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The perpetual dilemma, to let or not to let

Illustration: Deepak Harichandan

Illustration: Deepak Harichandan  

The owner-tenant relationship is such a peculiar one, aspects of which have also been exploited in pop culture

I had to let out my house again. Up went the ‘To Let’ board and in trickled prospective tenants, many of them snoopy owners and busybody brokers. Many rejected the house as it was not vaastu-compliant. ‘Where’s devara mane (god’s house)?’ some enquired, puzzled. ‘Ask god’, I replied, humbled. (It ought to have been pooja room.)

A middle-aged man huffed and puffed his way in through the rain, followed by what looked like a whale getting washed ashore, his overweight wife. His eyes told me he couldn’t be trusted. Dubious young ‘couples’ were shooed away. ‘We won’t give you any trouble,’ asserted one desperate homemaker. I knew that meant trouble.

Isn’t the owner-tenant relationship rather peculiar, and tricky? Like the so-called arranged marriages, some ‘click’ despite adverse conditions and others simply don’t despite favourable conditions. One reason for its peculiarity (and trickiness) is perhaps the physical proximity of the two parties, sometimes 24X7, yet their remoteness in every other way, just as in the initial stages of arranged marriages. Here, as well as in arranged marriages, both were complete strangers before, weren’t they? In fact, a good tenant-owner relationship is as rare as a good marriage, I’ve come to believe. When that happens, little effort is required to build trust; it just happens.

That was how it was with my first tenant Mr. Vishweswariah, and with Mr. Lakshmeesha, my father’s tenant. But the other two of my tenants that followed Mr Vishweswariah — both Krishnamurthy by name — enjoyed breaking trust at every opportunity even if it meant losing their dignity.

Owners living away from their tenants seem to have less trouble with tenants, as I’ve noticed. And how can I forget Mr. Raghavan, my father’s first tenant, who jogged inside the house in his underwear?

R.K. Narayan’s The Man-Eater of Malgudi is one novel I’ve read that explores the owner-tenant relationship as a sub-theme. Nataraj, the protagonist, is the typical Indian middle-class house owner. A printer by profession, he is of average build, middle-aged, content with family and work. Vasu, the tall, strong, boorish, dishevelled, bold, shameless and sinister bachelor is his unsolicited tenant, and a picture of complete contrast — physically, intellectually and ‘morally’. In between there are other players, some who buttress the ordinariness of Nataraj and others who increase the enigma surrounding Vasu. Rangi, Vasu’s closest girlfriend (among many others of dubious reputation), is one such character.

In popular culture, whether Indian or Western, owners are, like Nataraj, typically simpletons, and tenants are often like Vasu. Mrs. Hudson and Sherlock Holmes is one such example I know from western pop culture. Owners are stable, predictable; tenants aren’t. In addition, in Indian popular culture owners have no ‘bad habits’ — smoking and drinking, in particular — but tenants are rarely so. Tenants are also, generally, dashing young men. This gives space for the romantic component to be included, usually between the tenant and the owner’s daughter.

This standard projection of owner-tenant is so rooted in our popular culture that an inversion — Owner: Vasu/Holmes, Tenant: Nataraj/Mrs. Hudson — in real life is almost unbelievable, if not shocking, as it is, more or less Holmesian, in my case.

One understands it’s hard to find a suitable house to rent; owners put all sorts of conditions. Living as a tenant could be harder because some owners keep adding conditions after one takes the house.

I’ve been a tenant so I know how difficult it is to get a good, affordable house and a good owner; if there’s one the other’s missing. Why, more often than not, should owners and tenants be ‘frenemies’? Why begin a relationship in distrust? Ostentatious and excessive amity during initial stages between the two hints at lurking distrust. And a bad tenant will fare worse as an owner.

A new tenant

I’m now blessed with a new tenant, my fourth. But I’ve already decided on a new slogan for my next tenant selection: the weirder, the better. Oh, how I’d love to have a Sherlock Holmes for a tenant! I know, because I’ve read The Adventure of the Dying Detective.

But wait! What if I end up with a Vasu who looks like, walks like, talks like and — gulp — pays like Sherlock?

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 11:17:59 AM |

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