In a country obsessed with marriage, couples who choose to live-in are viewed with suspicion and prejudice. As the numbers of such couples in Mumbai rise, we bring you some of their stories.
Text by Swati K
Photos by Arjun Chavah
When in early August 2015, an overzealous Mumbai Police force rounded up 40-odd couples from hotels in Madh Island and Aksa and charged them with public indecency, the media was aflutter. Amid discussions about the illegality of the raid and the application of a law that did not cover private spheres, many pointed out that the city’s cops are obsessed with all things moral – the couples were unmarried, you see!
Couples in Mumbai who live together without matrimony encounter such prejudices while looking for a home. For the longest while, Kamini*, a 38-year old artist and her partner Sharad couldn’t get an apartment in the city as most building societies judged them to be immoral. Many housing societies have an unsaid protocol of not renting flats to unmarried couples. Kamini describes her experience as one marked by frustration and peppered with offensive judgmental statements from complete strangers. “I had a prospective landlord reject us on the grounds that there was no guarantee that my partner and I wouldn’t have loud parties and trouble the neighbours. His rationale was that married couples with children sleep early, don’t have late night parties and don’t generally disturb their neighbours while live-in couples are the opposite,” she said. “For some reason, he seemed to believe that teenage college kids and unmarried couples have the same characteristics and lifestyle. It was absolutely absurd.”
Some flat owners were subtler, and they shrewdly insisted that the couple provide a marriage certificate as a pre-requisite to signing the rent agreement. After many failed attempts to negotiate with brokers and landlords, Kamini and her partner ended up renting a friend’s place in Chuim village, Khar.
Interviews with some real estate brokers revealed that many of them were hesitant to take live-in couples as clients on the grounds that they make for “flighty and unreliable tenants”. Manish, a 35-year old broker who arranges rental accommodations in Mumbai, said that certain popular Bollywood films which glorify live-in relationships inspire young couples to live-in together- even when they may not be ready to take such a step. “These youngsters get inspired by Hindi films like Salaam-Namaste and Dostana and want to live together just for fun. So these relationships end very quickly, often over small issues. When a couple leaves the apartment abruptly before the agreed time period, we brokers suffer as we have to scramble to find new tenants and sometimes we even lose out on our commission,” he says.
Another reason why landlords in the city say they are nervous about renting property to unmarried couples is the fear that these may be runaway lovers, which could lead to legal and police complications for the landlords. Flat owners we spoke to argue that their refusal to rent a place out to couples in live-in relationships is nothing more than a way of avoiding a host of potential problems. Interestingly, the same justification is used for refusing accommodation to a group of bachelors, single unmarried women, and people from minority communities.
Part of the problem is that the legal status of live-in relationships is ambiguous. As per the fundamental rights granted under Article 21 of the Constitution of India, all citizens have a right to life and personal liberty. This could thus apply to couples in a live-in relationship. Section 114 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, reads that where independent evidence of solemnization of marriage is not available, it will be presumed to be a valid marriage by continuous cohabitation between the parties unless the contrary is proved. The Domestic Violence Act 2005 also includes within its purview live-in relationships by citing that a woman having “a relationship in the nature of marriage” with a man can go to court if abused. Since this covers economic abuse, it affords women protection in case of a violation of their financial rights.
She believes that brokers and landlords who rent places out to such couples are complicit in promoting a “sinful lifestyle”. By giving these couples a place to stay in, they enable them to continue with a lifestyle which she firmly believes is, “a Western product, it isn’t Indian.”
Advocate N.Sonwane, 32, who lives in with his partner in Andheri, points out that currently there is no law for live-in relationships in India, but that on November 28, 2013, the Supreme Court had held that a live-in relationship is neither a crime nor a sin, while asking Parliament to frame a law for protection of women in such relationships and for children born out of them. “If two sound-minded adults of the opposite sex decide to live together without getting married, the question of a criminal offense does not arise. However, since there are no particular laws to protect live-in couples we can’t do anything specifically in courts when they are thrown out on moral grounds,” he says, adding that as per the law, the children of such couples are considered ‘illegitimate’. However, lawmakers are now fighting to give them legal status. “The law will help but it won’t make a difference unless mindsets are changed,” says Sonwane.
That does seem to be the case with Leelaben Patel, a 58-year old flat owner in Ghatkopar. “Laws have their own place but society also has some other rules which everyone must follow,” she candidly says. She believes that brokers and landlords who rent places out to such couples are complicit in promoting a “sinful lifestyle”. By giving these couples a place to stay in, they enable them to continue with a lifestyle which she firmly believes is, “a Western product, it isn’t Indian.” She wonders how these brokers and agents help these couples, because ,“unmarried boys and girls should not be allowed to live together and do whatever they want”. According to her, some housing agents are so focused on getting rent that they fail to take a moral stand against the dissolute activities of such couples.
Still, the growing number of live-in couples in the city is a sign that obviously some landlords and brokers are receptive to the concept. As Ranjit, a 57-year old flat owner in Dadar explains, “This is purely a business arrangement and that’s why most of the brokers I know don’t bother about the religion or marital status of tenants, as long as they keep paying their rent on time.” Ranjit says he would not mind renting out his house to two unmarried people in a live-in relationship, even if they belonged to different religious faiths. He seems to sympathise with them when he says, “It’s difficult enough to find a place in Mumbai what with so many migrants looking for affordable flats and rooms on rent. Why should I make it worse for any of my customers by forcing them to adhere to unnecessary rules and standards? They are my tenants, not my children.”
Shruti and Rohit, both 40-something lecturers who stay in Bandra, have been living together for the past 15 years. They shifted to Mumbai seven years ago and before that they lived together in Pune for eight years. Their experience of Mumbai has been positive as they find it to be a city that accommodates offbeat lifestyles quite easily. “Mumbai gives you a kind of anonymity that you won’t find anywhere else in India. People are busy here and no one is interested in your personal life,” says Rohit. “Even our neighbours, who would earlier threaten to complain to the police about us, have now become used to living next door to a live-in couple!”
Perhaps in the future, that will mean many more such happy endings for unmarried couples in the city.
*Names of all the couples have been changed to protect identity