“The kitchen is old and has ants, but this was the only gated community I liked”, said Neha, shrugging slightly as she tucked her legs under her tiny frame, sinking into the cream sofa. Her living room gently soaked in the cool Bangalore air; through the windows behind her, and through the mosquito mesh that was often left open, distancing it from its duty.
Neha took another sip of tea from her “I HEART SAN FRANCISCO” cup, her palms wrapped around it, feeling its warmth. Strands from her unkempt morning hair fell on her petite face-- she was a unique kind of pretty. “We got a broker. We saw about 10 apartments. None had a community feel and safety, as this one. And see,” she twisted in the sofa, drew the curtain behind her aside, stretched her neck, and pointed out for me “there is a basketball court too. You play, don’t you?”
2 years ago, Neha had a career that was building momentum at a company people would die to get in. When others socialised at events, she could be found editing her technical documents in a corner seat; she would complete, in 20 hour sprints, what others took a week to complete; and she spoke about her product with conviction, focus and passion. When her husband wanted to move to India to start his own company, she was torn deciding between staying apart or moving with him— and her love made her move to India, taking up a new job, though in a different city than her husbands.
Like me, Neha had moved to India from California. But unlike me, she had not moved ‘back’ (she grew up in Singapore). Also unlike me and her husband, she didn’t have an overwhelming attachment to India.
At that very moment, I was 48 hours old in Bangalore. The feeling of a homeless nervousness came to me in the first 6 hours, right after I got out of my Uber ride; right after I refused luggage help from the doorman (conveyed by no-eye contact and a few shakes of my head), and right after I proceeded to pull my two matching purple bags into my company provided temporary housing. I gave breathing space to my nervous feeling. As a veteran to travel, I knew that new places do feel awkward. I had 2 weeks to find a new home-- plenty of time. The faster I find a home and settle in, the faster I’ll calm the jiggles down.
I rolled the purple bags neatly into a corner of the marble-floored apartment and pulled out my laptop. A few wifi password attempts happened. Then I got to work.
I re-read emails that other US-returnees had sent to me, on my inquiry of—”How do you search for an apartment?”. They were of little use, because, all of them had a different apartment hunting story: “As I said, I signed for my apartment in Fremont itself. The deal was locked before I even moved”. Contradicted what someone else said “Don’t ever get an apartment till you have seen it with your own eyes”. Someone “got my apartment from housing.com” and the other guy “We had a broker”. While another said “Don’t hire a broker, they are useless!”. There was a lucky guy who said “House hunting? I don’t know much. My wife and I moved in with my parents” and some younger colleagues said “My roommates are from college. We moved in together”. There was no pattern I could follow.
So where do I start?
The easiest option was to search online. If you ask me:
Nupur, what do you want: Nice bathroom?
Furnished kitchen with working gas connection?
Proximity to gyms?
“Of course, c’mon”.
What's your budget?
“₹ 25,000? I could stretch it to ₹ 30,000 a month”.
Online apartment finding had all the problems that finding an apartment online had.
I felt bad for the home owners— Their fate determined by a broker who treats their house with no love, by uploading fuzzy, low resolution pictures.
I felt bad for the houses— Their fate determined by desperate owners, who put pictures that hide the real the problem areas (“Picture is different from product”).
I felt bad for renters— Your fate revealed only after you actually move in—The apartment gets no network signal. The confusing by-lanes lose Uber drivers. The AC doesn’t actually cool. The washing machine leaks water and floods the kitchen everyday— how would you know, till you live in?
For the engineers out there— I’m saying-- the Indian market is a continuous variable due to the lack of standardisation. So putting constraints online, just didn’t give me the results I needed and the couple of places I visited were dismal.
48 hours into my move to India and I prayed that Neha would have a solution. My parents had come down from Pune to help me. (This kind of ‘Mom’s coming to help me settle’, is a luxury I did a little jump-and-clap for). That moment, seated with them on the sofa, (which Neha had purchased in a hurry from an online furniture store),— I finally had mixed hope. She had found and moved into a 3 bedroom apartment, and had 2 rooms free.
“Nupur, You must move in with me. I’d love to have you here. Karthik can’t leave his start-up. He can visit me only twice a month from Delhi”, Neha said.
Yes! I should jump at the offer. I want to, but looking around the apartment, my heart sank— I took a walk to the kitchen—it had grease around all corners. The tiny ants did their mindless marching around the black counter top. The dustbin peeked through its darkness behind a door, that once used to close. I held my feelings at bay-- I wanted a nice apartment, with wide kitchen counters and a big refrigerator, but this? Will I have to settle for this? I walked myself out of the kitchen and into the bedroom, which had a fresh coat of paint, clean and neat. Not bad. But the bathroom competed with the kitchen-- rusted bath handles, rusted shower-head, rusted mirrors. The rusted geyser was leaking and the pipes needed replacement. The sliding glass on the counter was chipped in many places— when I moved the glass panel, it did a one-legged hop over its rails, tripping the glass out of the rail and into my hand.
But Neha was at ease here.
She confidently walked barefoot into the kitchen, brushed off some ants from the counter, and filled up snacks in a scratched plastic plate, for us. She said not a word about the grease, said not a word about her bathroom condition and didn’t mind the stains inside the refrigerator.
It confused me.
How did she, the girl who grew up aboard, the girl who had owned a new home (with latest appliances) in California, the girl who wasn't even madly in love with India-- adjust so comfortably to the rusty apartment?
She gave me strength.
“I would love to move in” I said. Should I tell her how I really feel, though? “But, don’t you feel the apartment is old-- I mean the kitchen… and... and the Bathroom is kind of dirty?”, squinting an eye, hoping to not offend her.
“Yes”, Neha said, pulling up a pillow behind her back. Then what she said, I have never forgotten. It has helped me get through uncomfortable situations.
“It sucks, but you get used to it”.