Bandra Diaries: No room for single women

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.

Many argue the societies act like moral police, insisting that their tenants follow strict social norms.

“Here in India the family is such a strong institution. People always feel that if it’s a family, everything is falling into place. Anything beyond this invites lots of problems in the housing community,” said Madhumita Das, a senior technical specialist with the International Center for Research on Women.

Societies discriminate against unmarried women because they do not accept or want to encourage sexual relationships outside of marriage, she said.

“In Indian society men are allowed to do most things women aren’t,” said Sharin Bhatti, a culture reporter with the Hindustan Times who moved to Mumbai three years ago and has had great difficulty finding a place to live.

She said she faced harassment by a society after moving into an apartment with two other single women in Andheri, a suburb north of Bandra. Their neighbors would peer into the women’s windows and chastise them for having friends over, she said. The society president told them they were not allowed to drink or smoke because they were a bad influence on the neighbors’ children.

“And the funny thing is that guy used to smoke,” Sharin said with a laugh. “But he’s a man, he can do it.”

Seven months before their lease expired, the society told Sharin and her roommates they had to move out. The society served them notices and occasionally cut off their electricity and water supply — in the middle of the summer — until they left, Sharin said.

Sharin and her friends used a broker to find a new apartment. Brokers know which societies allow what types of people. Before an apartment hunt, they ask renters intimate details about their lives such as their dietary habits, religion, how often they go out and if they will have male visitors.

“It’s like visiting your gynecologist, and she asks if you’re sexually active and how many partners,” Sharin said. “You have to be honest.”

Niharika and Sharin both said that despite the difficulties in finding a place to stay, they want to live in Mumbai because it offers them the opportunity to pursue their careers and live independent lives.

“I want to live in Bandra,” Niharika said, noting that she could go to bars or clubs and walk around at night in a dress and not get harassed here. “I want to live this lifestyle. I want to be free.”