Bandra diaries: Apartment hunting in India's posh suburbs

Editor's note: The Bandra Diaries is an occasional series that details life in today's India.

MUMBAI, India — In Mumbai, India’s financial capital, much of the middle class employs cooks and cleaners, drivers and even iron-wallahs. There’s no need to iron your own shirt when another will do it for you for just a few rupees.

Labor comes cheap in India, a country with 1.2 billion people, about 40 percent of whom live on less than $1.25 day.

But try to rent an apartment in Mumbai, and it’s another matter entirely. With not enough land and a constant influx of people, Mumbai’s lack of affordable housing forces more than half the city to live in slums.

Even those with money find it difficult to land a decent apartment without breaking the bank. This is especially true in Bandra, a suburb in North Mumbai that has become increasingly popular with young professionals and expatriates for its central location, open-minded reputation and shopping and entertainment options.

I set out to find what you could rent for about 35,000 rupees ($760) a month in Bandra West, the part of the suburb that sits next to the Arabian Sea. The short answer: Not much.

In the most desirable parts of the suburb, apartments in that price range are so small they feel like they should belong to strapped New York University students, not professionals living in India.

Close to the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, which is a bridge that connects the suburb with Mumbai’s midtown and shortens commuting time to offices in South Mumbai, a real estate agent takes me to visit a 550-square-foot apartment in a dingy old building overlooking a main road.

The apartment feels dark and depressing and rings with the noise of traffic. It comes unfurnished without a refrigerator, stove or air conditioning.

A few days later, we drive down tree-lined Carter Road that runs along the sea, turn right at a corner paan stall and visit an apartment in another of Bandra’s popular locations. This ground-floor one-bedroom comes furnished with a single bed, pull-out sofa in the living room, old television and small refrigerator.

But again, the apartment feels more like a college dorm than a 35,000-rupee pad. The current renter’s mother, visiting from Delhi, heats milk over a portable gas stove in the kitchen area. She has to leave the area, though, in order for me to inspect it and slip into the bathroom. It's too small to fit more than one person at a time.

In the bathroom, which is even smaller than the kitchen area, I would have to stand directly next to the toilet, brushing up against it, to use the shower.

And yet, despite the relatively high price tag and low quality, there is huge demand for apartments like this, say real estate agents who work in Bandra.

“You have to take it, there’s no choice,” said Bosco Barretto, founder of the real estate company Metropolis. He has been working in Bandra for more than two decades and says he has seen prices for rentals increase tenfold.

Barretto says 40 percent of his clientele in Bandra are foreigners. Many no longer want or can afford to live in areas like Malabar Hill and Breach Candy in South Mumbai, where prices are almost three times that of Bandra, he says. In addition, foreigners and singles moving to Mumbai are drawn to Bandra’s happening night life and inviting residents.

“South Bombay is considered to be a little snobbish compared to Bandra,” he said. In Bandra, which has been nicknamed the Queen of the Suburbs, “anyone talks to anybody.”

Bandra isn't entirely a world away. Like most of Mumbai’s suburbs, the streets overflow with auto rickshaws, continuously honking to get an inch ahead. Paan stalls line the roads, cows wander inside the train station and barefoot children beg, congregating at intersections.

But Bandra is also home to posh restaurants serving international cuisines, boutiques selling the latest Bangkok fashion, beauty salons offering bikini waxes and fitness centers where actresses work out to Bollywood tunes.

In the afternoons, professionals type away at their laptops while sipping cappuccinos at Gloria Jean’s Coffees or the Bagel Shop. In the evening, couples stroll along Carter Road, watching the sun set over the sea. And at night, the young fill the bars, drinking martinis and Kingfishers as they flirt and chat with friends.

In parts of Bandra that are farther from the sea, 35,000 rupees can get you a bit more space.

Off Linking Road, a busy commercial street lined with sandal stalls and retail stores like Nike and Reebok, I visited an older building with real estate agent Kamal Behl, a partner at Home Search Consultants, and an expat friend of mine who was looking for a place in the area.

We walk into the building, past the “Do not spit here” directions painted on the stairwell in English and Hindi, and Behl explains that older buildings — about 20 years old or more — have more space and higher ceilings.

This apartment comes furnished with two beds, a wooden sofa and chairs, metal dishes and a shrine in the kitchen. There's a painting of a Hindu god, a bookcase filled with an assortment of body oils, old newspapers and a stack of DVDs including Salaam Bombay and the Pink Panther. It has a tiny room with a toilet, a separate room with a shower head and a small ceramic sink in the hallway.

We load up into a rickshaw to continue our search, and Behl explains that many foreigners choose Bandra because its traditionally Catholic community has been more tolerant than conservative Hindu or Muslim communities in other suburbs.

Behl, clutching his mobile phone in one hand and sunglasses in the other, leads us into another building in central Bandra.

We walk in and immediately notice a major difference. The walls are freshly painted, the ceilings are high and the floors look clean. The air feels crisp, without a trace of mildew. The kitchen is a large stand-alone room with top and bottom cabinets. And at the end of a long hallway sits the bedroom with a queen-size, built-in wooden bed frame, an air-conditioner and a lovely balcony overlooking a tree-lined street.

The bathroom, like in so many apartments, could be the dealbreaker. But — score! It has a Western toilet, a separate shower area with room for a curtain and relatively new white tiles. My friend was practically speechless.

Behl says these apartments go fast, and you must be ready to put down a deposit. The men set up a time to meet with the owner.

But the next day, Behl calls with bad news. The apartment’s housing society does not care about my friend’s fancy multinational company. No Muslims allowed.

The spacious one-bedroom with a lovely balcony and modern bathroom for 35,000 was indeed too good to be true. At least for some.