On a mid-summer Sunday morning in Bengaluru, I stepped out into the balcony of our lakeside apartment one last time. It had taken three brokers, 30days, 300 phone calls, 3,000 property shortlists online and a deposit of Rs 2 lakh for me to get this flat – one I truly adored. My two friends and I, all single 20-somethings, had moved in just a couple months ago and the breeze from the lake had only just begun to feel familiar; but here we were, already packing our bags and searching for another apartment.
It all started with an untimely beep from my mobile two days ago.
“Hi – I do not wish to interfere in your personal matters, but please resolve below issue amicably to avoid trouble.”
The mail was from our landlady. And it appeared to be a warning. I scrolled down and began reading the mail trail she had received from our housing society.
SUBJECT: Lady visitor in Flat #69 at odd hours
It has been observed that a lady has visited flat #69 on 26th of April – entering at 10:35 PM and leaving at 7:15 AM the next morning. This same lady has visited the flat again on 27th of April, entering at 5:15 PM and leaving at 9:30 PM. We have already informed you that such things are not acceptable and warned that renting flats to bachelors is not encouraged. It has been decided in the association meeting dated 1st May that if any lady visits the flat during odd hours again, we would be reporting the same to police.”
All the residents of our building had been marked in this exchange. Just when I thought I couldn’t get more annoyed, I read another bit of the email.
“This is a serious issue. We are a society of families and this cannot be allowed. Since we have details including identity cards of tenants and visitors it will be easier for police to take action. We cannot allow people to violate norms of our Society.”
Way back in 2008, the same year he won the Booker for The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga wrote a piece titled ‘Bachelor Bigotry’ for The Guardian in 2008. It was about exactly what the title said – he couldn’t find an apartment in Mumbai because he belonged to one of the worst demographics for home rentals, he was an unmarried man. I was in high school when that piece came out, and never had I imagined that a decade later, I would stand in my balcony in Bengaluru, staring blankly at a wall, amused at the absurdity sitting in my inbox, yet feeling just as vulnerable, oppressed and voiceless as Adiga had all those years ago.
I sat down at a café with a lawyer friend and showed her the emails.
“This is so regressive.” She said. “This mail warning is only for ‘female’ visitors. That is discrimination on the basis of gender. Further, the curfew they are imposing would not be applicable to flats in which tenants are married couples, hence, the law is different for different flats. Third, they are literally spying on you by keeping tracking of movement of people in and out of your flat and sharing this information with other residents. That’s infringement into your privacy. Most importantly, they are accusing you of violating societal norms and threatening to report this to the police as if you are anti-social elements involved in some criminal activity with no proof at all. Do you not find this offensive, if not defamatory?”
“Does it matter?” I lamented. “If we resist, they’ll probably throw us out of the apartment.”
“They cannot do that.” She reasoned. “Housing societies are ‘service providers’ and their sole responsibility is providing ‘common services and amenities’. They do not have legal standing to impose prohibitions on people.”
“But as a registered housing society they have the right to choose their members, right?” I asked.
“They do. But is yours really a housing society?” She remarked. “This is perhaps a Society of Middle-aged Morose Men.”
My flatmates and I sat outside our apartment’s clubhouse the following day, all set to make our case to the society’s office bearers. We started on the backfoot, telling them that we didn’t know of any bye-law which restricted entry of people from a certain gender at certain time periods to certain flats. But once it became clear that our sarcasm wasn’t working, we shifted gear and accused them of moral policing.
“You are three guys.” The president began continued, “so if three women visit your flat over time we can understand that they are your girlfriends, but in this case the number is more, and we cannot let this continue.”
My eyes widened as I realised the extent of our neighbours’ spying, and I noticed both my flatmates sitting with jaws slack with astonishment.
“Sir.” Deference went out the window. I said, “None of us are in a relationship and we love our freedom. As for the girl referred to in the mail, she was in this city just for a couple of days. I met her at a pub in Koramangala and she came home with me. She left for her hotel in the morning and came back to meet me again in the evening before leaving this town. I’ll probably never meet her again, and both of us aren’t guilty about this. I think you should not take offence at what two consenting adults are doing in their own private space. Please understand.”
There was pin drop silence in the room, and the air got a tad bit thicker. I decided to break the awkwardness myself, and continued, “There might be people who are uncomfortable with many things, for instance alcohol, or certain kinds of food. Would you check the bags of every resident of this apartment as they enter to ensure that there is no alcohol in this flat?”
“This is ridiculous.” An office bearer remarked.
“And that’s exactly how I felt while reading your mail. We have different value systems. Please appreciate that.”
“We have had bad experiences with bachelors in the past.” The President said, “You people are always a nuisance with loud music, late night parties and girls, and above all such arrogant behaviour.”
“You people always create noise of discrimination against bachelors, and many will support you.” The president continued, “But who will talk for us when you guys cause trouble in your flat and embarrass the whole apartment.”
I sat back, letting his words sink in. All of us generalise without reason and think we’re the only victims. When one bigot declares that she will not take an Uber which has an angry Hanuman on its windshield, an entire community feels victimised, and when another bigot says he cancelled his Ola because the driver was Muslim, we chide a whole community for its intolerance. The individual bigots are soon forgotten, only our biases get reinforced.
Individually, most societies’ residents wouldn’t have problems with unmarried men for neighbours. They’d have sons, nephews or colleagues, and none of them would brand these men as unworthy residents. They would not be misogynist, nor would they have issues with other people’s private lives. Yet, when they think as a group, they discriminate.
In 1978, Mark Granovetter put forth a remarkable explanation for group-think versus individuals in groups. According to him, when part of a group, an individual does not act to maximise his own pay-off, instead his decisions are influenced by how other group members have acted. Based on her own value system, each person will have a threshold, or a minimum number of people in a group who need to perform a certain action before she chooses to follow. A 70-year-old man from a conservative family might not need any instigation to declare that sexually active bachelors need to be punished, thus, his threshold to discriminate would be 0%. Whereas a 30-year-old newly-married couple might think differently and have a threshold of perhaps 75%. As per Granovetter’s model, if 75% of the residents in the society decide to throw bachelors out, the progressive couple would choose to join them, even if it contradicts their core values.
The three of us, now morose would-be marauders, are packing now and scrolling through multiple house-finding apps.
“Dude.” My flatmate calls out while pushing his clothes into a rucksack. “That Association of Morose Middle-aged Men your friend told us about, find a way to join one of those.”
“I’m sure it will come in handy a couple of decades later. It’ll make it easier for us to get offended by things young kids do then.”
Featured image credit: Nita Jatar Kulkarni/stockpicturesforeveryone