The ‘Incredible India’ tourism campaign stresses on our guests being equivalent to God. But is that really how we treat foreigners who make Mumbai their home? Here, a Chinese visitor talks of humiliation, an American woman reports molestation and a Nigerian man speaks of repeated experiences of being thrown out of a house.
Text and photos by Vishal Langthasa
Cheng Wei has lived in Mumbai for more than two years. Enough time to give him a perspective on real estate brokers and landlords in the city. “I have now drawn the conclusion that to most Indian people, ‘foreigner’ equals ‘millionaire’,” says the 31-year-old single man from Beijing who works as a media correspondent in Mumbai.
Wei recently moved into a 2BHK rental apartment at Mahalakshmi. It wasn’t difficult for him to strike a deal for the South Mumbai apartment as he commanded a good budget. But the problem was in dealing with the landlord and the agent. He was told that the apartment was semi-furnished but on arriving there it was bare. After much deliberation, the landlord agreed to provide him with a dining table, curtains, chimney and so on. He thought the flat would be ready for him on the agreed date but nothing was in place when he moved in. “I feel like they are just waiting for me to lose patience and buy all these furnishings myself. I do not care about the money,” says Wei. “I just feel humiliated being treated like this. They even played little tricks with the rental agreement to save more money. All I want to do is continue with my work.”
Increasingly Mumbai is attracting more and more long-stay foreign guests from across the globe. Many of them now wish to stay long-term in the city for work, business or education. They expect differences and challenges in negotiating food, language and culture – but progressively it is finding a house to live in that is causing most foreign visitors much distress.
But it’s not just the initial struggle of locating a suitable place (in a suitable neighbourhood) and negotiating the rent and amenities with landlords that many foreigners find daunting. It’s also real experiences of being cheated by real estate brokers and harassed by building societies that dismays them.
Alex Tsakiridis, a 25-year-old student from Greece, however, had it easier. Pursuing a masters degree in Mumbai, he found a room through a broker who sat near the university premises. “I only think of it as something temporary because I don’t know where I will end up,” he says. Charlotte Smith*, a student from USA, took a month to find rental accommodation close to the school she was teaching at in the outskirts of Mumbai. While part of the difficulty was her being a foreigner, the other was “being unmarried”, she says. “I was about to move into a flat when the people in charge of the apartment complex suddenly said that they were uncomfortable renting to a single woman. But then my friend convinced them that since I was a teacher, I was a nice person,” says Charlotte with a giggle. Soon she was being called “Charlotte didi” in the area and her next-door neighbours almost adopted her “treating me like their daughter”.
While life eventually got rosier, what did not change for her was the constant sexual harassment she faced on the streets and in public transport. Once in a shared autorickshaw from a local train station, a man in the auto started molesting her, egged on by his friends. She shouted at the driver to stop but the driver paid no mind. Worse was when she tried sharing her experiences she was told that it was her fault as she “gave off the demeanour of an easy prey.”
In comparison to the others, the struggles of a Black person with a slender budget seem more amplified. David Frank, a 33-year-old father of three, came to Mumbai from Nigeria in 2009. He has often had to move at short notice from rental apartments and several times he has been cheated by fraudsters. Before moving in to his current 1BHK flat in Thane, Frank, who left his family behind in order to do business in the apparel industry here, lived with his brother, already engaged in business here, and his three friends.
They were forced to move from one flat to another three times within a year on some excuse or the other. Once when he was staying on Yari road in a 1BHK flat with his brother and friends, they would pay the monthly rent through the agent. However, four months later the landlord appeared for the first time and claimed that no rent had been paid to him. Proper communication could not be established as the landlord did not understand English and they did not know how to speak Marathi or Hindi. Eventually the landlord gave them just two days to vacate the flat.
“Every time they give all kinds of reasons to make us move from the place. Sometimes they said, the police don’t want Black people in the building; sometimes they say the building society does not want Black people…”
Frank mentions the other time he was cheated while looking for a room in Koparkhairane, a place where a number of African people live and attend the Christ Embassy church run by a Black pastor. He went to see a flat with an agent recommended by a friend. The security guard handed them the keys to the room. After checking it out, Frank came down from the building, signed the agreement and handed Rs 70,000 in cash to the agent. The agent took the money and asked him to wait for a few days. “He never came back. My money vanished. I kept calling him but his phone was switched off. The security man who handed him the keys refused to recognise him too,” says Frank.
“Every time they give all kinds of reasons to make us move from the place. Sometimes they said, the police don’t want Black people in the building; sometimes they say the building society does not want Black people; one time they said they were giving the flat to their daughter who was getting married and most of the times, they asked us to vacate by telling us that the flat is sold,” he adds. What disturbs Frank the most is the blatant discrimination against Blacks. According to him, if “in a locality, one black guy is found making a mistake, then all the black people in that area are asked to vacate. We are asked not to drink, not to bring women into our rooms. I personally do not drink. But then I see Indian people drinking everywhere. Why doesn’t the same rule apply to them? They count every penny and make excuses to ask for more money but as foreigners we cannot afford to create any problem with them.”
Other long-stay foreign visitors mention problems in dealing with bureaucracy and paper work for something as simple as a cooking gas cyclinder. Still, people like Frank maintain that they like Mumbai because though it is challenging, “it has lots of opportunities.”
Finally Wei sums it up. He recalls an incident at the Mumbai airport when he had first arrived. His luggage went missing at the airport and he was politely soliciting help from the airport staff. “Two Taiwanese women heard of my predicament and told me that I should shout and force them to get my work done. I was astonished and told them, I cannot be rude to these people. Before they left, one of those women turned to me and said, ‘You have not lived in Mumbai long enough’,” says Wei. “Now, I understand what they meant.”
*Names changed on request.