“Well, three are kinda defunct. But, yea, four.”
“Well, okay, I guess”
“Are you both sure of this?”
Netflix produced an Indian romcom in 2018 called “Love Per Square Foot.” It followed the antics of a young couple pretending to be married to qualify for a housing scheme which would help them get a flat in Mumbai. The movie was a hit and it spawned several think pieces. It was discussed avidly in trains and people giggled among themselves that “pretending to be married” is the least of what most would do to own a piece of this city.
T and I are married. No pretence there.
My husband has always wanted to own a place in Mumbai. We are Mumbaikars. Born and raised in the island city. My parents had bought a 438 sq. ft. (carpet area, okay) apartment in the then-swamps of Kandivali in 1983. T was raised in a tiny 220-sq. ft. chawl room in Worli once-owned by the booming Century Mills.
Unlike T, I’ve never felt an intense desire to own real estate in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world. It didn’t make financial sense, I argued. Ever so practical, T promised he would never consider a place that wasn’t “VFM” – value for money. I gave my blessing, confident that the boxes being passed off as apartments in this city could never be considered “VFM”.
Which was the case for nearly four years. T would go “apartment hunting,” – poking around in dusty old buildings with moss-covered exteriors, pretentious show flats in bourgeois neighbourhoods and unfinished skeletons in the suburbs.
He found potential candidates by poring over Google maps looking for relatively empty patches in Mumbai and then clicking around to see if there are buildings facing the relatively empty space.
He was happy foraging apartments across the city and he never took me along. I would get involved only if he had a “good feeling” about a place. T’s “good feelings” were quite practical — pricing, size, location, view, future value appreciation, flat layout, facilities, conveniences, etc.
Of the approximate 60 flats he shortlisted online, 15 made the cut for a visit by him and only two qualified for me to take a look.
“It’s a 2BHK. Its………………… nice”
“Why did you hesitate?”
“Why don’t you see it first?”
“What’s the ‘but’ T?”
“Let’s go and see it.”
“I don’t like this.”
“Arre it’s nearby. Baghun tari ghe (Take a look atleast)”
“A balcony. Nice.”
“Yes, madam. All rooms have balconies. Even Sir liked that.”
T was dropping side glances at me since we stepped foot in the place with the realtor. Instead of relaxing and getting a feel of the apartment, I was focused on trying to dig out the factor that made him antsy of my approval.
“Is that… a hill?” I said staring outside the living room balcony.
Calling it a hill would be quite a stretch. It could qualify as a hillock or whatever the term is for a smaller mound. The protuberance was covered in luscious green blessed by the July rains. I gaped. T stood by my side, grinning and feeling very proud of himself.
I gawked some more. Any Mumbaikar reading this must have also taken a pause. It is nothing short of shocking. Having big patches of wild greenery – whether flat or jutting out from earth – in front of your apartment would be a big green check next to any dream apartment checklist.
Next up: no building blocking line of sight. From one bedroom you could see a flotilla of fishing boats and ships on the creek with a tiny island in the distance. From another was a “city-view,” with the Parel behemoths rising in the distance.
I was enamoured. I hopped from one room to another, heading directly to the balconies and staring out. Feeling the breeze. I had good feelings about the place. I turned and grinned at T.
His smile dimmed a bit and whispered out of the corner of his mouth to not alert the realtor, “You might want to take a look at the ground as well.”
I stopped smiling. I hate looking down from heights. Especially from higher floors. I looked down. There was a road. I was confused until I saw T subtly tilting his head to the left. I turned my head.
There was a graveyard.
“Ok, that might be an issue”
He turned right while looking down. I followed his sight. There was another graveyard. I didn’t understand. I looked left again. Turned and looked right. Looked down. There was the road. Squinted. Both looked different.
“Wait, is it the same graveyard?”
“No. They are different. The one on the left is Christian. The one on the right is Sunni.”
Ah, yes, the tombstones. “Oh. So, then, two graveyards.”
“ARE YOU KIDDING ME? WHAT ELSE IS THERE?” (Yea, fuck whispering. I was beyond that now.)
“There’s also a Chinese cemetery”
I was now glaring at T. He was back to grinning. “Four balconies though,” he said enthusiastically.
“And three cemeteries”
“Well, four actually. There is an Armenian cemetery next to the Chinese one. It’s apparently quite nice. There are articles on it. Called Ba’hai Gulistan. The Armenians believe that their souls should be buried in gardens. Very nice na?”
“Well, one actually. Three are not functional now.”
*long silence while we contemplated the very-green-smaller-than-a-hillock terrestrial pimple*
“They are never going to agree to this.”
“Well… feel mine will. Yours……..”
This is a story of privilege.
Mumbai real estate is fucking expensive. Very-fucking-expensive. Unbelievably-fucking-expensive. We are in middle of a real estate slump right now and it’s still very-fucking-expensive. Even the most disconnected-from-reality Mumbaikar will talk passionately for hours on his feelings for the city’s real estate scene. It is a very sensitive topic and very close to Mumbaikar hearts. Everyone believes they are an expert. And they probably are, because everyone, at some point, clicked the “buy” instead of “rent” tab on housing websites and pored through it. Or they were part of heated family discussions where someone is ranting about the “extremely evil builder who is connected to so-and-so politician” and “he bought a flat because everyone knows they have black money” etc
There are plenty of divergent views on Mumbai real estate. However, every person – rich or poor – agrees on three points:
1) Mumbai real estate is very-fucking-expensive
2) Real estate developers, or builders as they are colloquially known, are crooks of the highest order
3) You cannot buy real estate in Mumbai unless you are incredibly privileged.
T and I are not self-made-rich. We do well. But left to our own devices, we would NEVER be able to buy any apartment of any size in this city.
Enter, the parents.
Unlike me, T shares an extremely weird relationship with his parents. They trust him. Shocking, I know.
His parents were going to part-finance the apartment their only progeny wanted to buy. My parents were not financing but everyone involved knew that an approval from my extremely-strongwilled-and-feminist-but-will-never-accept-she-is-one ultra-religious mom was indispensable to the entire venture.
Naturally, T and I unanimously decided not to tell her anything until we dotted our i’s and crossed our t’s.
“We liked a place.”
“Finally. Great,” T’s mom was overjoyed. We had hemmed and hawed on apartment-purchasing for a long time. “Both of you liked na? Not just him?”
“Yes, I also liked it.”
“Wonderful. How much is it.”
“Well, they showed us a 2BHK, but we liked the 3BHK better. It’s a stretch but it’s a comfortable stretch.”
“Great, so nice. How much is it?”
“There’s this thing.”
“There are some graveyards nearby.”
“Some?” T’s devout mom asked.
“Well, three are kinda defunct. But, yea, four.”
“Well, okay, I guess”
“Are you both sure of this?”
“There are four balconies, Aai,” T said enthusiastically. I wanted to bean him with my tea-cup. He saw my expression and tempered down for a second and then notched it right up again, patting my thigh reassuringly.
“It’s a kabristan,” my mom said.
“So?” I retorted ready to fight.
“Well… I kind of feel it’s not a big deal. If it was one of ours, there would be a lot of smell all the time. Right?” T’s mom remarked softly, looking at neither of us.
I stared at her and burst out laughing. My mom was shocked into silence.
Practicality, thy name is a Mumbaikar
“How the hell did you agree to this?” my sister, M, remarked.
“I was seduced by the natural light and the wind,” I replied grumpily.
“You do realise there are FOUR graveyards, right?” M enquired raising her eyebrows.
“Yes, yes I know. Can everyone please stop repeating it,” I whined.
Unlike my mom, my sister had a different reason for pointing out the neighbourhood.
I am terrified of ghosts. I don’t care for your rational explanations. I’m a scientific person but everyone has their irrational beliefs and mine includes being terrified of something that I’ve never personally seen and whose existence is not scientifically proven till date. I don’t watch horror movies.
‘I Am Legend’ is the last horror movie I watched and didn’t sleep well for more than a month after that. (Yes, I know, it’s not a horror movie but zombies-from-a-virus are just a step away from the evil corporeal beings okay)
“Think of it this way. If a ghost does visit us, imagine all the authentic recipes we will get,” said T, with a smirk.
Change of plans. Forget the flat, I would like to re-think the marriage.
“What’s that sound?”
“The lift,” T said patiently, explaining the origin-of-sound for the one millionth time. We were settling down for the night post the housewarming puja. My mother and MIL spent a considerable amount of time warning the priests of dire consequences if their chanting didn’t “deep-cleanse” the apartment.
I spent the first week staring at the shadows the curtains threw on the ceiling-to-floor windows. Every time a curtain flapped; I held my breath to see whether it would reveal red-glowing-in-dark eyes. It didn’t.
A week after we moved in, I fell ill – not the cough-and-cold kind. Both ladies yelled at the priest demanding to know how I could possibly fall sick if the puja had been done properly.
I was as speechless as the unfortunate priest.
The AC stopped working in the second week of the lockdown. We were entering peak Indian west coast summer when Google Assistant says shit like “In Mumbai it’s currently 31 degrees [Celsius]. Due to the current humidity it feels like it’s 46.”
I sat in our “office space” as the cross-ventilated breeze kept me cool. Faint sounds from the TV indicated that my in-laws had settled in with their daily dose of Mahabharat or Ramayana.
The gentle breeze turned into a stronger wind.
I wasn’t sweating.
The fan was swaying. I sat on the bed tracking its movement while the wind made a wheeeeee sound. My hair was whipping my face and T was locking things down.
Cyclone Nisarga was heading our way.
I took selfie videos of my riotous hair – as if I was sitting next to one of those fans used to simulate storms in movies – and sent it to friends.
The hillock that turned yellow over the summer started sprouting hints of green. Over the next month it would transform into an emerald jungle – my spot of calm whenever things got too much to handle, which was quite often nowadays.
I don’t like debt. I don’t like being handcuffed to a job. One of my biggest issues with buying this apartment was that we needed to take a loan. An EMI to suffocate me.
We did our calculations, made our Excel sheets and I knew that the math showed the debt could handle my sudden, unexpected, out-of-ordinary salary transitions.
But, at the crux of it, I didn’t like its existence.
It’s day 103 of lockdown and expected to extend by at least 30 days as of now.
My uneasiness about the debt has been overshadowed by the gratefulness of possessing a larger-than-usual apartment overlooking a greener-than-usual space, and a lower-than-usual electricity bill thanks to non-stop stronger-than-usual winds.
This may change in future. The country’s economy is close to a collapse. I may lose my job. T may lose his. We may both lose our jobs. The Excel may not be able to handle the burden of a pandemic. I may have to bid goodbye to my spot of green.
But I’ll always remember that this weirder-than-usual place helped me survive at least 150 days of a seemingly unending, unbearable, soul-crushing period of my life.
I don’t know what’s next. But then who ever does?
(This is a guest post by a friend who lives in Mumbai)