We were a landlord’s worst nightmare - a sitcom gone horribly wrong. Two single Muslim girls, a single Muslim boy, single white girl (nationality doesn’t matter, white skin is white skin) and a homosexual boy (his religion/regionality/identity doesn’t matter past that) all in our 20s.
I had read about this occurrence; a vague sense of mistrust and expectations for tenants to constantly appease, that exist across the country, more so in the cities. I’d heard about it from my parents over the years while we shifted homes on various occasions around New Delhi. My sister experienced it as well when she shifted to Mumbai, a city she’s resided in for almost four years now. But hearing about it is different. The short-lived discomfort I might have felt while witnessing media outrage over a woman being denied housing for being single (as exclaimed by Konkona Sen Sharma in a tweet), and even Emraan Hashmi’s outcry against a Bandra-based housing society’s rejection on the basis of his religion definitely pricked. But it’s easy to theorise over the matter, to debate and cry discrimination pointing fingers in all directions. It wasn’t long before theory became reality when I shifted base to the city myself.
It all began with a deadline. Two flatmates/friends, my sister and I were teetering on the verge of homelessness unless we could find a home, meet the landlords, hit a deal, pay brokerage and deposit, get through registration, get packed, transported and unpacked within a span of 15 days. And it is every bit as tedious as reading that complete sentence was.
When it comes to house-hunting in this city, you prepare yourself for trade-offs and compromises. You’re constantly rearranging your list of priorities at the back of your mind with each house that your broker shows you. Do I live close to office? Do I stay in Bandra and burn holes in my wallet for a tiny hovel, or opt for larger rooms at a lower rent and just suck it up to bear the long commute? Do I choose a place with natural light and good ventilation on the 5th floor with no elevator, or have walls ridden with water seepage mould? The best part, so to speak, is that it really doesn’t depend on you, it’s not a decision you take, but rather an ‘opportunity’ granted by the landlord, while a sense of indebtedness looms over you for the space you’ll now be paying for.
It seemed to me that every first meeting with the landlord is set up as a game to please. You find yourself constantly altering your tone of voice and manners, dressing in a certain manner, and of course, being agreeable and courteous through and through, all the while what you’re basically sitting in is an interrogation.
Are you single? Will you be having lots of people over? When are you getting married? No single people—read: working females in most cases—no foreigners, no ‘media’ people and, what we were personally faced with, no Muslims. Religion became our group of misfits’ biggest hurdle, although in the past, unmarried couples and/or mixed-gender single’s living together, and foreigners were seen as the bigger issue. In time, we started to hear every possible excuse and explanation from the no-non-vegetarians-allowed to the much more direct “they don’t want to rent to Muslims.” That’s the one that came to scar the most.
I come from an open-minded, liberal home; I’m a non-believer and don’t really buy into the idea of a God. I have no interest in ‘sacrificing any goats’ and I certainly didn’t choose what religion I was going to be born into, even if I take no issue with it. I like to imagine I would have felt much the same even if i’d been born into another. Never have I been made to feel so aware of my religion before, be it through school or college. You could even say that a majority of my friends have been Hindus, throw in a Sikh or two here and there, but it seems that I live in a country where your surname holds more weight than a ship-anchor, pulling you towards deeper and deeper profiling. My name, so ‘obviously Muslim,’ linked me to an identity imposed upon me by other people. It’s not about who you are, but more about who you are perceived to be as soon as you say “hello my name is...”
It’s not just religion either, the ‘isms’ spread their tentacles all the way to region and caste too. While the no-Muslim policy has been the case in Mumbai for a while now, even with the Maharashtra Cooperative Societies Act (MCA) in place, A UN study has confirmed that Muslims have a harder time than others to rent in Delhi-NCR as well. But in a country where Right to Equality exists in the constitution, shouldn’t it be illegal to base such judgements and denials on a religious basis? Idealism is best backed by constitutional rights.
‘Take them to court! Sue them all!’ We cry and we shout, but let’s face it, who has the time or patience? We all know how our courts work, the time, money and years it takes. I’d love to depend on our justice system, but realistically, we all needed to make a living, find a home and get back to work. I was debating the same topic when I caught up with two lawyers-in-the-making friends on a visit back to my home in New Delhi. After the initial horror at facing such discrimination had passed, one of them agreed with my annoyance - “this doesn’t happen to people like ‘us’ (read: social class)” - while the other brought up an interesting point. “A person should be able to choose who they prefer and want to have living in their house, in their life, anything really,” she stated frankly, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. “You’d want to choose who you share a room with right?”
But when does personal preference become discrimination? How I see it, it would be when it begins to infringe upon a person’s rights. India isn’t exactly the land of on-ground legal enforcement, and the more I think about it, the more preference and discrimination begin to overlap, with the former serving as a guise for the latter in many situations. While it would be easy to blame this all on India’s on-going Hindu-Muslim contentions and bias, it isn’t just a matter of religion. My previously mentioned homosexual flatmate had now gone his own way, but not before mentioning that his prospective landlord was pleased when he inferred that even though he was a single male, he was a Brahmin (the flatmate himself had no idea what his caste was). There are countless stories of Hindus being denied housing in predominantly ‘Muslim’ societies too; men being rejected because the owner only wants girls, with caste being a strong contender to the no-muslim policy for rejection in India’s housing sector.
It would appear that no demographic is spared the trials and tribulations of the house-hunting process. Even if they allow you, you’re warned by third-parties, namely brokers, that they’ll give you a hard time in the future and will look for a reason to kick you out. Why live under such a microscope? Housing discrimination is a complicated issue that requires close study and formal statistical analysis that are far beyond my comprehension and abilities. Anecdotes and unfortunate tales such as mine cause an uproar, but like the others, it has eventually faded into the past as we all got back to the struggles of daily life and just getting by. Let’s just say that when you reach a point when you see your religion is holding back the other people you live with from finding accommodation, it stings deep enough to now always be aware of the fact that I am, in fact, a Muslim.
Photograph used in feature image by Hindustan Times