We only viewed the room once. If you would call it a viewing. The original intent of our visit was to look at the apartment on the first floor. It was a spacious one bedroom with an attached bathroom, a kitchen and a small living room connecting it all together. A bit above our price range but the owner accepted my boyfriend and me as an unmarried couple. Not at all a common occurrence in India, even in a metropolitan city like Chennai. The building sat right up against another building to the right and an empty plot, piled with rubbish to the left. Our new home stood off of the main street and down in what I would call an alleyway, but a typical road here; small, narrow and littered with children, chickens, and motorbikes.
The property owner was out-of-town and so all the communication was conducted through phone calls. I don’t doubt I could have figured everything out myself, but having Dinesh to translate, negotiate and essentially be my voice in all matters communication, made things much, much easier. There is some balancing act of karma here; living with the sigma as an unmarried couple in India and living with my Indian boyfriend who makes living in India a breeze.
When we first arrived at the property, phone in hand trying to navigate the unmarked houses and poorly given direction, the landlord informed us that a second room was available. The said second room was really just a room. Above the intended apartment we went to look at the freestanding room which shared the roof with a mother, father and their 15-year-old son. That day we just opened the door, glanced inside and agreed that this small room was all the room we needed. Just a few hours later after weighing the few options we had, we made the choice to secure the room. Everything happened so fast the next day while ironing out details we couldn’t even remember if the floor was tiled or concrete.
The timing could not have been more perfect. Since arriving in Chennai on Saturday, three days before our move-in date, I was a mess of stress. Worried constantly about finding a place to stay, I all but cried myself to sleep every night completely crushed with the growing number of rejections I got searching for apartments. Move-in day was a completely fresh start. I had been couch surfing and initially told my host I would leave Tuesday, and come Tuesday morning I packed my backpack and took the number 20 bus to Egmore station one last time. Only Sunday did we decide on the little roof room and have confirmation to move in. Sure my host would have let me stayed longer if I asked, they were such kind people and we got along magnificently. However I had been in India for a month, traveling about as Dinesh looked for a job, and the battle for us to finally live together had been going on for months. A sense of invincibility came with the security of a place to call home.
Carrying my backpack holding all 12 kgs of every possession I owned, not including my laptop which Dinesh so graciously kept with him, I took a bus, and then a train, to T. Nagar. Around 10 AM I met Dinesh at the tea stall we stopped at the day before. With a laundry list of things to do, we drank our tea periodically dipping in the butter biscuits before our drinks ran cold. As we moved to deposit our rental advance and internet fees we first had to exchange my money from ringgit to rupees. Finding a currency exchange was easy and we lucked out with a fair exchange and not a far walk. It was only after that we began the long journey to our new place. After the money exchange, we needed to deposit the money into Dinesh’s account which had us walking for 15 minutes to the nearest ATM allowing a cash deposit. Thereafter we meandered to the nearest juice stand, had a sit while Dinesh had his ear to the phone for what seemed like the next hour. During which I slowly drank my pomegranate juice with the reusable straw I received for Christmas – it was nice to finally put that straw to good use.
Between the phone calls to our landlord, maintenance man, and internet service provider we managed to leave the juice stall. Before locating the nearest bus stand we crossed the street to a conveniently placed hardware shop buying a hefty padlock for the door knowing full well one would not be provided. Under the searing 32 degrees heat, not a cloud in the sky and the sun directly overhead, we walked with all our belonging some 500 meters away to the bus stand google maps promised where the 5E would pick us up. But the bus came and went twice without stopping. After the second bus drove by without a sign of slowing down we settled upon taking an auto. A little over a year ago on my first trip to India, I had been unaware of ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Ola. Now its common place to see an Ola sticker stuck to the window of a beat-up white Hyundai or the side of yellow three-wheeler idling near the intersection. Only a few minutes later our Ola ride picked us up and dropped us off at the cross-street of our two-story apartment building.
No sooner had we lugged our backpacks and bags up the steps and into our room did we set off again. Briefly surveying the room – notably dirty but otherwise fine, and leaving our luggage to wait, we followed the maintenance man and his handyman back out into the street. Around the corner and along the main street we convened outside a print shop to have our IDs copied and sent away with the two men. With the weight of the move-in formalities checked off our list my mind had no time to rest before being bogged down with the anxiety of everything that followed.
It was probably a little after 1 PM when we directly walked away from the print shop in search of a bed. The previous day we spent hunting for an affordable sleeping arrangement. And agreed that in lieu of a traditional cot and mattress we would use a thick rolled out mat with a simple sheet. Now it was only a matter of finding the right bedding in a location within walking distance. A google search for “furniture” had us venturing into two unsuccessful stores before finding a bedding shop en route to the third map suggested furniture shop. Spirits once again lifted after walking 4km with nothing insight, we earnestly picked out a purple 4×6 bedroll, a floor mat for underneath, a single floral pink pillow and a multi-tonal green bed sheet. All totaling out less than the mattress we looked at in the furniture store. I would like to think the showroom stuff priced too high due to the electricity cost of keeping their air con on all day but it’s most likely due to branding and quality control.
The store owner and an upholster himself, told us to wait until after their lunch break to finalizing the sale. No problem, for Dinesh and I as were hungry beyond belief and already making a beeline to the nearest canteen. Luckily for us no more than 50m away a small restaurant was serving unlimited meals for ₹70. We shared one meal which consisted of the standard white rice, sambar, rasam, papadam, two types of vegetables and curd. Only once finished did we realized they forgot to give us the pickle – my favorite part! Moseying on back to where our bedding waited we stopped off at a multipurpose utility store to pick up clean supplies. If I have learned anything while moving about India it is that buckets are essential for living here. We only bought three, one large and small for the restroom and a slighter larger one for laundry, but if I could, I would buy one in every size, shape, and color. The multifunctional purpose of a bucket is very appealing to me; just like a reusable bag, I always find myself in need of a bucket. Along with a broom, mop, two rags, clothespins, cleaning solution, laundry soap, and our recently purchased bedding, everything was assembled and ready to go.
Of course, we could not walk back with all these things and so we got out our trusty Ola app to arrange an auto. In hindsight, I should have just canceled this ride after it took over 15 minutes to reach us, but once it finally rolled on up, I all but threw our belonging inside, ducking in the back, ready to go. It was only as I situated myself for the jam-packed ride did a few choice words thrown back at us turn into a full-blown argument. Dinesh and the auto driver were having at it, one not finishing a sentence before the other butted in. I cannot speak Tamil but I understood what was happening and Dinesh grudgingly explained to me thereafter. The auto driver complained about the larger items we brought with us – Dinesh retaliated telling him if he didn’t want to drive us he didn’t have to. Writing about it now this back and forth altercation seems silly, and it was, though at the time it lasted a good 10 minutes until the driver finally left and we got another ride. Needless to say, the second auto driver had no problem with the extra items and promptly picked us up and dropped us off. We tipped him graciously.
Somewhere around 3:30 PM and with three hours left until Dinesh departed for work we went straight into the cleaning mood. The nice thing about living in a single room is that there isn’t much area to clean. The downside of moving into this particular room is that no one has lived here for some time. Everything was either covered in dust or old oil, spider webs or ants. We spent the next two-hour sweeping, mopping, scrubbing and airing out the room before laying out our bed, unpacking our backpacks and eventually sitting down to catch our breath. At that point, I couldn’t wait to try out my new bucket and take a well-deserved shower.
Our room is close enough to where Dinesh works for him to walk, however, time crept up on us and it was clear after all our running around he wouldn’t make it on foot. Leaving the roof room we hastily walked to the provisions store, a 100m or so down from the print shop. Picking up some last-minute essentials – two-floor mats, mosquito repellent, a soap holder – I then went next door to the grocery store to grab some fruit while Dinesh hailed an auto taking him to his first shift on the job. I wouldn’t see him again until 4 in the morning when he would be back knocking on the door for me to let him in. The rest of my night consisted of consciously drinking more water and further organizing my things. The day had been impossibly long and thinking about it now, almost two weeks later, I still have a hard time believing all that we accomplished. I’ll reflect and scrap my memory for details, referring back to notes and memos, unable to admit I possessed the energy required for that feat. Through at the end of that day, when I was all by myself and had time to think, all I remember thinking about was being alone. I was alone, alone. And it was both strange and perfectly wonderful.