Planet Bombay

India's City of Dreams through the eyes of a Brit who calls it home

Moving House During a Pandemic — Part 1 of 2

The year 2020 will live in infamy. For many people around the world, it was an annus horribilis — a year of disappointment, frustration and grief, for some more than others.

D and I certainly had our share of setbacks and let-downs. But it wasn’t all bad. Looking back, there is plenty that we can be grateful for. Not least, the pandemic gave us the impetus to finally move house after toying with the idea on and off throughout much of 2019.

We ended up moving to Prabhadevi, a neighbourhood just south of Bandra, the suburb which had been our home for four years. There is much that we will miss about Bandra — in particular, it’s winding lanes brimming with street art, its quaint bungalows and old Portuguese churches, and its numerous eateries serving a variety of cuisines — but we are more than ready for a new chapter.

There was a time when we could barely imagine living anywhere other than Bandra. Few other places in the city could match its cosmopolitanism and dynamism. And somehow, despite a high level of gentrification, the former fishing village had retained a great deal of its Old Bombay charm, unlike many other suburban areas which had long ago capitulated completely to unimaginative high-rise builders. It was little wonder that it had gained a reputation as a magnet for the city’s café society and basked in the appellation “Queen of the Suburbs”.  

But there are downsides to living in a highly desirable residential area — crowds, horrendous traffic, and, worst of all, sky-high rents. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the ensuing financial precarity caused us, along with many other Bandra residents, to rethink our choice of address. Now that we couldn’t freely and easily socialise with our friends — our main reason for moving to Bandra in the first place — the high cost of living no longer seemed worth it.

Rather than see this as a cause for consternation, we welcomed the opportunity for a change of scene. For a while, we considered leaving Mumbai altogether — putting all our furniture in storage and moving to Goa, where life is more laid-back, Covid is less rampant, and rental apartments are much more affordable than in Mumbai. Since D and I were both working remotely, there had never been a better time to up sticks and live by the beach.

But then the owner of a flat in Prabhadevi which we had been eyeing for a while called to inform us that she and her husband had gone back on their plan to sell the property, presumably because the market was in the doldrums. She promised to let the place out to us. What’s more, D was able to negotiate a very reasonable rent — lower than what we were paying for our Bandra flat even though we would be upgrading to a bigger space in a newer and better maintained building.   

This was an opportunity that was too good to miss. But moving house in Mumbai is a headache at the best of times, never mind when the city is grappling with a major health crisis. What follows is an abridged account of a somewhat chaotic month.  

Prabhadevi skyscrapers, Mumbai.
Prabhadevi skyscrapers rise above a slum.

September 30th    

I went to see our landlord yesterday to hand him a letter officially notifying him of our wish to withdraw from the lease agreement, as he had requested, and to pick up a cheque for our deposit. He had offered to return our deposit before the moving-out date so that we’d have enough funds to buy furniture for our new place. He was at pains to point out that this was highly irregular but that he knew what it was like to be under financial strain and hence could empathise with us. As noted in a previous blog post, he had grown up in extreme poverty before finding his feet as a successful businessman.

“Don’t worry, the cheque won’t bounce,” he said, thereby introducing a doubt that had not been in my mind before.

After he’d scrutinized the letter and got me to go over the details on the cheque, we sat and chatted about his grown-up children in the United States. I told him that I have a brother stateside and this fact seemed to please him. He views America as the best place in the world to live and he has always been a little baffled by my decision to settle in India, considering the options that are open to me as a Westerner.  

I made a remark about American politics — something about how it is becoming increasingly polarised. My point was that even the great US of A, the promised land for many Indians seeking a higher standard of living, is not without serious problems.

“But you are a Christian,” he said matter-of-factly. It was a throwaway remark but my landlord had touched on a troubling fact — that Muslims, like himself, do not enjoy the same sense of security as Christians in today’s America. In response, I suggested that identity politics is bad for everyone insofar as it destabilises society, as the civil unrest following the death of George Floyd showed. He conceded that America has problems, like all countries, but he insisted that trouble can always be avoided with a little “common sense”.   

Eventually I got up to leave. And then he did something I don’t recall him ever doing before due to his arthritis — he got up to walk me to the door. While I waited for the elevator, he wished me the “best of luck”. It suddenly occurred to me that this was farewell — that the remaining formalities would be handled by his wife or their broker.

“Will I see you again?” I asked.

“Inshallah,” he replied, smiling.

October 1st

Today we went to Chembur to sign and register the lease agreement for our new place. We met the landlady, Mrs G, on a busy pavement outside a small sub-registrar’s office wedged between two shops selling pet fish.

In Mumbai brokers are usually hired to liaise between property owners and tenants, in exchange for a fee equivalent to a month’s rent. But D and Mrs G already knew and trusted one another as D had rented her apartment with two other young professionals a few years ago. Hence, there was no need for a middleman.

We had to wait a while before entering the office as the maximum permitted number of occupants had been reached. Heavy traffic thundered down the road beside us while we shuffled back and forth to get out of the way of passing pedestrians and the occasional curb-mounting biker.

When the office was finally ready to let us in a man read our temperatures with a digital thermometer and attempted to spray our hands with a bottle of household surface cleaner. Despite his assurances that the blue liquid in the bottle was in fact hand sanitizer, we insisted on using our own.

The office was a cramped, unventilated space barely wider than a train carriage and roughly as long. Half the space was occupied by keyboard-jabbing clerks. In all, there were about 12 people in the office, including those of us sitting in the waiting area. My eyes watered as I stifled a cough. And I repeatedly had to tuck my legs in to make way for people passing up and down the length of the room with sheaves of paper in hand.

A large wall-mounted screen mirrored the computer of one of the data entry clerks so that the registrants (as well as any identity thieves who happened to be sitting in the waiting area) could easily see their personal details being entered into the online registration form. Incense wafted from a shrine on a shelf above our heads.

Official business in Mumbai usually swallows up an inordinate amount of time. I was fully prepared to lose an entire afternoon to the registration process. But on this occasion, we didn’t have to wait too long, presumably because there were fewer registrants than usual due to Covid.

Once the form had been submitted, we handed over the relatively modest INR1,500 registration fee, relieved that we had avoided having to pay a hefty brokerage. The three of us lingered for a few minutes outside the office making small talk, and then we hailed rickshaws and went our separate ways.

October 5th

I’ve been making daily trips to the new apartment to supervise a team of painters.

Apparently, the society of the building has informed Mrs G that workmen are not supposed to be entering the premises due to the fact that there are Covid cases on the second floor. But since the painting had already started by the time Mrs G was notified of the situation, we have been given permission to get the job finished. D has warned the painters to be especially careful when passing the quarantined apartment.

Today, on the way back to Bandra, my Uber driver stopped opposite the gold-tipped Siddhivinayak temple and got out of the vehicle to offer up a quick prayer. The 200-year-old temple is a major landmark and one of the city’s most revered Hindu sites. Cab drivers will often pay their respects when passing it. For some, the ritual has become so ingrained that they don’t even slow the car down while taking a moment to beseech the blessings of Ganesh with head bowed and palms pressed together.

Siddhivinayak Temple, Prabhadevi, Mumbai.
The Siddhivinayak Temple is a five-minute walk from our new place.

October 8th

This evening we had a meeting with the society of the Prabhadevi building. This is standard procedure when moving home in Mumbai. Such meetings usually involve being cross-examined by a group of stuffy old men who want to know what your religion is, what your marital status is, what you do for a living, whether you have any pets, what your dietary practices are, and so on.

During D’s previous tenancy in the building, one of her flatmates had been taken to task for having her boyfriend over too frequently. This is fairly typical — in Mumbai, building societies often assume the role of moral police.

On this occasion, though, the society men were friendly and didn’t probe too much. There were warm greetings all round, although no handshakes on account of the pandemic. There were chuckles when we realised the absurdity of having an introductory meeting with our faces covered and we briefly removed our masks so that we could all see who was who.

The chairman quickly went through the formalities, collecting copies of our ID cards and the lease agreement and outlining a few ground rules — no loud parties, no loud repair work between the hours of 2pm and 4pm, no watering plants in window grilles unless trays are in place to prevent dripping, and so on.

The society advised me to inform the police of my change of address, being a foreign resident. I explained that my OCI (permanent residency) card made me exempt from the police registration requirement for foreigners, as far as I was aware. But to put their minds at ease, Mrs G said her husband would make an enquiry at the local cop station.  

On that note, the meeting was concluded and we all went our separate ways.

After the meeting, D and I went up to our new apartment to check up on the renovation work. The workmen said everything was done, but a quick survey revealed that some jobs had either not been done at all or had not been done to a satisfactory standard. The plumber had not fixed the drain in the shower properly and the electrician had neglected to install one of the requested sockets. There were a couple of smudges on the freshly painted walls and some of the tube lights had paint daubed on them.

D pointed out the shoddy workmanship to the contractor, a short, wiry fellow whom she has done business with on several occasions. But rather than getting the problems fixed, the man busied himself with dismantling a large sofa-bed which D had promised to give him in addition to his fee.

The sofa-bed was an ancient, bulky piece of furniture belonging to the landlady, who had given us her permission to get rid of it. The thing was far too big to remove in one piece, so the contractor was using hammers and screwdrivers to rip it apart, with help from the plumber and the painter. If restored to a good condition, the sofa-bed would probably be worth more to the contractor than a month’s pay.

But it was so solid and so massive that it took three men a good chunk of an hour and a great deal of grunting and sweating to reduce it to a state in which they could carry it down the stairs and load it onto a waiting truck.

The focus and determination of the men was something to behold. When at last they had stripped the sofa-bed down to its constituent parts they lugged the pieces away in one final burst of exertion, leaving strips of upholstery and rusty nails in their wake. Before leaving, the painter touched up the smudged areas, but the other issues could not be fixed there and then for one reason or another. The contractor, looking rather sheepish, assured us that he would send workmen round to do the outstanding jobs within the coming few days.

To be continued in the next post

Sam

“I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.” — L Smith

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