Single women coming to work in Chennai invariably love the city, but usually have no love lost for their landlords

No boys! No boys can come into the house,” says the middle-aged house owner and Aradrika Sengupta thinks this is a big step-up from ‘No single girls allowed,’ a refrain she’s been hearing ever since she started her house hunt.

“My brother might be coming down to stay with me sometime,” Aradrika informs him and the house owner nods empathetically. He understands the importance of family ties for a young woman who is new in the city. “But how will you know who my brother is?” asks Aradrika earnestly, “I can bring home any random man and claim he’s my brother, can’t I?”

The house owner is, needless to say, completely stumped.

Apartment hunting can prove to be a harrowing experience for anyone who is new to a city. Women who’ve moved to Chennai from elsewhere for work, usually get a sneak-peek into the restrictions the city and its people have placed on its women while looking for a place to live in. For Soheni Arora, finding an apartment proved to be an arduous task that took two whole months. “People would suspiciously ask me what I wanted to do with a place for myself since I’m a single woman,” laughs Soheni, who moved to the city 10 months ago from Kolkata to work as a product developer.

Annapoorna Venkatraman, a 24-year-old who moved to the city from Alleppey in 2012, says it would be impossible for a single woman to find an apartment in Kerala, a feat she is quite happy to have accomplished here.

As the first big ordeal anyone has to face in a new city, this is the part that elicits many comparisons between Chennai and the many different places these women hail from. It doesn’t stop here though — everything is judged and compared, from the Tamil that is spoken to the appalams that are broken on a groom’s head on the occasion of a traditional wedding.

While some women have trouble finding a house, many others seem to have found their homes in Chennai. “In Mumbai, you’d just be another face in the crowd, it’s not like that here,” says 27-year-old ophthalmologist Sonam Poonam Nisar who feels like she’s been here forever, despite having moved to the city just two months ago.

Women who’ve moved to Chennai for work largely spend their time bringing home the bacon. The time they have otherwise is spent discovering the wonders of starting a day with filter coffee, preferably after dosas from Murugan Idli Shop and before taking a little stroll along Elliot’s Beach. They’ve also discovered molaga podi, jasmine flowers, drives along the ECR and the boon of having a cap on ticket prices at the cinemas.

“Movie tickets are only Rs. 120 here and if you sit in the front seat, it’s just Rs. 10. In Mumbai, you’ll still have to pay Rs. 180 even if you sit in the first row,” says 27-year-old Harsha Gaikwad who moved to Chennai five years ago to become an actor. Harsha, the eldest in her family and a bread winner since the age of 17 says, “I’m from a conservative family but I’ve always wanted to pursue acting and dancing. I moved to Chennai to pursue my dreams.” Harsha, who made the unlikely shift from Bollywood to Kollywood, already has four short films scheduled and emphatically declares there’s nothing she dislikes about the city that gave her the career she wanted.

While many love the city for the freedom it gives them, many others feel limited by the liberties it has taken away. “In Kolkata, I could just go to a liquor store and pick up a bottle of wine. That’s not something I’d even try here,” says Soheni highlighting how something fairly commonplace and casual in her hometown is still taboo in Chennai.

“I don’t want to be here,” says 23-year-old software developer, Sindhuri Yosoda, who doesn’t know much about the city but is very sure as to how she feels about it. When she was told she had to work in Chennai, she thought she’d be able to adjust and find her place here. Now 10 months later, not much has changed — she doesn’t go out much, she hasn’t made any friends, the climate makes her unwell, and she’s desperately trying to get a transfer out of here.

For Harsha, it’s the train commute that bothers her. “There are hardly any people in the stations after seven in the evening. It’s scary,” says Harsha, who is used to the local trains in Mumbai that have people spilling out of them well into the night.

“It’s a safe city, and one where you can find your way around even late at night,” says Soheni, who wouldn’t be able to do the same in Delhi. Twenty-three-old financial analyst Ashwani Mohanlal, who moved here from Bahrain says she has always felt protected in Chennai, “Be it while talking to tea kadai owners at 4 p.m. or visiting kayendhi bhavans at 4 a.m., I haven’t experienced a single moment of discomfort yet.”

In another part of the city, Sayani Sinha who moved here from Delhi to work in Public Relations is breaking myths and misconceptions about South Indian breakfast menus — “Idlis and dosas aren’t the only things I eat for breakfast now,” stresses Sayani who has now discovered pongal, vadai, adai and a whole range of breakfast dishes since she moved to Chennai six months ago. But Sayani also claims to know people who’ve left the city because of their inability to adapt to the food.

While idlis have earned themselves a loyal fan base, they cannot sway the Kolkatan who swears by her street food or the Mumbaikar who loves her pani puris. “You don’t get vada pavs here,” laughs Harsha, who isn’t too fond of idlis but is quite a big fan of dosas.

Another aspect that these women have trouble getting accustomed to is the language. “My colleagues speak to each other in Tamil when I’m around and it’s not a language I know yet,” complains Soheni even after having learnt enough of the language to argue with an auto driver. While Sayani hopes that people in Chennai will learn a little Hindi and make things easier for her, Soheni says that the problem is not that they don’t know the language.

“A lot of people insist on speaking to me only in Tamil even if they can speak Hindi or English,” says Soheni. It has nothing to do with the people though and Soheni can testify to that after having lived next door to a lady who only spoke Tamil but would insist on speaking to her, even if she had to use sign language to do so. Yet, Soheni complains that people here are insular.

Perhaps she says so because she is in agreement with Harsha, who thinks that people keep to themselves and don’t often go out of their way to make friends. “There is a little feeling of ‘Us and Them’ that exists,” says Soheni. Perhaps she attributes this to the prejudice that Harsha thinks exists against those from outside the city.

While there is general agreement that people are nice, there still exists an inevitable divide. “People here are very accepting and I’ve blended in very well,” says Sonam and yet, she still doesn’t feel a sense of belonging to the city. A matter of time for some might just be something that never happens for many.

Chanceae illa,” giggles Sonam Nisar in heavily-accented Tamil when asked if she would date someone from Chennai. Single women in their 20s, some of whom have parents back home trying to find them suitable husbands, are keeping their eyes open to meet someone they like within the city. “Chennai boys are nice, but they only want pretty girls, especially fair ones from other cities,” says Harsha and Sonam follows that up by saying that Chennai men are, “tall, dark and not very handsome, but they are very good at heart.”

The general consensus, though, is that men are too shy to approach a woman they are interested in, which proves to be a problem because of the limited avenues they have to meet them. “I would love to date a Chennai boy,” says Annapoorna, who likes the men here in comparison to their counterparts in Kerala.

“People here are very helpful, even the auto guys who bargain the life out of you,” says Annapoorna, who once came across a nice auto driver who got her water and dropped her home on a day she was dealing with giddy spells. When someone manages to look at the nice side of an auto driver, with his refrain of ‘20 rupees extra’, you know there is hope.

This safe city, with its rich culture and many nuances will be just that for those who’ve lived here all their life. Women who bring in different experiences from other parts of the country compare it against what they were used to, what they have left behind and understand many nuances that are taken for granted by locals — just as Harsha compares the city to Mumbai and calls it peaceful, Sayani says that people here are very humble in comparison to those in Delhi who tend to show off.

For these women, every day is a new chance to test their freedom, a chance to be an exotic outsider in a new place and a chance to discover and love the many flavours of a city they are slowly becoming a part of.