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Bandra diaries: Apartment hunting in India's posh suburbs

What can you get for 35,000 rupees (about $760) a month? Short answer: Not much.

Aerial view Mumbai
An aerial view of a central district of Mumbai, Dec. 22, 2006. (Arko Datta/Reuters)

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.”