I am sprawled out under the ceiling fan in a semi-clean, third-floor room in Hare Rama Guesthouse, Paharganj. For those of you who know, this grimy neighbourhood, with its heaving Main Bazar and resident hippies, touts and cows, was the first part of India I ever experienced, and so it’s strange – but ultimately rather nice – to be back here.
A skinny, enthusiastic man in a pinstriped waistcoat showed me my room; demonstrating the two cold taps and the window with opening/closing function. As I followed him back down the stairs to fill out the book at reception he pointed out the hotel’s lift. ‘Very nice elevator we are having here, madam. But it doesn’t work.’
Ahh, India. I’ll miss you.
Anyway, you’re probably wondering what I’m doing in a guesthouse in the first place. It’s a long story, but basically my landlord told me if I didn’t move out at the end of March I’d have to pay an extra half month’s rent. So after several arguments I decided just to leave on the 31st, and now, with only two more days left in Delhi, I’ve ended up here.
And best thing about staying in a hotel? There’s no landlord!
Ever since I flew the nest (yes, I know, the same nest I’m flying right back into on Saturday…) I’ve had bad luck with apartments, and, more specifically, with the landlords and landladies that unfortunately come with them. Back in my Art College days, a few friends and I rented a place owned by a man called Jack, a property dealer crazy enough to think that ‘Slumlords’ (really!) was a good name for his company. There wasn’t anything particularly bad about him, though, apart from his obvious sleaziness and that fact that he was madly in love with himself. One wintry night, as my flatmate was running a bath, the hot tap got stuck and none of us could turn it off – leaving us with the only option of calling Jack for help. He showed up, eventually, and fought through the steam in the bathroom like a self-proclaimed superhero, turning the tap off effortlessly. How did you do that, we asked, perhaps with a little too much admiration. Jack said nothing in response, but grinned, lovingly patted his bicep and raised his eyebrows. Ugh, we thought simultaneously.
Back then, of course, I had no idea that in a few years’ time I’d be dealing with landlords far worse, and in the north of Delhi, of all places. And Sleazy Jack of Dundee, it turned out, was positively angelic compared to Uncle Ji of Azadpur.
Even before I discovered the bag of incriminating photos (more on that later), I knew Uncle Ji wasn’t a particularly nice man. When I’d just moved in he would regularly barge in unannounced to ‘check’ on my flat, wearing only a lungi and moth-eaten vest. His wife and three daughters would do the same, only in (obviously) different clothes. All day long I never got a moment of peace.
One morning, while cleaning, I discovered a suspicious-looking package wedged into the back of a cupboard. It was wrapped in a black scarf so ancient it was growing mould, and of course I couldn’t stop myself from unwrapping it. Inside was a big envelope full of photos of Uncle Ji and ANOTHER WOMAN (who, to make it even worse, wasn’t wearing very much), sitting in a park, or on the beach, or in a house. How fascinating, I thought. It was the first time I’d ever discovered blackmail material.
And it was tempting to mention my knowledge of these photos to Uncle Ji when I found out that his teenage daughter had been sneaking into my flat and stealing money from my purse. But that’s a whole other story. The point is, I moved out pretty quickly.
The next flat I lived in was also owned by a terrible landlord. Let’s call him Uncle Ji Two. He wore a leather jacket all year round, chewed so much paan that his teeth had rotted into little red stumps, and liked to get drunk and shout at his wife. I heard all the shouting because there was a massive metal grate in the floor of my flat directly above his kitchen, which meant that he could also hear everything I said. B was staying over one day, and we laughing, and it made Uncle Ji Two so furious (jealously, probably. I doubt he’d ever laughed in his life) that he screamed at B through the metal grate, ‘Shut up, or I’ll come up there right now and give you a slap!’
I moved out of there, too.
Finally, I decided to part with a bit more cash and try living in south Delhi. It was calmer, quieter and more firangi-friendly, and when I found my little apartment in Saket I was thrilled. The landlord was the friendliest man ever and even had the added bonus of looking exactly like Fred Flintstone. I signed the papers, paid the deposit, and knew that this time was going to be different. But then I met Bad Aunty.
My landlord and his wife were wonderful, but what I didn’t realise when I signed the rent agreement was that the landlord’s older brother and his wife lived in the same building, and they were not nice people at all. To avoid confusing myself I thought of them as Good Uncle, Good Aunty, Bad Uncle and Bad Aunty respectively, and the names kind of stuck. But as time went by I realised that even Bad Uncle was nice enough, and that it was Bad Aunty who was the head of whole enterprise; the one with the power, and the final say. She massively overcharged me for my electricity, and when I did something to upset her (like invite friends over for chai and other such wild exploits) she would switch off my water supply for the entire day to teach me a lesson.
But I didn’t let her get to me. I kept smiling, saying ‘namaste Aunty Ji’, bringing her shortbread from Scotland, and I think I finally won her round. And this time when I moved out I was actually sad to leave, and to say goodbye to the big landlord family. Well, maybe not that sad, but at least I didn’t shout ‘good riddance!’ as I left. The thing is, even though I’ve had to stay in some horrible places with horrible people, I’ve honestly loved living in Delhi. Having my own home; kitchens with single gas burners, bucket baths, sleeping on charpais under electric fans – the whole thing’s been such an interesting experience. Much more so than if I’d stayed here in Paharganj with all these other videshis. They’ll never know anything about Indian landlords and the ‘tension’ they can cause. And hey, that’s what gives me writing material!