By Anoopa Anand
Naturally, this is all my fault.
When I was 26 years old and the first proposal arrived from a Decent Family, I had to say “no”. It was tragic. Arjun Thirumal (name changed for absolutely no reason) told me that the person he married would have to move in with him and his parents, because he loved his parents. I disclosed my love for my own family and asked him if he’d like to move in with us. Between Malleshwaram and JP Nagar lay a long and winding road paved with charming patriarchy and disarming upper castery. Arjun asked me for my photograph and horoscope. A wave of nausea washed over me and I politely excused myself from the call, so I could go break a wall with my hands. He never heard from me again. That’s why this is my fault. I did not sign up for this caste-appropriate breeding programme. I didn’t agree to changing my name or my address. Years later, Karma is still addressing the issue.
Address. Important word, that.
Ten years have passed since I refused Arjun’s offer of a new permanent address. Now 36, still single, still renting, still happy-but-who-cares, Karma – my old friend – has given me the exact kind of neighbours I imagine the Thirumal clan to be. I live in a quiet neighbourhood in the south of Bengaluru, in a very pretty building. It’s what lies beneath that is interesting and not just a little horrifying. Here’s an overview of the demographic, as obtained from a careful door-to-door analysis of my building. Please note that all numbers are an approximation to the closest whole number, in some places even a proud decimal, based on scant availability of fact-checkers and poor mathematical ability of the author:
|Total number of apartments||47|
|Percentage of “educated class”*||~40|
|Percentage married couples with or without offspring||95|
|Percentage living with senior citizens||~70|
|Single people living alone||Me|
* A term coined and used by thread-wearing, appal-bearing pillars of society and stalkwarts of our community.
Besides my criminal rejection of the Decent Thirumal Family, you should know that I committed another crime: I decided it was a good idea to work with rescued animals and I live with a few of them. With one cranky old terrier-something, one aging backyard breeder-rescued St. Bernard, one Indian Dog rescued from a gunny sack in a dumpster, and one epileptic foster dog, I’m not just single; I’m crazy-dog-lady single.
As someone who has lived in rented dwellings for over 11 years, I’ve been rejected by several prospective owners for either being single or living with animals. In May 2016, two weeks away from being homeless because of a landlord who had a change of heart about dogs, I made an appeal on Facebook. My current landlady reached out to me and told me she had just the place for me. She offered to show it to me, and it was. Beautiful, quiet, spacious, airy, with plenty of natural light, and lots of tree-covered lanes and bylanes in the neighbourhood where I could walk my dogs in peace. My landlady pretty much handed me the keys right then, but not without a parting disclaimer: “If you can handle your neighbours and ignore everything they’ll throw your way, you can live here as long as you want. Your dogs are great. They deserve a nice place.”
Here’s a sequence of events – just a handful of several several incidents – that describe what living here is like:
14th May 2016
The day I moved in. Rushing up and down trying to get the movers to move my stuff into the right house, I met three families. In a nutshell, here’s what each conversation was like:
“You’re moving in?”
“Where’s your husband?”
“I’m not married.”
“When are your parents moving in?”
“They have a place of their own. I’ll be living here alone.”
15th May 2016
The day I brought my dogs in.
“What are these?”
“You can’t live here. Dogs not allowed.”
“My landlady is okay with the dogs.”
“Building association won’t allow.”
“There isn’t such a rule.”
“We’ll see. Not allowed.”
30th Dec 2016
My sister and her husband were visiting and staying over for a night. As they wheeled out their luggage the next morning, a group of elderly women, making sure they were within earshot, said: “Yaar-yaaro bartharey…yaar-yaaro hogtharey…tch tch.”
(“Someone-and-all come…someone-and-all go…tsk tsk.”)
Early January, 2017
I was getting a grill gate installed outside my front door. Five men walked into the building carrying the gate. Within minutes, the Estate Manager came huffing and puffing up the stairs, horror writ large on his face.
“What is the matter, sir? Is everything okay?”
“Madam! (Looks at the workers. Confusion flitting across face, followed by embarrassment.) Oh. Sorry. Nothing.”
“You seem upset. Is everything okay?”
“I received a complaint that all kinds of men were entering your house. They wanted me to come and see what kind of business you are running.”
Late April-Early May, 2017
Realising that my lease was up for renewal, the Owners’ Welfare Association came at me hammer and tongs, emails and allegations, fire and lies. The accusations:
1.Her dogs bark.
2. She collects dog shit in bags and keeps them in her balcony.
3. Her dogs howl through the night because she doesn’t feed them or walk them.
4. She runs an illegal pet shop from her house, buying and selling dogs.
5. (When asked by my landlady to provide proof, since this last one was a serious allegation:) She, yaniki me, probably accepts surrogate means of payment.
It all boils down to that, doesn’t it. The surrogate means of payment. From the “jitters” they get every time someone visits me, to the Grillgate Scandal, to the illegal business. She’s single, lives alone, seems to make rent every month, lives with animals. How does a woman do all that by herself?
All these accusations were made by a bunch of ten men on an email thread. Not the building association, not all the families, just a bunch of ten men who decided it was okay to bully. In the many many mails that went back and forth, these men forgot that forwarding a mail to me means I’m privy to every private conversation they’ve had in that thread as well. One email from a man who doesn’t even live in the building simply suggested that the dogs are not a strong enough reason to evict me forcibly and they should accuse me of public nuisance instead. Clever little brain there. The only one that bothered to read up and find out that, by law, no Resident Welfare Association is allowed to ban a resident from living with pets.
So there it was. It wasn’t about the dogs. It wasn’t about the imaginary howling or poop collection unit. It wasn’t about the surrogate means of payment. All these were just toppings on their hate-pizza, one that had to do with someone who simply didn’t fit into their preferred demographic. It’s 2017, and we’re “celebrating” the first few months of a Muslim family ever having lived in a building that has been around for over a decade. Okay? Okay.
It wasn’t like I didn’t want to bow down and break/break free and run. It wasn’t like I didn’t consider moving out. I’ll be honest. Nine days of nonstop emails and accusations can make a grown woman think of living on the streets and succumbing to surrogate means of shelter. Instead, I printed out every email they sent, typed out a formal complaint, went to the police station, and filed a complaint of harassment and intimidation. I put my dogs in a boarding facility for over a week, so they’d be out of harm’s way, while I spent hours waiting at the police station, backed unwaveringly by my family, friends, and other animal welfare workers. A particular Sub-inspector was the silver lining to my otherwise nightmarish story. He was quiet and attentive and that’s how he heard me say the words “surrogate means of payment” and that’s when he lost his shit and that’s how my bullies were brought to justice.
When a gang of “senior citizens” whip out their smart phones in the police station and show pictures of me with a bunch of dogs, it gets creepy and it gets real. These men are not amongst my friends on Facebook, so they’d basically stalked my account and downloaded photographs of me. The policeman caught them every single time they lost their footing. Talks were had, compromises were promised on both sides, peace was made. The creepiest of the lot threw itself at my father’s feet in full view of the (gagging) sub-inspector.
Two months after the police complaint, “peace” looks a lot like social boycott. There is a mailing list for everyone who lives in the building. I’m no longer on it; I was removed from the mailing list. There are various WhatsApp groups where people can discuss building-related matters. I’m on none of them and never have been, since the groups are made entirely on the basis of who likes whom and who’s been around longest. Also to be noted, I don’t know of a single tenant who is on these groups, so I’m assuming these are Owners’ Welfare groups and not Resident Welfare groups. The senior citizens, who are also association members, have Hindu ceremonies and poojas to which they go door to door and invite people. I’m not invited. If there’s any maintenance work in the building, I have no way of knowing. If the water supply is going to be shut off for maintenance, it comes as a pleasant, surprising gurgle from my taps while everyone else has buckets of water that they’ve had the time to fill. A few times a week, someone goes into the room that holds the power switchboards and turns off the mains to my house. I have no way of knowing who does this, so I simply wait a few hours till I realise this isn’t a scheduled cut, and flip the switch back on. One woman loudly cautioned her four-year-old as I walked past, “Chee! Don’t go near her! She’s bad!”
In a building with 40 occupied apartments, I’m friends with a grand total of three families. One is a really good friend who adopted dogs from a shelter I volunteer with, thus becoming the second family to live in this building with dogs. The second family lives on my floor and, being privy to the peaceful existence of the inmates of my apartment, have extended silent support, often in the form of handfuls of chocolate at crucial points in my battles. The third are just a warm, sweet family who have been nothing but kind to everyone here and who are, sadly, moving out soon, taking their mouth-watering kitchen aromas to, hopefully, a kinder neighbourhood.
The bizarre, unacceptable, scary truth is that this is something that happens all the time. Several people I know – men and women – have a hard time finding accommodation because they’re “different”. People in relationships that are not bound by law. Single women. Single men. Several people from the LGBTQ community. Divorcees. There is unsafety in numbers, that’s for sure. Perhaps the saddest thing of all is how, every day, I see how close everyone is to being warm and kind. The little boxes of food sent between neighbours, the kids running in and out of each other’s homes, the cooing lady applying Savlon on a the bruised knee of a neighbour’s child. It’s all there. I truly believe that, as a species, kindness comes to us instinctively. All we have to do is widen our circles or at least accept the square pegs for who they are.
To the 92.5 percent in my building who think it’s okay to practise social discrimination because someone made choices different from yours:
That I wear my hair short, is not rebellion. That I live alone, is not rebellion. That I live and work with animals, is not rebellion. That I’ve arranged my life in such a way that I don’t need ANYBODY’S permission to plan my day, is not rebellion. It’s just my story.
Your wearing the badge of self-appointed sanction-giver. That’s your story. Your eyes peeping into my house, stalking me on social media, wondering how I make money, and thinking fond thoughts of non-monetary payment modes… that’s your story. I’m grateful that the writers who created my character were kinder and had more soul than the writers who created yours.
1. Pick another writer.
2. Weave a more noble script.
3. Wash your windows.
4. Wash your mouth with soap and water.
5. Find your kindnesses.
To the 7.5 percent in my building who have extended friendship, generosity, and everyday human kindness:
You’re the catalysts and the kind of people who can make the change. Thank you for leading by example, although I might be the only one who noticed. Dinner in boxes on busy days, friendly chats, a handful of chocolates as I waited at the door for my dogs to return post the police station ordeal…your kindness is what keeps the world going. Not the 92.5 percent venom, not my vitriol against it. You.
To the Arjun Thirumals of the world still asking for horoscopes and photographs, here’s my matrimonial, in the hope that Karma, that universal balance-sheet-keeper, will do more open-minded math going forward:
Thirty-six-year-old woman of recent wrinkles and burgeoning greys, too many books, quite a few dogs, a poor but dogged cryptic crossword solver with a questionable sense of humour, seeks man. Must be willing to leave Mummy-Daddy. Must have gumption. Must be a feminist. Must love all creatures great and small. Must not be a homophobe. Appreciation of correct usage of a semicolon in a sentence is preferred. Must know how to sweep, mop, wash dishes, cook a full meal, get emotional over self-made filter coffee brilliance, and do own laundry, because it is 2017. Seeker already has address proof, however troublesome, and is not willing to relocate to your Mummy-Daddy house. Please do not apply if sarcasm and liberalism are alien concepts. Agar yeh rishta manzoor hain, toh please respond with subject line: Maami, I’m Coming Home.
Anoopa Anand is a writer, editor, and animal welfare worker based in Bengaluru, who does not accept surrogate means of payment and dreams about living in a kind neighbourhood.