The bedrock belief of liberal democracies is that market economies breed toleration and peace. When people's survival depends on voluntary exchange—buying and selling from each other— they have a greater incentive to ignore their religious, racial and political differences rather than slit each others' throats over them. Over time, a society organized around the trader principle inevitably develops an ethos of cosmopolitan comity —a live and let live attitude—that not just tolerates such differences but thrives on them. One's religion and way of life becomes a matter of personal preference instead of an existential matter needing broader social affirmation.
All of this is by and large true. But by and large is not always and sometimes economic conditions arise that put market power in the hands of either the buyer or the seller. And when that happens in a country like India, it can produce some rather infuriating but hilarious results.
Real estate prices in India's major metropolitan cities in the last decade have touched stratospheric heights for reasons too numerous to go into here. Suffice it to say that a 2,000 square-foot row house in West Delhi, hardly the poshest area of the city, is rumored to be worth Rs. 10 crore— about $2 million dollars, a many-thousand-fold increase over the original price.
The upshot is that the rental market is very much a landlord's market here. And the landlords tend to be older, prudish Hindus who love what the gales of modernization are doing to their home values – but hate what they are doing to their traditional mores. Hence many of them have decided to wield their market power to take a stand for piety, tradition and vegetarianism. They have taken it upon themselves to make all kinds of lifestyle demands of potential tenants, especially younger, single ones whose Western and decadent ways they believe are leading the nation straight into kalyug—the age of vice. The Times of India recently had a hilarious account of the kinds of questions that that landlords are asking renters these days.
Cheryl, a 26-year-old single woman, for example, was queried whether she watched porn films. "I didn't even understand his question at first," the 26-year-old told TOI. "Because the word he used was 'XXX' . The creep. How could he even ask a young woman that?"
Cheryl is not alone in her agony and embarrassment, the TOI reports:
Such landlord woes abound throughout the country. Even as cross-country tenants on the look-out for jobs and avenues are getting younger—some barely through with their teens—the landlords, often static and caught in a time warp, haven't warmed up to changing ethos and new value systems.
The questions asked (Do you smoke, drink, party, pray, womanise , eat meat other than chicken?); stereotypes ingrained (If you are an atheist, why the hell should I give you a piece of my sacred abode?); conditions mandated (No guests of the opposite sex after 8 pm, you understand?); and promises extracted (Please, never dry your underwear in the balcony) are often obnoxious, sometimes weird—culminating in situations that would be funny if only the joke was not on the tenants.
Like the time when luck ran out on Mithilesh Sahani and he was caught smuggling in some eggs for what promised to be a "normal" breakfast for the non-vegetarian after a long time. His landlord had at the time of the first interview asked him "Eggs?" And Sahani had replied "No, sir, can't stand the smell." So it was a serious breach of trust.
Eggs have landed Gaurav Singh in trouble, too. "But it was all my grocer's fault," he now says, smiling. "Black polythene bags were out of stock in that shop and so the eggs were put in a transparent bag. That's when my landlord in Ahmedabad, anti-eggs ever since he was born, saw me. I was out of the house in two days."
What the landlords don't realize, says Singh, is that while he has remained in his small Borivili (in Mumbai) or Vastrapur (in Ahmedabad) apartment for 60 years, his tenants come from a different world, a place where one can't really afford to have strictly insular views on practically anything. "The youth's mantra for survival these days is 'Chillax, sab chalta hai' ," says Singh. "You can't always expect a much older person to understand that. We have to negotiate that terrain."
But the youth who can't assume Singh's zen-like calm should fret not. There is relief in sight from this tyranny of piety. Even as we speak, individual landlords are losing their market power as commercial developers scoop up their homes and build multi-story apartment buildings that they are happily renting to anyone with a financial surplus, their moral deficit be damned.