to look like males (different from her assigned gender) often finds herself the receiving more fashion advice from her broker than housing options. “He said ‘aap aise kapde pehente hai humesha se?… Baal kyu nahi badhaate?’ (Do you always dress like this? Why don’t you grow out your hair?)” Which is followed by a typical dismissal of her identity. “When I assert I am a ‘woman’ then the first thing they do is to scan my boobs, and that part is not pleasant” Kanika narrated from her experiences of house hunting in West Delhi.
Muslims in metro cities find it much difficult to find accommodation outside of places they themselves refer ‘ghettos’. Numerous reports in the recent past testify such discrimination amongst Muslim tenants. It is worse for unmarried tenants, looking for single room accommodation. Bilal, a journalist reporting for The Quint in a satirical video narrated instances when brokers advised him to change his name for the sake of finding an apartment. The satirical humour in the video is based on the real experiences of Muslim tenants, who have had to change their names to more conventional Hindu names to find a place to live in.
Once established that the potential tenant is not Muslim, the next filter is that of the caste group. “Kaunse ‘community’ (again, broker speak for caste groups) ke ho aap?” (Which community are you from?). Which is usually followed by verification by one’s surname. If all fails, diet becomes the parameter for verification: “Vegetarian hai aap?” (Are you a vegetarian?) It is then, that one must make the tough choice between living comfortably or renounce their love for Chawla Chicken.
The prying neighbours, constant surveillance, unsolicited advice is all part of the fine print when we sign the dotted lines on the lease.
The prying neighbours, constant surveillance, unsolicited advice is all part of the fine print when we sign the dotted lines on the lease. “Aap na gallery mein smoke mat kiya karo, waise toh smoking and drinking are not good for your health, aur accha bhi toh nahi lagta ki girls aise khule mein…” (Don’t smoke in the gallery. Anyway smoking and drinking are not good for your health. And it is also not nice when girls openly…). Riya was told by her next door neighbour. Judging by her hesitance, the unfinished sentence could indicate public defecation, but I guess we will never know. The complaint was particularly alarming because it brought to notice the complete lack of privacy she had inside her own house. That not only she did not have the freedom to enjoy her own balcony, she was also entertainment for some peeping tom in the building, or in the neighbourhood.
Landlords in Delhi express a clear preference for renting their property out to “families” (married people in broker speak) but make it awfully difficult for individuals to create one. “I had to tell the landlord that my girlfriend and I are married, and we’re going to be living with my brother-in-law. All was well till the landlord showed up and had a little chat with my parents about their ‘daughter-in-law’ when they were visiting.” A male colleague recollected. It’s even worse for the non-conformists. Kanika recollects “…two of my dates have been non-cis. One was trans and another one was a crossdresser. There was a jagrata (ceremony) going on outside my building so I saw people staring for longer than usual. I myself was not very confident being in their sight.”
So, in conclusion, what is it that makes finding houses in Delhi such an infernal ordeal? What are the landlords so scared of? From my experiences, and those of all the above, it would seem sex, alcohol, cigarettes – worse if enjoyed by women, or those who identify as queer – would make the list. In that light, there seems to be only one solution to this problem: marriage. Married couples/tenants or as they say it here in the capital, “families” are the ideal tenants for landlords in any respectable neighbourhoods. “Family waale itna shor nahi machaate hai. Bachelor log rehte hai na, party karte hai, shor machaate hai, ghar pe log aate hai..” (Families do not create much noise. Bachelors party, create a nuisance, and keep having visitors). I was told by one of the landlords at a posh South Delhi locality in one of the million times I was house-hunting. Thus, to all the potential house-hunters, it possibly is time to ‘be found’ – whether by a potential life partner on JeevanSaathi.com or by a house, is yet to be determined.
Isha Ray is a writer and researcher from New Delhi. When not binge-watching TV series, she ponders about the imponderabilia of everyday life.
Featured Image Source: Daily Mail