Mrs. Sen wouldn’t have her dinner until I came back. She nursed me when I fell ill. She didn’t throw me out when I lost my job.

My house-hunting experience in Kolkata and New Delhi is no different from the accounts published in The Hindu dated July 8, 2012, but my frantic search for the elusive roof over my head in Kolkata many years ago had a rather happy ending.

But before I tell the happy story, let me recount the harrowing time I had in the capital and former capital in 2000 and the 1980s respectively. The Hindu’s reportage shows that nothing has changed in three decades, and probably never will!

I arrived in Delhi in 2000 to work for South China Morning Post. My rent budget was Rs 25,000 but not a single Hindu landlord would have me. Ultimately I lived in two flats; first in Noida and then in Panchsheel Park. Both landlords were Muslims. The apartment in Noida’s Jalvayu Vihar belonged to a Bombay Mercantile Bank officer. The Panchsheel Park flat was owned by a former DESU chief engineer. I inspected a flat in Zakir Bagh owned by a former Bengal Governor, A. R. Kidwai’s son, and a flat belonging to Syed Shahabuddin’s daughter in Mayur Vihar’s IFS Apartments.

Both were mine for the asking but I preferred the Panchsheel Park as it was close to the Chittaranjan Park market crucial for my fish supplies — I’m a Bengali by nature, thank you.

But Delhi didn’t shock me too much because of the bulk of my previous house-hunting experience in Kolkata. I studied in a cosmopolitan institution, St. Xavier’s College, and lived in the college hostel. After graduation, I started looking for accommodation at Ballygunge and New Alipore. I drew a blank. The closest I came to sealing a deal was a landlord’s thoughtful pre-condition that I should assume a Hindu name before moving in.

I consulted my one and only guru S. P. Singh [editor of Ravivar, Nav Bharat Times and Aajtak’s founder]. SP remarked that the landlord was a good man but the locality was clearly a minefield!

Then, by a stroke of sheer good luck, I met Anita Sen. She didn’t have a flat to let out; she lived in a three-bedroom apartment at New Alipore and wanted a paying guest. My religion didn’t bother her. But she had one condition: No booze or girlfriend. I promptly agreed. She was exactly my mother’s age. Her husband had passed away; she lived with her two sons. I had a room to myself. We ate in the dining room. I had access to the drawing room too where there was a telephone.

Mrs. Sen wouldn’t have her dinner until I came back. She would cook rice and heat the food while I took a shower after a hard day’s work. She nursed me when I fell ill. She didn’t throw me out when I lost my job and was unable to make the monthly payment that we had agreed upon. In fact, she lent me money when I was in dire straits.

I landed a better job. One morning, hesitantly I called her Ma instead of Mrs. Sen. “Wah beta” she replied and darted to the kitchen to make me another cup of tea. When my father came visiting from Varanasi, I said: Papa, this is Ma. I smiled but they burst out laughing. We lived on the ground floor. The brother of Ma’s late husband lived upstairs. Eight years after my arrival, they decided to sell the house and share the proceeds.

A proud owner

After the sale, Ma, her two sons and I moved into a Times of India flat in New Alipore. I was working for Illustrated Weekly those days and was entitled to a company flat. When Ma booked a flat in a nearby apartment block under construction, she told me to book one too. But I didn’t have the funds to even contemplate purchasing a flat in such a posh locality. Ma solved the problem by quietly lending me Rs. 1 lakh in 1990. My flat cost slightly over Rs. 5 lakh. I tapped my provident fund and also took a loan from LIC. But primarily because of Ma’s affection-cum-generosity — she said I could repay at leisure — I became the proud owner of an apartment next to hers in upscale New Alipore!

(The author is Deputy Editor of Outlook. He won a United Nations award for breaking the Bhagalpur blindings story. Email: snmabdi @yahoo.com)

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