Flat-hunting in Delhi makes White Tiger look like a stroll in the park. There are some similarities, though: the casual brutality, the huge sums in grubby notes changing hands, the overreliance on dodgy taxi drivers eyeing up your optimistically deposit-filled wallet.
I bounded off the plane filled with foolish confidence. In a city of perhaps 22.2 million—if we include the towns it’s chomping up daily—how hard could finding a place be for little old me, right? Surely I was a catch, what with my dazzling student salary, charmingly dubious grasp of Hindi, and adorably specific need for 4.5 months’ accommodation. On Friday 17th February, Day 1 of the Hunt, I leapt awake, humming as I bucket-washed, certain I’d have a room of my own by sundown.
How wrong I was. Oh the agony, the terror, the degradation!
There was the Safjardung Enclave flat up eight flights of stairs, where the Craigslist price mysteriously leapt by 35% once I ‘revealed’ I was white; the kitchen had yet to be constructed, and the bedroom walls were so thin that I could hear the creepy old man on the other side breathing. Then the peeling Malviya Nagar place where even the landlord had the decency to look embarrassed as he named the rent—though he did point out that the junction in the yard was so orchestrally busy that a lady could stroll about in safety. There was the room entirely enclosed within the swanky GK1 home of a retired couple, who ominously offered to ‘treat me like their own daughter’; the Lajpat Nagar place demanding almost £1,000 up front; the sinister hostel owner who casually allowed me to poke around in other people’s rooms and offered to tell my parents when I died; the Green Park woman who was keener than keen until I got almost to her doorstep and then she ceased all contact; the beauty contests in which several prospective tenants all awkwardly met and vied to ask the most penetrating questions about fan speeds and pretended to be relaxed (‘Yeah, I’m so open-minded and laid-back, sure, I love early-morning vuvuzela concerts, cool yeah this is a good space for a crack den, yeah man go right ahead and sublet the corner of my bed to the Forestry Commission, I’m, like, totally chilled about personal space’).
… Plus several others of nondescript inadequacies. And they’re just the ones I rejected: the worst were those that immediately rejected me, with flats disappearing within minutes of being advertised, or deranged German interns bidding from Frankfurt in advance of their world-saving arrival. By Day 3 my morality, never my most robust attribute at the best of times, slunk off for some sightseeing and chaat. I honed an ingratiating smile and a patina of white lies like some nymphomaniacal estate agent—what a charming cosy place! what a simply divine concrete view! of course I didn’t think ‘furnished’ meant ‘contains a bed’ or expect running water—and flirted with every single flat out there. Yeah, yeah, I’ll call you, you’re the best I’ve ever had, the only one for me, baby.
Chor Minar, Hauz Khas
Admittedly, the search was ‘intermittently encouraging, as I realised that Delhi is not (only) the sweaty, honking, insolent, groping lecher of a city that I remembered experiencing the first times around as a tourist’, as I wrote in an embittered email; ‘…my dreams of Dilliwala life are therefore ironically rising just as my spirit is being crushed’. I got to stroll around some nice bits of town—spotting this lovely tower in Hauz Khas where apparently 225 thieves’ heads may have been displayed back before the advent of India’s exemplary contemporary police force—and see exactly how nice upper-middle-class life in South Delhi can be. Greenish parks, vintage boutiques, and the alluringly glossy metro were all dangled before me and cruelly snatched away by the wiles of Fate/my own pickiness.
A brand new festival, Saket
Another day, I headed further south to Saket, famous for its malls packed with designer labels like M&S, Zara, and Accessorize. After being thoroughly groped a few times and pumped with enough X-rays to cut the subcontinent’s fertility rate, I was inspired to see the place full of gaudy red hearts and Richard Branson’s wares. More naked consumerism in the shape of a festival, I hear you cry—but actually this could be a progressive addition to a calendar that otherwise revolves around fasting and praying for husbands/brothers/sons. Unfortunately, the Saket flat lay alongside a gigantic open sewer, pungent enough in February that by April I expect the suburb to be enveloped in an eye-watering swarming black mass. I was, however, delighted to see clear signs of open defecation on the sides of the road. New and Old India merge!