Looking for a paying guest accommodation in Chennai can turn out to be quite an adventure

As I packed the best of my kurtas and duppatas into a suitcase and tried endlessly to roll my tongue over “anna kami panninga” and “Anna Salai pono”, my Bangalore heart and North-Indian self doubled up with fear of living in Chennai.

Three years ago, when I moved to Bangalore from a small town in Uttar Pradesh, the fears were less pronounced, they lingered on the borderline but never surfaced enough to be called substantial. But coming to Chennai was something different. Everybody who had congratulated me on my new venture had warned me against how harsh the city can be. Especially to a person like me, who even after hundreds of attempts could not speak one correct sentence in Tamil.

Two days before my departure, the realisation that I do not have a place to stay in the city finally dawned upon me. Yes, I should have made arrangements beforehand. Yes, I should have contacted people and found accommodation. But guess what, I knew not a soul in this city of 4.34 million people and my only hope was the sister institution of my alma mater which had told me over emails that they might, just might, take me in. As for PGs and hostels, I had been strictly warned to stay away from them. The reason for which, I was to know in the coming week.

I reached Chennai on a hot humid and very gloomy afternoon. The kind when you want to fall down on your knees before taking your next step, when one half of you is dying from dehydration and the other half is melting away with bucket-loads of sweat. After a couple of bus changes and exchanges with some kind strangers, I reached Thiruvanmiyur, where a very kind couple — absolute strangers to me — relatives of a friend from Bangalore, had accepted to take me in. I was told I could stay there for as long as I wanted. But when you are a house-guest, how long is too long? My gracious hosts tried their best to make me comfortable — from North Indian food to Wi-Fi password — I was ‘at home’ in all ways.

But as the sun rose the next morning, I knew I needed a place to settle in for the next two months. Early next morning, before heading for the office, I went to the institution hoping to meet the director and quickly getting a room. How difficult can it be to get a room in a hostel which is vacant because of summer vacations, right? Wrong. Four days of continuous phone calls, appointments and cancellations later, I was informed over phone that my request had “not been considered”. I was appalled. But more than that, I was angry. The women I had talked to had all been nice, even uttered a few “oh”s upon knowing that I knew absolutely nobody in the city.

Instead of brooding upon the ghosts of the cheap-safe-easy commute hostel-room, I decided to brave the house-hunt and chalked out from the Internet a list of PGs in Anna Salai, T. Nagar and Teynampet, places which the map said were not more than 5 km from my workplace. My first destination was a PG near the British Council in Anna Salai. I called them up and a sophisticated English-speaking woman answered, confirming an AC room for close to Rs. 8000 in the PG. Countless rebukes from the auto-anna later, I reached British Council, but did not find the PG. Where was it? Nobody knew where Rangoon Street was and I found it almost impossible to believe that.

I was walking down the British Council Road when I saw an old tattered board with the PG’s name written on it. “This has to be a joke,” I thought. Of course it was. I had seen the pictures on the Internet. The place was supposed to be almost lavish. I walked into the building and was greeted (read: stared at) by a male guard, who if not drunk, was certainly inebriated in some way. The supposed warden, was a woman in her early 30s, who had not a clue regarding the rates of her own hostel rooms. On the Internet, this PG has a swanky website and a detailed rate-list. On the phone, the sophisticated female had narrated it out to me by the word, but in reality — it was all a sham. The three-sharing room was a window-less 8x8 ft room, in which three beds were cramped together without any notion of personal space or privacy. Get out of the room and you had to pass a dark damp corridor with rooms on either side. I got out of that place as soon as I could.

In the next two days, I found out that this was true for almost all the PGs which came under my “5 km from Mount Road rule”. There were places where one room had been converted into five by plywood partitions or others where the windows were sealed shut because they opened into the next building. There were even places which could be called a single bed with a door. It was next to impossible getting a place where you wouldn’t suffocate at some point. Yet, I was surprised to see that they were all almost fully accommodated. I wonder if those women were fooled into advance payments or if the living conditions for newcomers were really that difficult. A pigeon-hole for 8K? No, thank you.

My “5 km rule” soon converted into “Close to railway station rule” and “Only PGs and Girls Hostels rule” converted into “Anything decent and airy rule”. Thanks to Facebook groups and people who had already suffered house-hunting like me, Velachery came into the scene. Looking for houses was easier here, the rooms were bigger and people a bit more welcoming. Absolute strangers came to the rescue, gave me phone numbers of PGs and independent houses which they thought were more suitable than the others and finally, I found a room.

Thirteen days in Chennai later, house hunting has made me explore more of the city than I had imagined I would. I now know how Keelkattalai can give you a good deal when it comes to independent houses and how beyond the toll gate there are a few PGs where conditions are liveable. My curiosity has led me into talking to people who have had worse house-hunting experiences than me. From being reduced to tears to paying 60K for security, there is nothing a single girl wouldn’t go through to find a respectable accommodation.

It takes exactly 38 minutes from my office which is near the Chintadripet railway station to the Velachery railway station, which means almost an hour of commute to and from work. But believe me, none of it matters when I leave the office knowing that I have a place that I can call home.