On a recent visit to the country, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing made some pithy remarks about problems in our housing sector. Among other concerns, she spoke about the discrimination faced by marginalised groups in gaining access to housing, including Muslims. A study by a UN institute released last week also confirmed that Muslim applicants find it more difficult than others to rent a house in Delhi, Gurgaon and Noida.
As most of us who live in Mumbai know, this is old news. Every few months or so there emerge media reports about a Muslim person being denied an apartment in an affluent high-rise, or the tacit boundaries of “vegetarians-only” enclaves. That’s just the way things are, part of the urban design we have accepted, like the grills on our windows and the cars parked on the pavements.
As one half of a Muslim couple, I have accumulated my share of horror stories and ridiculous excuses. I have also encountered a few straight up “Sorry, no Muslims”, over the decade I have rented a house in this city. It is frustrating and humiliating, yet it is only part of the picture.
‘When you are Anyone’
A few years ago I was searching for a place for a visiting friend, who would stay in Mumbai for a month. I ended up accompanying a middle-aged couple on a tour of various tiny apartments scattered across the suburb of Andheri, in the area called Lokhandwala.
The couple leased out these rooms for a few weeks at a time, mostly to people who were in the city for medical treatments. Everyplace we went, the man walked while rattling an exceptionally large bunch of keys. One stop was at a large, newly-built complex that was only partly occupied, and already looked desolate. The elevators didn’t work, the water supply was erratic, the flower beds were baked dry and there were piles of gravel and building material still lying around the grounds.
In the foyer of the building, we saw three young men slouching past, wearing tight T-shirts that hugged their gym-toned bodies. They appeared to be aspiring actors, a common enough sight in this part of the city that houses several TV studios and film production offices. Their presence sparked a telling response from my guide, who eyed them with distaste. “People in this area are so greedy,” he said, shaking his fat bunch of keys. “They will rent to anyone." That is what renting in Mumbai makes you – an Anyone.
Always in the periphery
From my very first day in Mumbai, I have lived in this peculiar pocket of the city – the stretch of the western suburb of Andheri that is dense with people who moved to the city to work in the entertainment or media industry. Ten years ago, each time I stepped out onto the streets of my neighbourhood, I was surrounded by people on the make: Young actors hustling young directors, knots of men and women squatting at tea shops next to tony coffee chains, or occupying the steps leading upto malls till late at night.
Today, the bulk of this crowd (or their contemporary equivalents) seem to have moved away, perhaps to places like the desolate complex I saw. To rent a house in this way is to always exist on the edges, in more ways than one. It is to live in an apartment with a view (if there is a window) of something incomplete and under construction, to traverse metal sheets and gravel on your way home. It is to live with a brittle sense of temporariness – across agreements and contracts, across rent agreed upon every 11 months. It is to recognise the fraught nature of your own desirability as a tenant.
This reality may rise or fall depending on your income levels and markers like faith, marital status and caste. There are shades to this experience, just as there are different experiences in this massive city. But fundamentally, being a tenant from any of the less than optimum categories often means agreeing to be a wraith, to being less than a complete person.
At the end of my first year in Mumbai, I blithely decided to look for “a nicer place”. In the hair-raising process of house-hunting that followed, I trailed a broker to an apartment occupied by a young couple and their infant. The rooms were littered with their half-packed belongings. The broker told me to just step over their bags to examine the rooms. The family was being forced to move at short notice as their rent had been increased drastically. I left the house feeling absurdly but irrevocably guilty, complicit in their eviction, though I knew it could well happen to me one day.
The compulsion to exclude
When I moved to Mumbai I was in my 20s, working my first real job, and taking a casual interest in articles about the relative merits of renting vs buying. As real estate prices have moved higher and higher, this interest has become increasingly academic. Buying a house in Mumbai means many things besides the material fact of becoming a homeowner. It is a measure of success and settling in, a way of staking claim to the city, a welcome shift from the exhausting cycles of moving around, to stability.
For some, this ownership translates into a need to erect more barriers, as though to possess even a small part of this hotly contested city, you need to dispossess someone else. In a swish housing society of almost 200 apartments, I was told once, an overwhelming number of home owners had decided to bar unmarried men or women as potential tenants. Only a couple of people had protested this decision. Not because it was unfair, but because they lived abroad, and were fine with renting to Anyone.
As a writer working in these temporary spaces, it seems increasingly clear to me that there are hidden costs in the transaction of being a tenant.
Renting in Mumbai comes with a set of rules, a code of conduct. It involves a modulation of manner and tone, a need to make yourself appear non-threatening. It means speaking more carefully than you’d like, not complaining too much, ensuring that your presence, or the appearance of your family or guests does not cause discomfort to anyone in your building. (Too many burqas on the premises, I was once told, cause property rates to fall). It requires a daily negotiation as to the degree of inconvenience or injustice you are willing to absorb, for the continued luxury of living in a home at least partly of your choosing.
I once spoke a young Muslim man who had made his money in the Gulf and who wanted to invest in a flat in Mumbai, the city he called home. He told me about a colony he saw near where I live, a place with tidy gardens and freshly painted swings, and security guards and a walking track. “It seemed like a posh society but I saw ladies walking around in naqaabs (veils) so I thought ‘It seems to be open for us’,” he told me.
He contacted a broker who found an apartment, but the sale didn’t go through. “They didn’t want to sell to a Muslim”, he told me, and his voice held no resentment, not even curiosity. What had aroused his wonder was not being shut out, but the possibility that a place like this, marked by what he called poshness, could be open to people like him. I remember the note of surprise in his voice as he told me that; it’s as sharp as a shard in my memory. “Perhaps”, he continued, as an explanation to himself, “the people I saw were just renting.”