House-hunting in Bhubaneswar (I)

By Sandeep Sahu

Suddenly, there are few takers for houses on rent in Bhubaneswar. Just about everyone in the city seems to have a house – even those who squatted on public land till a few years ago. And everyone is busy adding floors or extending the constructed area on the lone floor to make sure not a square inch of area – held legally or illegally – is left unconstructed. Those who don’t have houses of their own have government or company quarters to live in. There are some who want to have the best of both the worlds – living in government/company quarters and renting out their own houses. As a result, there are too many houses chasing too few tenants, often forcing house owners to choose between slashing the rent drastically and keeping the house unoccupied for months on end.

In a desperate bid to cash in on the emergence of Bhubaneswar as a major educational hub in eastern India, some have converted their houses into makeshift hostels or paying guest (PG) accommodation for students to make sure their houses remain occupied. Some have added catering services to make the package more attractive. “Family only” has long been replaced by “Bachelors only” in posters and paper notices pasted on walls at public places.

Also read: The Importance of Being Bijoy Mohapatra

How things change in a matter of years! House hunting used to be a real ordeal for prospective tenants in the capital city. Like most others who have descended in the city from far off places, this columnist too has had his share of ordeal in looking for a rented house.

The first time, sometime in 1984, was an experience to remember. When it was time to vacate the hostel room in Vani Vihar, a friend was on the lookout for a house when he heard about a particular house in Baramunda Housing Board Colony – a place that was as unfamiliar to us at the time as Timbuktoo was even though it was in the same city – that was on offer on rent. So, the two of us – my friend and me – cycled our way to a government quarters near the Delta square where the owner lived. He was extremely gracious, received us warmly and even ordered tea for the two of us before accompanying us to my friend’s would-be abode. The colony looked almost completely deserted with not a soul in sight. Power was yet to arrive in a majority of houses and water supply was non-existent. I wondered if it would be possible for my friend to live in this god-forsaken place. But my friend had other ideas.

Having shown us around his two-roomed LIG house, the gracious house owner told us he would get power connection soon now that he has a tenant. Water supply would, however, take a bit of time, he said but quickly pointed to a tube well in front of the house as a temporary solution. I had thought my friend would never agree to live in a house that had neither power nor water. But he stunned me by asking the landlord about the rent instead. “What can I say?” the landlord said almost apologetically, before adding “You may pay Rs 60. But I shall ensure power connection before you move in.” There was more surprise in store for me. “What would be the rent in case I don’t need power supply?” asked my friend. The house owner was as flabbergasted as me, but soon recovered to say “Rs 40.”

Also read: Bleak Days Ahead for Journalists

So, Rs 40 a month it was – just Rs 15 more than what we used to pay as rent for our hostel room in Vani Vihar! My friend paid the landlord an advance of Rs 80 towards rent for two months even though the house owner did not ask for it. He checked in with his frugal belongings – an elementary bed, toiletries, a bucket, a mug and – most importantly – a packet of candles (since there was to be no power). For the next two months, the friend would fetch a bucket of water from the tube well in front for his morning ablutions, have a bath near the tube well, dress up and then bicycle his way to Vani Vihar campus to spend the whole day with us before returning ‘home’ after dinner, lighting the candle, doing his bed and going to sleep!

My own first brush with house hunting, however, was nothing short of a nightmare. Having realized that holding on to the hostel room at Vani Vihar would not be possible anymore, I was in desperate need of an accommodation when a friend suggested a place next to his house in Forest Park. The owner was a retired senior government official who also had pretensions of being a writer. He was stern in demeanour and businesslike in conversation. He asked me a host of questions before handing me a piece of paper which he said I would have to sign before he allowed me to stay. I was in such a desperate state that I did not have any inclination to read what was written and signed on the dotted line.

The room where I was to stay with a friend was a hell hole, a tiny, low-roof structure with asbestos roof and cemented floor that looked no bigger than a large size carom board. It was one of 12 such hell-holes spread out on either side of a verandah that culminated at two latrines on a raised platform at one end. I soon found out that we were the only bachelors in this group. We had no choice but to emulate our friend who had checked into the Baramunda house earlier. After finishing the morning chores, we used to rush out in a hurry and go to the Vani Vihar campus to spend the whole day there before returning to the place after dinner.

Also read: Give the Vinod Rai Panel a Chance

One day, as I returned from the campus, the house owner’s trusted servant handed over an Inland Letter (Since the email generation may not understand what it is, let me explain that it was a blue-coloured paper that contained the written text inside and the address on the outside and had to be folded at the middle and gummed before being dropped in the post box) to me. I was shocked to find that the letter (no prizes for guessing who it was from!) was in an open condition and immediately asked the servant. He feigned ignorance and said, “Babu kholi thibe” (“The landlord might have opened it”).

I lost my cool and rushed to the house owner who, as usual, was ensconced on his arm chair. “Did you open the letter?” I asked him sternly. “Of course, I did. What’s the problem?” he replied, sounding extremely cool. This enraged me even further. “How dare you open my letter?” I shouted angrily. “It was part of the agreement. And you have signed it,” he said. He was about to ask his servant to fetch the agreement paper, but I had no patience for it. “No need for that. I am leaving your house tomorrow morning. I have paid you rent for a month as advance though it is only my 18th day. You can keep the rest,” I blurted out. “And for heaven’s sake, delete that clause from your god damned agreement,” I said before storming out.

While announcing that I was leaving, I did not have a ghost of an idea where I would find an accommodation in a day. But find I did – and that too the very next day.

(To be completed)