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Setting up a home in Mumbai, this single woman discovers the obstacles of jugaad and Indian Stretchable Time. A hilarious narrative.
I watched ‘Radeshyam Ramdas Gas Guy’, with fascination, as he worked the pipe through the opening on the counter towards the stove. For the umpteenth time, I said a silent prayer, pleading to God, any God really, not to let me burn the place down. I had never had to manage gas cylinders in all 35 years of my existence.
It’s not that I had never lived on my own, I had just never done it in India. Having spent 15 years overseas, the fact that I had to manage ‘help’, hustle unreliable customer service agents, and be on a Whatsapp basis (and therefore subject to a rather excessive number of ‘good morning’ and other videos) with my drycleaner, seemed daunting. I’m used to straightforward routes between things, and gas that magically appears in the stove.
My kitchen is shaped like a rectangle, and I had planned for my stove to be at the far end, near the balcony door, giving me ample space for both an appliance, such as a microwave or toaster oven, and counter space for food preparation. But much to my dismay, Radeshyam Ramdas Gas Guy plugged the pipe into the far end of the stove, which shifted it to a strange no man’s land, which was not quite the end of the counter, nor the middle. It left awkward spaces on either side.
I asked him if he could switch it, he looked at me and said “I’ll have to send a mechanic. He’ll come in a few hours.” Try as I might, I could not get an explanation. It seemed like such a simple thing, to remove the pipe from one end, and place it in the other end. But alas, he could not, or would not do it.
The mechanic arrived, perhaps a little later than promised. I was taking sanctuary in the only room in my house with air conditioning: my bedroom, but came out to see the fun.
I watched him open his tool box, and proceed to dismantle the stove (which had come in one piece), piece by piece, till there was nothing left of the original. So many questions rose to my lips, but I bit them back, perhaps realizing the futility of asking. What seemed like a simple thing had become a whole exercise in mechanical engineering.
After he disassembled the whole thing, he reassembled it. I stared at the stove: it really didn’t look like anything had changed. He then placed the pipe on the requested side, and charged me 700 rupees for his time. I sighed. Some battles were just not worth fighting.
Although it is completed now, albeit to my layman satisfaction, this apartment has made me cry, fume, scream, and tear my hair out. I have loved and hated this apartment, like an inconsistent lover, because it has taken everything out of me to finish furnishing it. I had no concept of what taking an unfurnished flat in India meant at that time, and if I had to do it all over again I might think twice.
While I’m not interior designer, I had a very specific idea of how I wanted to build my home. Many people asked why I would take so much time over a rental property, before doling out loads of unsolicited advice on what I should be doing, and where I should be doing it.
I did it because I travel a lot and, like many of you, have a mentally and emotionally taxing job. I need to come home to a place that makes me feel good, even if it’s temporary. Secondly, I don’t know if I’ll ever own a place or do the nesting thing: I am restless, and tend to drift from place to place. So rather than waiting till I “settle down,” why not now? What if I never settle down?
I took possession of my sunny 2 BHK on a sunny Saturday morning: October 8, 2016. I have these beautiful large windows and balconies along the entire outer length of my flat. However, before I invested in curtains and air conditioning, I spent many sweaty hours, cooking to a crisp, while waiting for wayward deliveries or workmen.
When I walked in on that very first day, I discovered my bedroom door was locked shut. Somehow it had slammed itself shut and the lock had leaped forward. At least that’s the way it played in my head.
The carpenter arrived, and removed the entire door handle and lock from my bedroom door. I never saw the door handle or lock again. The next time I saw him, despite repeated pleas to the building management, was in December 2017, one year and two months later, when rang my bell and asked whether I had called for a carpenter.
By then, I had hired my own guy to fix the door, as well as the broken shower caddy, filling the gaps in the balcony door frames that allowed friendly reptile house guests in, and had sealed open window behind the laundry area therefore preventing pigeons from defecating all over my washing machine. Now, staring at the elusive workman, I told him that I had needed him a year ago, but now I have another guy for the job. Far from embodying the shame I was trying to place on his slight shoulder, he shrugged, turned and left.
In those first ten days in Mumbai, I barely ate, and had more than a few meltdowns. I arrived one day, mere days before I was to physically move in, and discovered that an army of ants had invaded my home. There were hundreds of them walking along the edges of the flat, crawling up the corners, hugging the walls. I had no food in the place or anything of interest to them really, and yet here they were, in large numbers, marching towards nothing in particular. I bought Raid, and found a pest control service immediately.
In that initial stretch: I bought an air conditioner, got a bed and mattress delivered, got curtains installed, bought a washing machine, hired a maid, bought closets, and got a gas connection set up, and unpacked my shipment of possessions from Delhi, along with a mishmash of kitchen hand me downs, that were in various levels of disrepair.
Though there were several other major hurdles after that, including a wayward Hometown kitchen cabinet, two leaking geysers, and a series of encounters with an excessively nosey over-friendly neighbour, who was clearly going through some kind of mid-life crisis, the one that stands out is my quest for an internet connection.
It took me till December to get an internet connection. I was directed, not to Airtel or any of the other major internet service providers, but a curious entity called Shree Samarth Vision, that allegedly had a monopoly in the building.
I was given the number of a man named ‘Babu’. He showed up with one other man and got to work, but there was a problem. Over a year later, what exactly the problem was, is still a mystery to me. They said they would have to break “it” from the back (peeche se thod ne padega). What “it” was, I never found out.
The building manager forbade me to allow them to break anything, and they insisted that they could not do anything without the required work. This went on for several weeks. I was tired of relying on a temperamental dongle that shut itself off at will. To make matters even worse, Babu’s sense of time was a bit too flexible. 15 minutes translated to at least an hour and a half, and I do actually wonder where he was all those times when he said, “I’m just downstairs on my way up.” If his words are to be believed it took him 45 minutes to ride the elevator up to the fifth floor.
The day I got my internet, the day after I finally hired an electrician to fix whatever it was that needed fixing, I had a lunch event in Versova. Babu was supposed to arrive at 11, and when he arrived at 11:45, I only had 15 minutes left, and was tempted to tell him to leave. I should have known not to trust him when he said that the work would only take five minutes. 25 minutes later, he was still there, and I was no closer to having internet.
Finally, at 12:30, I pushed him out the door, and went late for lunch. He promised to return in the evening. Which he did, about two hours later than he said he would.
But I have to say this about Babu. Once he set his mind to giving me internet, he did not give up. To this day, he comes to my house personally to fix the internet, or to collect the cheques for my internet. I even enjoy uninterrupted service when I pay them a few days late.
For a time, things went smoothly. My usual adventures continued: being woken up on a Saturday afternoon from a fever-induced nap to get yelled at by an elderly postmaster (who later demanded a Diwali bonus for the one letter she delivered all year), a pigeon trying to infiltrate my kitchen, and the demise several plants before I gave up on gardening forever. I bought one major piece of furniture per month, furnishing the flat in a total of 10 months, and then I decorated.
My problems started again when I started having water issues. Due to the ongoing construction in the building, the water would go off at will, and predictably at the most inconvenient times. Some months back, I had a few friends coming to stay at my flat for a few days, while I was away in Delhi. I had finished breakfast, about two hours before I was supposed to leave for the airport, and the water went off. I called the building manager, who advised me that the water would be off for the majority of the day.
I asked him how I was supposed to wash my dishes, and he said, “the toilets are still running, you can use that water. It’s good.”
At that point I was so speechless, it was all I could do to thank him and hang up the phone. I immediately bought several large bottles of water to use in case of emergency, and instructed my maid never, under any circumstances to use toilet water for anything than flushing. Much to my relief, the thought had never occurred to her, and she laughed it off.
Today, I have furniture I love, art on my walls that inspires me, and am generally content, but I do feel the blood, sweat and tears it took to get here. Hence, I’ve learned to let go a little.
In North America, in spite of having to do it all, it was easy. Things happened when they were supposed to happen, carpenters picked up their phones and didn’t disappear to their villages for six months at a time, and people had normal letterboxes for their mail. While three years in Delhi had reintroduced some measure of understanding of how to “adult” in India (house-sitting while my parents were away), it was not quite the same thing as setting it up from scratch.
I think the beautifully frustrating thing about living here is that life is punctuated by a series of obstacles, and often just getting through the day feels like a major victory. I’ve learned that the angrier you get, the larger the barricades, and eventual meltdowns loom. Now, when things fall apart, I take a deep breath, and I create a funny Facebook post, because take it too seriously, and you’ll never be at peace.
Image source: By Steve Evans from Citizen of the World (Mumbai: Young Woman) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
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Mira Saraf was born in Canada, grew up in New Delhi, and went to a
Mira, a brilliant piece, one of the best you have written, and that is saying something. I am proud of the way you have learned to roll with the punches, because you are reliving what I lived through many years before you had to. So, yes I can relate to this, and the reason I do not panic when things look bleak is because I know things will eventually get better.
Good luck and God bless
Thank you Dad, apologies for the late reply – wasn’t able to do this properly from my phone! Yes, I am sure you can relate to many of the experiences, and in fact in your situation it would have been worse – pre-internet/smartphones/Whatsapp, so everything through trial and error. At least my Drycleaner got amazing reviews on google and so I felt a bit more confident! I think learning to roll with the punches was one of the most useful survival skills I have picked up since moving back. I have the occasional meltdown still, but inside I know generally things fall into place 🙂 Thanks for reading!
Loved your post and can definitely identify with what you went through. My ordeals are still continuing as it is not even a month in my process of setting up house. Just add a 11 month old baby to the mix and you might get a picture of what am facing. Reading your post I at times felt we might be living in the same building. 🙂
Thank you so much Shakhi! It means so much that you could identify – and with an 11 month old baby I can only imagine how crazy it must be! And if you’re in Mumbai, we may in fact, be living in the same building (haha) in which case you can probably identify firsthand! But in all seriousness, it is an ordeal, and it’s one that requires so much humour to cope, else you might just crack under the weight of it all. I use laughter as a therapy and I find that it really helps. Much love and luck to you my friend!
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