Know When To Hold ’Em
A Mumbaikar’s major decisions often hinge on real-estate arbitrage, says our resident expat.
Shaking on another 11-month leave and licence wasn’t the joyous occasion it should have been. It felt like failure—to me, anyway. To my landlord, who backed quickly away, it gave cause for immediate celebration.
My let-down had nothing to do with how we settled the rent, which inched up only modestly over last year’s. Nor was it a reflection on the flat, which, for all its quirks, I love. (Might expressing love for broken things be a means of reassuring ourselves that we, too, are lovable? A formulation I regrettably owe to Slavoj Žižek has it that the flaws of our beloved are precisely what, for us, constitute perfection. “This,” he says, surrounded by a garbage dump, “is where we should start feeling at home.”)
The dangled carrot, while enticing, still needs the stick to back it up. Imagine the prospect of dragging oneself through the muddy streets behind an interminable series of brokers in search of a reasonable flat. Or, worse, finding one, and enduring the kabuki set pieces that follow. How-can-we-rent-to-this-one. We-are-not-concerned-with-who-you-bring-here. Perfectly-functioning-toilet. Et cetera.
In summary, I have a great place at a reasonable rent, a landlord who stays out of my business, and neighbours who stick their noses in the latter just enough to demonstrate benign concern. For years I have achieved the unthinkable, the Mumbai sublime. This flat, well beyond its not inconsiderable amenities, has supplied physical evidence, Exhibit A, that I had indeed figured it out.
And that, perhaps, was the problem. Stability diminishes mystery. We fear peace and quiet. Mumbai has elevated fighting (jhagada) to an end in itself, if not an art form. Else we might have to ask ourselves what, if not perpetually struggling, are we doing here?
Fortunately, I’m the only comfortable one, or else things would get boring. Friends, restaurant chains, entire housing tracts come and go, and I’m still standing. Sometimes I conjecture myself at the centre-point of an Aristotelian universe, spheres rotating within spheres, the outermost and slowest rotating being Sea Link construction. See you in 2010, Nariman Point.
Now, when people ask how long I’ve been around, I pause for dramatic effect. I have reached that proverbially itchy quantum of years. No surprise that my eye should begin to wander. I’d even cast my Marilyn Monroe. Her name was Patnem Beach.
Running away to Goa for a few months seemed the least outlandish fantasy entertainable. People—not a representative sample, certainly, but the people I know—do it all the time. To flee my day job and hole up somewhere anonymous to write, a sort of A Room of One’s Own meets The Bourne Identity, sounded like a simple plan. A Simple Plan.
At second blush it wasn’t so simple. Scouting for a place in Goa was less grueling and more picturesque than in Mumbai, but equally fruitless. A series of promising leads turned into dead ends. Contacts met through friends suggested I place an ad in the newspaper. They had drastically overestimated my very minimal needs, which I described as two walls and a roof.
To my surprise, the math didn’t work out, either. Even in this off-season, rents in Goa aren’t substantially cheaper than rents in Mumbai. This comparison will serve as Exhibit B illustrating the sweetness of my current deal. In Goa you get more space and, if you’re lucky, a garden plot, but not the discount I would need were I to stop taking on clients. At the same time I’d be paying for the upkeep of a Khar office which, like it or not, would still be running. It represented something I’d built; however small, a kind of community.
The final days of my lease were meanwhile ticking away. When the decisive moment was at hand, and the hand extended, I shook it. That, not escape, was the simplest plan.
In recent weeks I’ve developed several differential diagnoses of my brief delusional episode. A parable of easy discouragement. A fantasy of weightlessness. An exile from an exile; running away from stepping off the treadmill. But the scariest thought I can dredge up is that my (dare I say?) sojourn in Mumbai has made me inflexible. Ironic, isn’t it? In this very city of “adjust”, per Suketu Mehta.
Since we’ve come this far, permit me one final liberty.
Early one morning the sun was shining
I was laying in bed
Wondering if she’d changed at all
If her hair was still red
As the years fly by, even my favourite parts of Mumbai have grown tangled up in blue. Ever notice how many songs dissect a falling out of love, how few record the first pangs of a new one? This is both.
With this column I sign off as The Holdout. I can’t thank Mumbai Boss enough for paying for my analysis sessions these couple years. Thanks also to my readers for enduring them. More writing, and better, to come. Stay tuned here and on Twitter: @MarvinDanielson.Tags: Flats, Goa, Real Estate, The Holdout