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Bandra Diaries: No room for single women

Housing societies in Mumbai shun unmarried women.

young Indian woman at Leopold Cafe
A young Indian woman laughs while sitting with friends at the Leopold Cafe after it on Dec., 02, 2008 in Mumbai, India. Young women today blend the traditional and the modern. They may touch their parents' feet when they go home, but they also enjoy nights out on the town. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

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

MUMBAI, India — Niharika Hanglem lists apartments like relationships.

They all had character, but none were the right fit. There was the Santa Cruz apartment in North Mumbai where the owner slept on the sofa. There was the Andheri one-bedroom she crammed herself into with three other women, the Kandivali flat where she turned the bedroom into a closet and another Andheri apartment where she crashed with her boyfriend whom she had to claim was her husband.

Niharika now lives in Bandra, another suburb in North Mumbai popular among young people, pretending to be her landlord’s relative in order to skirt the housing society that would otherwise kick her out.

In skinny jeans and a plaid blouse, with a gold pendant shaped like the Hindu god Ganesh hanging from her neck, Niharika looks like she'd make an innocuous tenant. But Niharika is single, and single women have a hard time making headway with India's housing societies, which get to decide who can and cannot own and rent apartments.

Many housing societies in Mumbai refuse to accept tenants who are single women, according to real estate brokers and apartment hunters. Single men have a hard time too, they say, since bachelors are thought to throw parties, do drugs and make loud noise.

But single women have it worse. Many housing societies think single women are prostitutes and will use the apartment for sex work, according to real estate agent Kamal Behl, a partner at Home Search Consultants. The societies are often run by men from an older generation with a different mindset. They consider it unacceptable for young women to go out late, bring home boyfriends, drink and smoke.

The majority of Indian women go straight from living with their parents to getting married and moving in with their in-laws. But as more young women like Niharika put off marriage to pursue their career goals, they are migrating to cities like Mumbai.

Before moving into her place in Bandra, Niharika had to sign a long list of rules — no male visitors, no overnight guests, no parties. Her watchman gives her disapproving looks when she comes home late at night. And without her permission, her landlord moved a third young woman into the apartment, taking away Niharika’s living room.

It wasn't an ideal living situation, but Niharika couldn't afford to be picky with so few decent options.

“Sometimes I really do think if I got married I might be able to find a better house,” she said, half-kidding during an interview at a Bandra coffee shop one night.