“Please do not hang your underwear and female lingerie openly in the balcony,” a visibly embarrassed neighbour told Nirmal. The neighbour’s balcony faces that of Nirmal, a food connoisseur and among the best chefs in Kochi, who lives in the apartment with his girlfriend. “It is samskaram,” said the neighbour. A Sanskrit term that has many connotations—culture, tradition, heritage. It was the unending samskaram problems they faced in their earlier apartment that forced Nirmal and his girlfriend to move to their present flat.
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It can get even worse for single working women renting an apartment in Kochi. This writer, a freelance content writer, based out of Cochin for the past three years has faced such situations herself. For instance, our apartment association replaced the caretaker with a thug who started questioning everyone coming to our flat. He even started setting rules only for our apartment. No male guests after 7 pm, no stayovers (not even women), one day he even refused to let me enter my own apartment since it was past 11 pm!
The situation got worse when he got drunk in his duty hours and made derogatory remarks to a female friend about her dress. We were about to call the police when the association intervened and requested us not to for the sake of the apartment’s reputation. That, to the association, was more important than the woman’s safety.
In another incident, Suchitra (my flatmate) who had bought her first car was excited to avoid the daily hassle of public transport, till the apartment association ruined it all; apparently, they had a huge problem with the size of her car which jutted out a few inches from the small parking space. For two months, Suchitra was constantly harassed, with members trying to preach to her about the size of car she should have bought. Finally, she had to park her car in her office. Unable to find a decent house in the city, Suchitra recently took a transfer to Bangalore.
Nirupama, a single-mom to a 14-year-old girl, recalls her experience of living in a posh Kochi apartment where she faced sexual harassment from the security guard. The security guard accused Nirupama of being a hustler, as she – a single female with a teenage daughter – had male friends and relatives coming over. Nirupama, a successful entrepreneur who runs fashion boutiques in Kochi and Chennai, finally moved to Chennai. “Although Chennai is not necessarily safer for single people, there are a few localities in the city which do provide good accommodation along with privacy,” said Nirupama.
Anusree Pillai, a professional photographer who moved to Kochi from Thiruvananthapuram a year back, relates another shocking incident. “I requested the security guard to fix a leaking pipe in my kitchen; when he was done I offered to pay him a minimum wage but he brazenly offered me my money back and instead wanted me to allow him to get physical!” said Anusree. She immediately filed a case of harassment and the guard was blacklisted and fired. “Almost 99 per cent cases of sexual violence in India go unreported,” added Anusree, who is vocal on issues like embracing one’s sexuality, and against female body-shaming.
Most young tenants living singly, whether man or woman, face undue scrutiny and at times harassment, even abuse, from the apartment associations. Sukumaran, an upcoming musician in the city, shares the apartment with his younger brother, a final year law student. “A few neighbours started complaining to my landlord, making false allegations like we don’t segregate our garbage, we keep the lift door open and light firecrackers inside the house. My landlord, who stays in the USA, got worried on receiving such WhatsApp messages from association members. Thankfully she is a good friend of mine who spoke to me and figured out that these were false complaints made to force us to vacate her flat.”
Finally, Sukumaran had to go door to door, meet every association member and talk to them individually to put an end to their complaints. “It was evident that the association members had an internal conflict over whether to rent flats to bachelors or not, and we became the guinea pigs,” says Sukumaran.
“There is legal recourse for false accusations and such harassments, and tenants cannot be simply asked to vacate premises because association members wish any of them to,” said Arjun, Sukumaran’s lawyer brother. “Every Indian citizen has the right to reside anywhere in the country and discrimination is not allowed on the bases of religion, caste, sex, eating habits or marital status. The housing societies and apartment associations can frame their own laws and bye-laws, but if that infringes on the fundamental rights of an individual, it can be challenged in court.”
Who you are and what you do
Assumptions are also often made on the basis of the tenant’s profession. People in the creative line – in the movies, working in ad agencies and artists – are often rejected by landlords. From dress code to career choices to the friends they hang out with, everything is put under the scanner. If a young woman smokes and hangs out with men, her character is questioned and judged. Bachelors and spinsters looking for an apartment are told to go to working women/men hostels in the city, most of which are very poorly run and can be scary.
The NSS working women’s hostel in Palarivattom gave Latika a terrible experience, when she first came to Kochi to work in a media house. “My bed was cramped in the corner in a 2-bed sharing room which already had two females and I was the third. One common bathroom for two rooms was shared by a minimum of 6-8 people depending on the number of girls sharing one room! The food, the behaviour of the hostel administration, my entire experience with the place was pathetic,” says Latika who soon shifted to a friend’s house before finding her own.
It is not only bachelors and single woman who face regular moral policing from landlords and associations. Single parents, members of the LBGTQ community and even foreigners have similar stories to tell, but rarely get a platform to voice their problems. Sheethal Shyam is a known face, she is Kerala’s first transgender actor to hold an Aadhaar Card. Even after the Kerala government’s decision to recognise transgender as ‘Third Gender’, Sheethal faces issues finding a house on rent, because of her sexual orientation and the lingering social taboos.
Where the problem lies
Most ‘to let’ advertisements or calls to brokers specify that the apartment is available only for families or married couples. The next set of preferences is by profession, mainly doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers — anyone with a regular nine to five job is welcome. But professionals like artists, musicians, writers, freelance journalists are frowned upon.
One of the biggest issues that associations and landlords claim to have is with visitors to the flat from the opposite sex. “The biggest worry is the reputation of the apartment which otherwise gets compromised if unmarried men and women meet and spend time together inside a flat. Loud music, late night parties, large numbers of visitors, night stayovers, maintenance of flat and careless usage of water and electricity are the other major complaints that associations have against bachelors,” says an association member, requesting anonymity.
When asked if this was the case with all bachelors renting apartments, the answer from many associations was an honest “No”, and that the generalisation happens from a single or a couple of such experiences with past tenants. Also, by and large, meetings between the tenant and the association tends to settle matters.
Changing lifestyles and attitudes of the new generation are obviously at clash here with the older generation’s lifestyle and attitudes. “With the expanding start-up culture, flexible work timings, availability of more freelance opportunities, a millennial’s life is a balance of work and fun,” said Nirupama, who was a marketing professional in a company before starting her own business. More and more young people are opting out of their parents’ chosen and predictable path of education, career, marriage and retirement; millennials, who form 47% of the working population in the country (according to a report from consulting firm Deloitte India), are opting for a happier lifestyle over a fatter pay cheque. Many of them prefer entrepreneurial or non-mainstream careers, which also mean erratic hours.
Their concerns are also different, such as being able to eke out a different kind of work life- balance, and preferring to stay away from the rush of a metropolitan city in smaller towns. Kochi offers that kind of breathing space to such people, and came into the limelight since it launched the International bi-annual Art Festival ‘Biennale in 2012. This charming tourist city by the Arabian Sea and the backwaters is known for its rich heritage of art, culture, cuisine and in the recent past for its fast-growing IT sector.
Kochi is thriving with its new metro rail, solar-powered international airport, blooming music and art scene, a growing start-up culture, and along with it, a steadily growing population of young creative millennials. Unfortunately, local residents and home owners are yet to come to terms with the inevitable changes that this brings.