Google fb32x32 twitter linkedin feed-icon-32x32

Single And The City

Single And The City

August 08, 2012

The capricious buzz of Mumbai or the disciplined fun of Dubai? For the eternal singleton, it’s a toss-up.

“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! 


  • priya
    16.08.12 06:13 PM
    Loved your writing style Lekha! And yes, Indians can be quite nosy, something which we are yet to shake off from our system. Loved the comparative tale!
  • Ashwini
    14.08.12 10:57 AM
    Remembered the nightmare we had to go through while finding an apartment as students. Excellent article presenting a balanced view of both the worlds.
    10.08.12 01:24 AM
    @ Lekha

    I think you are confusing the post with the story. What I was trying to say to you was that, that people in the west can't wait to move out of the family home as soon as they turn 18. They see their family as a burden.

    Their social out look to life is different from ours (Indian way). I know that these are isolated cases in the story but they do exist in real life.

    Most people I know in west don't want anything to do with their relatives unless they get the financial help from them. So being lonely, withdrawn and not socialing with the others are not chosen by people as a way of life but it happens to some.

    The point I'm making is that the other society doesn't always have the right and the best answers that suits us and the grass is not always green abroad, which most Indians seem to think it is. If we get the best part of both society and combine them together, then maybe we can get the best of both world. Is this ever possible with the cultural differences and the way we live. Who knows?

    The last statement in the previous post was me being cheeky not nasty. :)


    PS I loved the article and the way you write.
  • Vikram
    09.08.12 10:07 PM
    Brilliant, i can fill a diary with my experience of searching for a flat for rent in Chennai....
  • Rajpriya
    09.08.12 10:16 AM
    That's good news of matter of facts about Dubai. Thanks.
  • tys
    09.08.12 09:31 AM
    being from dubai, i can vouch for the safety for a single woman staying here...the usual male preying scenario exists here as well, iam sure, but there is a fear that you will get your arse tanned if a woman complains to the authority..

    her singleness does not discriminate her to some extent is also related to common sense. And i seriously believe that being alone does not necessarily mean that you are lonely...

    in regards to the concerns about bringing boys home me on this...the law here does not go after this unless it is thrust under their nose...

    i do not know how its is bombay...but this place is less hassle for a single girl...
  • Rajpriya
    09.08.12 02:21 AM

    I don't really know much about Bombay but I read quite a lot about Dubai of people being arrested on moral based and alcohol related offenses mostly British.

    I have touched down at the Dubai airport at least four times a year in the last 20 years but never got out of it ever.

    However, living there you must be knowing much more than my hearsay info of this city.

    I enjoyed you writing skill. Oh! Those aunties? When Im spot one of them I take a U turn to run in the opposite direction.
  • Lekha
    09.08.12 01:24 AM

    I feel you are confusing between being alone and being lonely. The woman you are talking about was probably lonely and withdrawn or she must have had her reasons for not socialising. I believe you can stay alone but have wonderful friends, relatives, acquaintances and yes neighbours who will be there for you if you need them. You can care for others without spreading rumours about them, questioning their morality (or lack of it), raising doubts about their character just coz they don't have a ring on their finger, right?

    And Khadija is right. There are several cases in India these days where a person dies and the neighbours don't even know who he or she was. So one can't generalise.

    As far as Bombay is concerned, it's a fact that it's becoming increasingly difficult for singles to rent a house. Even if landlords do not object, housing societies do... not everywhere but in majority of the suburbs, especially after some high-profile murder cases involving working single men and women.
    09.08.12 01:02 AM
    @ Khadija

    I'm not being malicious or nasty. I was just telling her the story because of the privacy in the west. We lived next door to a woman and she never spoke to us, even tho we used to say hello to her, and to this day I don't know her name and she was our neighbour for 30 years. If there are plenty of cases in India like this, then I have heard of none so far. Besides I'm not arguing and I didn't insinuate anything towards her. I was just telling her that privacy in the west is overrated, where you don't know who your neighbours are, let alone interfere with their lives.
  • Lekha
    09.08.12 12:52 AM
    Hi Rajpriya, I empathise with you and I guess you got exactly what I am talking about. Those middle-aged aunts are quite a terror. I have known so many like them!
  • Khadija Ejaz
    Khadija Ejaz
    08.08.12 11:35 PM
    What a malicious thing to say. Besides, there are plenty of cases in India where people die and no one finds out until later. And plenty of cases outside of India where people die and someone does find out.
    08.08.12 11:03 PM
    @ Lekha

    Isn't it beautiful when nobody interferes with your affairs abroad. What time you go home, what you do for living, married or single and so on.

    I bet you are enjoying this aren't you? Rubbing your hands together and laughing on all the others, who are not in the same position as you. Smiling like a cheshire cat.

    Talking about a single woman I will tell you a story. There was an article in our local newspaper few years back, where police had to bust in to a house where a single old lady lived, and upon breaking the main door they discovered mountain full of mail at the back the door and the lady in the question had died year and half earlier.

    At this point you are asking a question, how is this possible. Well, when all the bills are paid by the bank nobody will ask a question, and that's how it is. And this isn't the only case, there has been numbers of others.

    One thing I will say is this, it's all thanks to privacy that you get abroad and not in India.

    Happy dreams. :)

  • medha kapoor
    medha kapoor
    08.08.12 07:07 PM
    Very interesting and informative! Great read.
  • Rajpriya
    08.08.12 04:58 PM
    “Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
    ? Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky
  • Khadija Ejaz
    Khadija Ejaz
    08.08.12 03:05 PM
    I actually really agree with your author bio: "...journalism cannot change the world. She believes scribes love to talk, think they are superior and make for ideal armchair activists - especially when they are away from India yet are constantly tuned into what’s happening back home."
  • Rajpriya
    08.08.12 12:33 PM
    Good story, well described and enough humor all intertwined to show the big difference. It was once upon time I answered an ad for a vacant room.
    Pressing the doorbell I saw a little more than middle aged Aunty opening the door.

    She was asking first with only her facial expression why I rang the bell.

    I said, I was there about the room advertised vacant.

    Just like you described after all the preliminary questions asked the final and decision-making question was what time do you come home in the evening?

    Well! I said, there is no particular time I would come home everyday and that depends on how soon I get work done in my work place.

    The Aunty said No! You can’t do that if you want the room. You have to be here sharp 10 pm or before because I don’t want people misunderstanding my letting a young man at all odd hours into my house.

    Phew! Picking up all courage I had, I said, “Lady what if people misunderstand me and think I can’t be without you when trying to be so punctual? OMG!

    The furious Aunty banged the door almost breaking my big nose. However, Lady be very careful in Dubai letting your boy friend sneaking in to your flat.

    Unmarried sex and when getting drunk in Dubai is Taboo. Rejecting advances you could be in for an ugly frame up. Mumbai is still my best bet when it comes to freedom of any single female.
  • Ash
    08.08.12 10:24 AM
    Very well written... yeah, Indians have this habit of asking too many questions and poking their noses into others' lives.... can get on one's nerves.
  • Kevin
    08.08.12 08:00 AM
    Lol good one. I laughed out loud the part about why you are not married yet. I believe that's the first question you face as a single anywhere in the world in the indian community.

Leave a comment