You are the city
That I long for

There is never
enough space
upon arrival

“Sir please say that you will live with your parents. Just say it, na.”

All the property dealers in East Delhi said the same thing to me. Doesn’t matter if you live alone. Just say it. I wouldn’t budge. Even though I understood their frustration. They, too, were tired of rejection. It had been almost fifteen days of house-hunting.

“It’s not a big deal. Single men and young women get rejected every day by flat owners. Do you really think there is a difference between disabled people and able-bodied people when it comes to house hunting? We are all in the same boat,” a friend tried to console me.

Another friend from South Delhi kept asking me about my budget. They must have had a good laugh when I told them that it was around Rs 15,000 to 20,000. “Things are so cheap in East Delhi.” Really, I thought I was paying a lot for a one-BHK. Besides, I couldn’t afford anything higher.

Living independently as a person with a disability can be an expensive business. Crowded public transport can be difficult with my fragile legs. Cabs are expensive. Medicines, medical tests, diapers – all part of my day-to-day living – take a toll on my finances. Add to that the cost of medical emergencies and a crisis that is always knocking on the door. I had enrolled in an MPhil programme in Delhi and had passed an exam to become a junior research fellow, something that on paper ensured me a monthly stipend that would enable me to live independently.

I was not new to house-hunting. But with my deteriorating body, everything was a new challenge. I had ignored all my access needs in the past. This time I was careful. Having been through long bouts of illnesses, I wasn’t taking a chance. There were limitations, though. Buildings with lifts cost more and had the added burden of maintenance charges. I was looking for a ground-floor apartment, one which had easy access to the main road so I could walk to the shops nearby for my essential needs or get a taxi easily. But it seemed as if all the ground-floor apartments had vanished from East Delhi. The two I had seen in the first week of the search had refused to rent it out to me. Why? There was no clear answer. I took comfort in the fact that I was unmarried and that I didn’t have a proper job and these were as good grounds for refusal as any.

“Auntyji, one more thing. I am disabled. I wanted to tell you that,” I told an auntyji over the phone. She owned a first-floor flat in Vasundhara Enclave, a locality that I had been living in ever since I shifted back to Delhi in 2016 and was familiar with.

“That’s not a problem. We have a distant relative who is also disabled. You will be living with your parents?”

“No. As I told you, I am an independent writer and am also doing an MPhil. And I have a government scholarship. I write in newspapers and magazines. Rent won’t be a problem.”

“Yes, my sister’s son is also a journalist. I understand. Give the phone to the property dealer.”

I handed the phone to the property dealer, only to see him making awkward faces for the next two minutes.

At the end of the conversation, he was shaking his head vigorously.

“Sir, what was the need to tell her about all this? Aap aaraam se rehte. Kaun dekhne aata.”

I was silent. For a second, I regretted sharing information about my disability. But what if one day the landlady walked into the house and insulted me or threw me out?

I was tired. My body was fragile. I could hardly climb stairs. I was afraid of everything that could go wrong. For fifteen days, I was out every day, searching for a flat. I would stand at the gate of apartments, waiting for the property dealer to arrive. Always anxious. I had fifteen more days to find a home for myself. My flatmate, on whose insistence we had decided to move out and live alone, had already found a flat. I felt my life was spiralling out of control. That was another reason I was slightly
broken. I hadn’t even made the decision to move out. But here I was, in a strange apartment, desperate for a home.

“No sir, second floor won’t do. I told you, na. Only ground floor. Or max first floor.” I was also tired of all the property dealers trying to sell me whatever they could, although that was part of their profession.

There were days when, while waiting for the property dealer to arrive, I questioned all my life choices. Why did you come to Delhi? Why did you choose to study again? Why can’t you not be disabled? House-hunting makes you question things. It’s an existential phase. You are as alone as you can be. And lonely.

“Flat is owned by a journalist. I have told her about your physical problem. You should get it, Sir. No problem,” a dealer assured me. Only to call later to tell me that the owner did not want anyone without a family.

Where do I get a family from? Why don’t these houseowners find a bride for me? I was seething because I couldn’t do anything about it.

Until, finally, one day, I found myself sitting in a drawing room with a false ceiling and fancy lights, which belonged to the owner of a first-floor apartment nearby. He looked at me and smiled. “First floor chalega?”

“Yes sir, I can manage.”

“You have to submit your parents’ documents too.”

“But I am giving you proof that I am getting a scholarship from the Government of India.”

“No, parents also. I don’t need it. It’s the society’s residents’ welfare association. They will give it only if I tell them you are living with your parents.”

“Okay. I will ask my parents to give their documents.”

I had finally found a flat, even as it cost me a piece of my dignity. The first night in the new apartment was rough. I couldn’t sleep thinking about everything I had to go through. And I kept asking questions in my head. Would you give your property on rent to a person with a disability if you were able-bodied? Does it matter if disabled people are unmarried? But then, there are people worse off than you. What about Muslims and Dalits who can’t find a home? What about queer and trans people who have to often lie to find one?

I wasn’t alone. My experience wasn’t unique. There were so many of us who went through this experience every time they had to find a house. Surely, a bunch of houseowners can’t spoil our will to live or celebrate life. That night, I decided to celebrate life. In the middle of the night, I was up from my mattress, looking for the thing that would convert this messy apartment into a home. I took it out and wrapped it around the window overlooking the small balcony of my one-room apartment. Fairy lights on my window were not just a source of illumination but a declaration to the world that I was ready, ready to live life and make this place my home.

Excerpted with permission from The Grammar of My Body: A Memoir, Abhishek Anicca, Penguin India.