After living in a one-room apartment with 3 cats and visiting family members for six years, I felt it was time for me to move to a bigger house. This was the second time in my 13-year stay in Mumbai that I had to hunt for a house.
The first exercise six years ago was pretty smooth. My first house is located in the Lower Parel area, and I love the address given its proximity to my office, shopping malls, grocery markets, to name a few.
Sure, there are some drawbacks as well. It’s a commercial hub and constantly busy with construction activity and vehicular traffic, the main sources of air and noise pollution.
So for my next house, I started looking at the suburbs of Bandra, Khar, Santacruz, which are mostly residential areas with wide roads and a lot of greenery. I began contacting brokers with my requirement and budget. Many of them posted the houses available for lease on various Facebook groups.
This is very helpful as you get a brief idea about the house without actually visiting it. The brokers generally write details about the house layout, size, number of rooms, available amenities, and the asking rent in the Facebook posts. But they hide the most crucial information and that is the owners’ preferences for a tenant.
"Bachelors ko nahi denge, girls ko nahi denge, family ko nahin denge" are some of the known reservations of many house owners.
My first call to a broker was no less than a telephonic interview for a matrimonial. I liked the house he had posted on Facebook and wanted to check if I could come for a visit. So he asked me a few questions about my profession, my budget, requirement and how long I would want the house for. But for me, the most humiliating was, "Oh aap Muslim ho? Sorry, Muslims ko nahin denge”. This was the first time someone had rejected me for my religion. And these are the upmarket areas of the city.
I am a native of Ratnagiri, a district in Maharashtra renowned for alphonso mangoes, and which has a sizeable population of both Hindus and Muslims. We grew up celebrating all festivals together with equal fervour. I would go for Ganesh pooja at my friend’s place and wait for the modak. They would come to my house on Eid to eat sheerkurma and biryani. Religion never separated us from playing hide & seek in a temple or bunking college classes together.
So I was shocked to hear the broker’s blatant comment but had no choice than disconnect the call. I had heard many instances of such religious bias in Mumbai’s rental property market, but I was certain that a few cases would have been blown out of proportion. Despite the nasty experience with the broker, I still felt it could be a one-off incident and decided to try my luck elsewhere.
The next day I get a call from another broker who had a nice 2BHK available in my budget. Surprisingly, he didn’t ask me many questions and directly invited me for a visit. I was excited that my house hunt was coming to an end soon. The house had good vibes, it was furnished and was close to the railway station, something office-goers always look for. So we started talking about rent and how long would the lease be.
During the conversation, I got a call from my father and I greeted him with a traditional Salaam. I told my father I would call him in some time as I was finalising the house. After I hung up the call, the broker asked me, “Madam aap Muslim ho kya?” With a lot of hesitation I said
“Yes, kyu? kuch problem hai?”
The broker himself was a Muslim, and embarrassedly he said, “Ma’am owner Muslim ko nahin dena chahte.”
I quietly stepped out of the house while the broker kept apologising for not letting me know about the owner’s preference earlier. I was hurt and angry by those words. I wanted to call the owner and ask how did he imagine that I was going to harm him.
But then, I felt it was up to the owner to decide whom he wanted as a tenant. I still did not lose hope, and continued with the quest for a roof.
After the COVID-19 lockdown, rentals came down crashing as many tenants started vacating houses. Some lost their job, some were told to work from home so they temporarily shifted back to their native places leading to several vacant houses. I was still looking for houses and saw this as a good opportunity. But this time I started telling the brokers beforehand about my religion so that they show me only those houses where "Muslims are allowed" and I don’t face any more humiliation. But then, they started taking me to Muslim dominated localities and showed me houses that weren’t appealing at all.
"Aapke budget mein yehi ghar milega” is what one broker told me.
I gradually got used to getting turned down for extremely good houses just because of my religion. I was so frustrated that I started asking brokers “Kya problem hai Muslim hone se?”
"Unko pure vegetarian chahiye,” one broker said.
"Kitne log pure veg milenge Mumbai mein?” I questioned.
"Unko (owner) usse fark nahi padta…wo vacant rakhenge par Muslim ko nahin denge,” he said.
I started wondering if it’s only Muslims who eat non-veg in this country?
A popular broker from Bandra told me that of all the rental houses he is handling in the suburbs, about 60 percent are strictly not available for Muslims.
“Why don’t’ you specify this in your Facebook posts?” I asked him.
“I can’t write this directly. I will lose Muslim clients”, he replied.
One broker took me to a high rise, with huge balconies and a beautiful view. He probably forgot to ask me about my religion or he may have assumed I am not a Muslim. People say I look like a Gujarati, some say Punjabi and some say Pahadi. After seeing the house, I asked him upfront,
"Owner ko Muslim se koi problem nahi hai na?” Upon hearing that, his expressions underwent a sudden change.
“Aap Muslim ho?” he asked and then the rest is for you to guess.
One broker told me that some owners have had bad experiences with Muslims and hence the resistance. That may well be the case, but then, there are bad apples in all communities. Has every Muslim in Mumbai become bad and undeserving to be taken on as a tenant? Is it fair to hate the entire community for the misdeeds, if at all, of the few?
But I have not lost hope yet. This is not called a city of dreams for nothing. I am hopeful that I will soon cross paths with a fair-minded landlord.