Lords of the lease

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 August, 2006, 12:00am

Renting a flat in the Indian capital is not for the faint-hearted. It takes endurance, determination and superhuman self-control: there are landlords here just demanding to be stabbed because of their outrageous demands.

There is a clear pecking order in the tenants that Indian landlords prefer. The tenant from heaven is a white foreigner. That's because every landlord's biggest fear is that a tenant will refuse to leave at the end of the lease.

The Delhi Rent Control Act makes it difficult for landlords to throw out such tenants, and they effectively lose their property to people who, knowing that possession is nine-tenths of the law, deliberately exploit the legislation's pro-tenant provisions.

The city is full of these horror stories - tenants who moved into a property 20 years ago at a rent of US$30 and are still in it - paying the same rent - when it should now be US$1,200 or more.

The next-best tenant is an expatriate Indian who is posted in the city for a couple of years and will then move on. Reasonably desirable, too, is a local person who works for a multinational corporation. At the bottom of the heap is the poor average Indian with an ordinary job. Among this lot, south Indians are preferred owing to a popular belief that they are milder than north Indians, and therefore less likely to be demanding, difficult or truculent in a dispute.

Landlords' greed is a staple of conversation. A standard demand is for one year's rent (or two) in advance, along with a six-month deposit.

India is a totally family-oriented society, and consequently, families are infinitely more appealing as tenants than bachelors or single women. The last two groups are 'dangerous': the fear is that they will engage in bacchanalian orgies. In fact, a landlady in Panchsheel Park once warned me not to take sharab (alcohol) into the flat.

Landlords regard unmarried women living alone - whether spinsters or divorcees - as disreputable. Ergo, unsavoury boyfriends are bound to pour in, posing a security threat to the landlord, who often lives on the ground floor.

A few years ago, I had to resort to hoodwinking a Mr Bhansal - who then became my long-time landlord. I was desperate for his lovely flat facing a park in Jangpura Extension, but he kept asking about my husband. I am single. I told him that my beloved was based in London - and he offered me the flat. From then on, I would drop my 'husband's' name into our conversations but, with time, I forgot to maintain the silly fiction.

Mr Bhansal must have realised that I'd been fibbing. But by then, he knew me and liked me - and I paid the rent on time - so he sensibly opted to pull a discreet veil over the subject.