“Here madam, are your keys,” the estate agent said in his professional tone, handing me a jingling bunch to my freshly-painted studio in a posh locality in Dubai. “Please consider this to be your own house. We won’t interfere at all,” he added.
‘Interfere’ – the word rang in my head as I stepped into the airy, comfortable flat I had bagged after just a week of searching. For someone who had flown in from Mumbai only a few weeks ago, it seemed like heaven. You ask why? Well, the answer lies in two simple words: being single.
I am single by choice. For the last nine years, I have been staying alone, in three different cities – Ahmedabad and Mumbai in India and now Dubai. And the contrast in the way India and the outside world treats singletons, especially women, couldn’t have been starker than in the words of that estate agent.
In India, everyone interferes. In everything you do and say. Whereas abroad…well, nobody including Indians quite care whether there is an ‘R’ between ‘M’ and ‘S’.
Take the simple procedure of house-hunting for example. In India, and Mumbai in particular, the controversy over your relationship status begins when you look for a place to live. The conversation between an estate agent/landlord and a single woman, suitably dressed down in a traditional dress (to give the idea that she is from ‘a good family’) goes something like this.
Estate Agent/Landlord: “So you are looking for a flat…”
Single Woman: “Err yes.” (No silly, I am here for a tour of that matchbox you call an apartment).
EA/LL: “Are you married?”
SW: “Err… No.” (Gosh, is that a crime? Will I be handed to the hyper-active Social Service Branch of the Mumbai Police?)
EA/LL (Curtly): “Sorry we don’t rent out flats to single ladies and bachelors.”
SW (Desperation rising): “But I can pay the rent, deposit and the sundry expenses!” (Though they collectively kill my budget!)
EA/LL: “Doesn’t matter. Bachelors are a nuisance. Loud music, girls, parties, late nights…”
SW: “Hello, I am not a bachelor! I am a single woman, there is a gender difference you see. And I work hard late into the night. So no time for parties or music or men at home… “ (okay, that’s a white lie but I am not giving you details of my social and personal life!)
EA/LL: “What? Late nights? Sorry, then we can’t let you stay at all. It’s against housing society policy. We have had enough trouble in the past. We only rent out to families.”
That’s it. Case closed. To argue that families can be more or less morally corrupt than singles is futile. So you continue your search using the same dialogues, giving the same assurances of good behaviour, begging, pleading and groveling until you finally get a unit to call ‘home’.
Thereafter begins the struggle to lead the lifestyle you want. From making sure your neighbours don’t catch you sneaking in your boyfriend into your house to hiding your alcohol bottles from the maid, putting up a façade becomes an integral part of life in Mumbai even in 2012, especially if you are in the wrong suburb.
Finally there are the questions.
“Do you always work this late?”
“Yes it’s my job aunty. It’s tough.” (Why don’t you just shut up and watch your saas bahu shows on TV, woman?)
“Why do you work so hard?”
“Because I like to and modern-day jobs are tough.” (And I have to pay my bills, unlike you!)
“Poor girl! Why don’t you get married?”
“Sure aunty! Find me a guy.” (And for god’s sake shut up before my head explodes!)
Of course, it isn’t this bad or so dramatic each time and it certainly doesn’t take away from the fun of Mumbai. After all, it is one of the few single-friendly cities in India. The pubs, theatres, creative zones, social groups and the sheer opportunities to meet liberal, independent, non-judgemental, like-minded men and women are unmatched in any other city in India. Once you learn to handle the conservative elements and master the survival tricks, you can let your hair down, literally and figuratively. It’s a city buzzing with ideas and bursting with energy and you can’t help but be caught in the race and enjoy it. Only, the process of getting the basics of life in place is stretched to the maximum in Maximum City.
Comparatively, Dubai is a cakewalk.
No questions are asked about your caste, creed, race, religion and most importantly relationship status when you sign the housing agreement. Neighbours don’t interfere (aah, that word again!). The existential reality problems that every working singleton faces in Mumbai – water, electricity, commute, neighbourhood – are not even an issue in Dubai. You can pretty much start the business of living your life and exploring the city as soon as you settle in.
And what an exploration it turns out to be. Like Mumbai, this is a cosmopolitan city, a true melting pot that believes in working hard and partying harder. There is much to do – shop, dine at fantastic restaurants, shop, attend fabulous concerts, shop, gawk at Bollywood stars, party at zingy clubs, shop… If you are single and ready to mingle, it is indeed a veritable treasure trove. As my friends back home scream, “Why are you missing India? You are ‘international’ now. Forget Indian guys, date some foreigner. It must be sooo interesting”.
Unfortunately, it’s not.
After months of living it up and loving it, somewhere I still miss the frenzy of Mumbai. The fights you have with your neighbor. The sense of achievement when you finally get your house fixed or on a lighter note, gaining entry into a crowded pub without reservations. Dubai offers you everything too easily.
This extends to people too. You meet very pretty women here and end up discussing make-up, hair and designer clothes (fun but boring after a while). Ditto for the men. You meet men who are vain, have a great sense of style, balance the east and the west well but can’t have a serious conversation with.
And finally, you miss the conversations. Meeting singles in Mumbai was easy because there are so many like you – hailing from other cities, going through the same challenges, tackling oily brokers and trying to rise above it all with your sense of humour intact. There is an instant connect. No wonder, despite the crazy pace of the city, I ended up making more friends in Mumbai in a few weeks than I have done in my 18 months here.
So does that mean I want a bit of the Mumbai madness in dazzling Dubai? Perhaps yes. All said and done, eccentric Mumbai makes you romanticise the single life. Every urban migrant has his or own ‘when I came to Mumbai’ story.
However, the other day when my single male friend back home called up to lament the difficulties in getting his flat license renewed, once again I started mentally going on a Dubai Vs Mumbai comparison trip. And I got my answer.
No thank you. I’d rather take the two-hour flight when I miss the ‘interference’. I guess I will soak in the smells, stench and buzz of Mumbai before flying right back for shopping, working, partying, shopping, adventure…
Why not enjoy the best of both worlds, when I have it!
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