Monday, March 12, 2012

Padhna manaa hai

(Another angry post, sorry. It's an issue that has affected me personally for pretty long, and I wish I could muster Ashish Shakya's kind of humor about it, but here it is, what I've wanted to say for all those years.)

A piece of paper circulated by the society secretary has been lying on the dining table for some days. It contains a list of rules and regulations for people living there on rent i.e. people like me and my husband. Not surprisingly, one of the rules states that no flats or row houses in the society may be rented out to students. Because students are not fit for living in a civilised housing society full of married people and families with kids. But wait, are none of those kids students themselves? Given that most of us have spent a good two decades of our lives as students, it’s a wonder our parents didn’t throw us out of their house long ago. Or didn’t get thrown out by the other peaceful residents of the society for keeping students in their house.

No wait, you say, when nice, genteel people refuse to have ‘students’ as their neighbours, they don’t mean the good little kids who have the decency to stay back and study in their own hometown. They mean those pesky little rascals from far-flung towns and states who travel all the way down to Pune, the glorious Educational Capital, to earn their degrees. Aha! The point emerges. So these boys and girls are denied the privilege of living in my exclusive neighbourhood not because they study. The subtext is, that you are not welcome in my neighbourhood because you don’t belong here. If you’re not from this state, this city, it proves beyond any doubt that you are a dirty, smoking, drinking, meat-eating, floor-littering, garbage-hoarding, never-bathing troublemaker. Keep your filthy, outer-state feet off my driveway; we had it washed last month!

If my young cousin, who recently migrated to Texas for his Masters, were denied an apartment in a conservative Texan neighbourhood, what would we call them? Racist, I guess. And yet it is we Indians who take racism and discrimination to a whole new level. In the film Bend It Like Beckham and later in Goal, when a football player of Indian nationality is abused on field and called a ‘ filthy Paki’, they fume, as we are no doubt expected to fume, not at the offensive tone used for someone from the sub-continent, but because someone had the gall to mistake us for Pakistani. Indians, despite their brown skin, are better people than Pakistanis, don’t they know? For further enlightenment, try confusing a Tamilian for a Malayali or a Bihari for a Bengali, a Punjabi for a Gujarati... you get the drift.

Anyway, back to the issue of tenants in Pune. It is fairly common practice in Pune to display a board outside ‘respected’ neighborhoods to the effect “No flats will be rented out to students and bachelors.” The reason, we are told, lies in the many and frequent occasions when young girls and boys, living hundreds of miles away from their families, suddenly find themselves free to eat, drink, smoke, watch, hear and wear what they want. Living unchaperoned among a bunch of friends of their own age, their irresponsible lifestyle becomes a botheration to the peace-loving people of the neighborhood. Besides, we are told, these youngsters ‘indulge in immoral activity’ i.e. they date, setting a bad example for the innocent kids in good families. And then there are always the unspoken cultural barriers. “These people are not like us,” someone will whisper to you, soon as they sense that you’re more, um, ‘like them’. There is something inscrutable and alien about someone so young whose parents let them stray so far away from home for the sake of an education or a job. Most of the peace-loving, family people have rarely stayed outside the cocoons of their own families, nor do they relish the idea of their own kids going anywhere that far (unless it’s a Masters Degree in an obscure American University or an on-site assignment we’re talking about. That’s a whole new level of pious).

Why does this issue affect me so much? Well because I’ve been one of ‘the others’ till less than a year ago, and I have experienced my share of bigotism. It’s funny how, just because I now live with a guy whom I’ve married with both families’ blessings, I can now comfortably get away with so many little things that would be held against me till so recently. Nobody complains about the late night TV, the guests, the sleepovers anymore. The watchman is no longer bothered about how late we come home at night, nor when we open the gates at ungodly hours in the morning.

Once when I was a student, a friend turned up at my flat rather late at night, with a fever and headache. I had her stay over, for which I got a fair amount of verbal lashing from the landlady. Of course I packed my bags and walked out within a week. Over the years and many times, I have shifted base over non-issues such as privacy and the right to have guests, none of which I seemed to be entitled to as a single woman. I was once even gently made aware of the additional water usage when there are too many guests.

It is true, irresponsible behaviour from a neighbor can be a nuisance in any place. But anybody can behave irresponsibly, and they often do; it is not a privilege limited to single people or students. So far in my present apartment, my sleep has only been disturbed by the loudspeakers blaring outside the society gates on public holidays, and once by the music playing during Navratri* in our society lawns. Nobody asked for my permission before playing that music. Someone stole the football flag my husband had put up on the car window, and though we don’t know who did it, we do not suspect the college kids in the building.

As for 'bad influence on little kids', this very evening, I saw a man walking two little kids home. He was scolding the girl, about 5 to 6 years old, over something that obviously bothered him much more than it did her. Perhaps he was trying to get her to confess to something that happened in school. When she paid no attention to his rebuke, he shouted, "Don't act innocent. Do you think I am a c...?" I am not sure which language he was speaking, but about that one word, I cannot be mistaken.

I don't know who that man was, nor whether he was related to the children or employed in the household. My first impulse was to go shout at him and call attention to the girl's mother and ask if she know the kind of language her daughter was being exposed to. I wish I had followed that impulse.

Anyway, I could go on and on (guess I already have). My only message to any civil, peace-loving family people who might accidentally read my blog is this: 

  1. Just because you've managed to raise a loan to buy a flat does not give you the moral superiority, nor the right to start throwing other people out of where they live.
  2. Discriminating against home seekers on the basis of their place of origin is bigotry. Please try to treat young people like you'd want your kids to be treated in a foreign country.
  3. Judging people on the basis of their marital status is offensive, intrusive and creepy. Some people stay single by choice, and they are perfectly normal people who deserve the same amount of privacy that you and I do, so kindly back off.
*I grew up in Gujarat, and I do not really mind the Garba. Hope the intent behind citing that example is not misunderstood.


  1. i don't know what took you so long to write tat... a plight tat all of us 'single students' have faced...

  2. Maybe the sudden respectability that comes with the 'married' tag makes me even more bitter about the situation. Marriage is wonderful, but I never thought of it as a precondition for basic dignity.

  3. Yeah, it does become very difficult for students sometimes. I guess its a problem not just in Pune but across many other "cultural" cities as well. Only difference is that they are working boys/girls fresh out of college.

    In my opinion, only those are moral, have a right to police others. If they speak abusive language in front of kids or behave irresponsibly (read infidelity), its like throwing stones at others from a house made of china.

    Some people mean well when they try to correct the so-called wayward kids, but more often than not, its just a generation gap. They correct just because they want to.

  4. "In my opinion, only those are moral, have a right to police others."

    @Shashi: That's actually where the problem begins. You see, most people who subscribe to moral policing do so because in their own worldview, they are themselves moral. This is true not just for house owners, but political leaders, religious activists, fanatics, jealous spouses, overbearing parents... you name it. A misplaced sense of moral superiority gives people the right to destroy public property on Valentine's Day or beat up girls in a bar.

    What parents should be teaching their children is not to judge everybody else by your own moral code. To understand that there are different lifestyles, different value sets, and they all function.

    Nobody has the right to moral policing, no matter how faithful you are to your wife or how nicely you speak.

  5. I have had some weird experiences as well.
    Our Society circulated new norms saying they wanted only families to stay on rental basis and not the bachelors.
    What they did not realize was that in Pune and specially baner,its difficult to get families who wanted flats on rent.
    Its the working single people who are in desperate need for a descent residence.
    The contradictory thing was that, families i my society created more nuisance than the bachelors, who lived peacefully without interfering in others business.
    What really blew my mind was that, 1 fine day i took the elevator and there was another lady in it from a different flat.
    She had the audacity to ask me after a year that how come you guys are still living here when the rest have vacated? To which I sternly replied, "Are you the owner and do i pay you the rent "Please do not bother asking again"
    I wish, the owner states certain guidelines rather than the entire society watching over you.
    Its highly irritating for sure, specially when your happy and engrossed in your own life and unexpected Society goons come and mess with you.
    I feel ,that may be, they are too jealous since we are happy and chilled, and they are not.
    Even legal system fails when it comes to the terms and conditions of the society people

  6. There is actually little the legal system can do to protect the rights of tenants as against home owners. In case of a conflict, it always seems wiser for everyone to side with owners than tenants, no matter what the facts of the case might be.
    A chapter in Suketu Mehta's Maximum City deals with the issue quite insight-fully, presenting the very real concerns of both home owners and tenants. The writer himself had his share while he was staying in Mumbai to research for his book.
    I do wonder what Suketu Mehta would have to say about 'bachelors not allowed'.