In India, an elusive room of one's own
Young single women in New Delhi who want to live solo are viewed with suspicion.
New Delhi — It took Chiya Singh three months and seven real estate agents working in tandem to find an apartment to rent in New Delhi.
The problem wasn't her credit history or salary. It was her status as a single Indian woman. The questions blocking Ms. Singh from a room of her own were a bit personal, she says. Prospective landlords wanted to know why, at age 29, she wasn't married and why, as a single person, she didn't want to live with her parents.
"It was an exhausting process," Singh says, of trying to find her own place after she divorced. "I became a broken record. They asked 'Why do you want to live alone?' I said, 'Um, because I think I'm old enough.' "
That response usually netted Singh a cold expression and a vague "We'll let you know" from the landlord.
Finding an apartment in any big city can be daunting, but in New Delhi, single Indian women face the added social expectation of living at home until they wed. Many young, middle-class, well-educated single Indian women, however, are overcoming family resistance only to run into suspicious landlords.
In India, "If you want freedom, it can only be for one thing – sex," Singh says. "You want to tell them [landlords], 'That's the last thing on my mind. I think I'm old enough to take care of myself.' But for the landlord, it becomes an issue of respectability."
While hers is still a rare case in India, Singh's search for her own apartment is becoming more common. Divorce rates are rising, and more women are taking well-paying jobs at call centers, hotels, and airlines. Such jobs take daughters far away from home and may entail long or odd hours, says Renu Addlakha, a sociologist at the Centre for Women's Development Studies here.
In less than a decade, the portion of middle-class women joining India's workforce has jumped from 1 to 15 percent. While job opportunities have given women in the upper-middle class economic independence, it has not changed Indian society's views about women, Ms. Addlakha says.
In Indian society, multiple generations often live under one roof with the eldest male serving as the head. Though it is increasingly acceptable for newlyweds to move out, single daughters are expected to stay home.
"I don't think people change their values so quickly," Addlakha adds. "What has changed is the desire to become wealthy has increased. So while families want the money, they also want to control the girl." Indian families want women to work so they can contribute to the family income and their future dowry, not sothey can become independent, she says.
While landlords all across India are leery of single female renters, Anuroopa Giliyal, a human rights lawyer, says this discrimination is worse in Delhi, a city known for its conservatism.
"In certain parts of Delhi, landlords refuse to give their apartments to single women," Ms. Giliyal says. "Even if they do, they put restrictions on return-home time, inviting friends, or they try to impress on [tenants] what acceptable behavior would be."
By law, landlords are not allowed to reject a tenant because she is a single woman, but the behavior persists, Giliyal says. Women don't seek intervention, probably because they feel it wouldn't solve much, she says.
For women who do find an apartment, they understand that the landlord will take on a parental role.
"It's an Indian mentality," says Sonia Kakkar, a landlord in South Delhi. "We just feel more protective. You just feel that you are responsible."
Ms. Kakkar currently rents the second floor of her building to two French women and prefers foreigners because she does not feel as protective of them.
"They are used to living on their own," she says. "If they have a problem with the flat, they come to us. Otherwise, there is no interaction."
Daljit Madan, another South Delhi landlord, rents out two studio apartments in his house. He says he has no problem with single female Indian renters. But he does make sure they are working professionals, he says.
"When you have a decent lady living in your house," Mr. Madan says, "it becomes your moral responsibility to make sure she is safe and secure. It is not the same with boys. So from that perspective, some people don't want to get into that and rent to single women."
Ashwani Virk, a New Delhi real estate agent for the past 13 years, brings his single Indian clients to wealthy neighborhoods in South Delhi. Only there has the landlord-tenant relationship become more commercial in nature, he says.
"For a single [Indian] person today, the majority of landlords are quite irritating," Mr. Virk says. "They are too interfering. They are keeping tabs on you."
He laments the small but perceptible trend of women living on their own. He sees it as the result of too much progress, too fast. But he knows his clients, and he knows they want independence.
"I did meet a couple of idiotic landlords," says Karishma Singh, of her recent search for an apartment in New Delhi. "One feels a little judged by them. They think there is something wrong with you. They always have to ask you if you have a boyfriend. It is such a key question. But it's none of their business."
The fact that you have a boyfriend raises questions about your morality, Ms. Singh says. "They think you might be a bad girl."
Some single Indian women still prefer living at home. Kanika Loomba attended college in New Delhi and now lives with her parents and works for the International Red Cross. "For me, it's the best of both," she says. "I can concentrate on my work, and everything else is taken care of."
Others say living at home until marriage stifles their ability to grow, learn to navigate a city, take care of themselves, pay bills, and meet new people.
Mohar Chatterjee moved from Calcutta to New Delhi for college and got a job doing late-night shifts at a call center so she could remain independent and postpone her parents' plans for an arranged marriage for her.
"Staying in Calcutta would curtail my freedom," Ms. Chatterjee says. "Staying here is also a headache because the landlords think every time you bring a male friend home you are starting a brothel. It's insulting."
Madhu Bhatia Jha, also told her parents that she needed to stay in Mumbai (Bombay), the city where she'd attended university, because that was the only place where she could get a job – though that wasn't true.
"You can get a job anywhere," Ms. Jha says. But "when you stay home, it narrows your concept of life."
Jha says she looks forward to the day when young women in India won't have to lie or pay higher rents in order to have a place to call their own.
"The change is definitely happening here and it's for the better," Jha says. "Even if you live alone at an early age, that family connection is not going to get lost."