The fat Punjabi lady waddled ahead, proudly showing us the apartment in one of Delhi's poshest colonies. My friend had just returned from the US and was looking for a place to stay. Soon, her husband arrived. At first he seemed to be not too impressed with us. We had come on urgent summons from the property dealer and hence were in our casuals. Since I was in my kurta-pyjama he asked me whether I was a politician. Seeing that he was not too comfortable with English, I replied in Hindi: "No, I was in the Foreign Service." He then rattled out the names of a few of my old colleagues. He wanted to know where were they now and how long did I work with them?
The talk then veered back to the apartment. We complimented him on its upkeep. He complained that he had to shell out a fortune to renovate it since previous French occupants had never bothered to keep the place clean. We said our goodbyes and promised to get back soon.
On the way back, I joked that we might get the flat at a cheaper rate thanks to my diplomatic background. Imagine my surprise when the agent rang up to say that the owner would not let it out to my friend. He said the odds were against us to begin with. Owners of high-end apartments preferred foreigners or at best someone from a foreign company. Nevertheless the agent claimed that he might have persuaded the owner but for a fatal mistake - my presence! There were several commandments for flat seekers, he said:
--Never bring a bureaucrat, they are bad news.
--Even if you were one, never admit to it.
--Come only in a chauffeur-driven car.
--Never bring anyone in Indian clothes.
--Never speak Hindi. English should be the language of communication, preferably with an American accent.
It was a cultural shock for us. Was this not a throwback to colonial times, we wondered.
Perhaps the owner was suffering from some sort of fear psychosis. Here he was, sitting on a property worth crores. What would happen if the Indian lessee refused to vacate? His attitude also showed a deep distrust of legal recourse being effective. Won't it take years for him to get justice from our courts? And won't the police demand bribes to carry out court orders? It is weaknesses within our judicial systems that were responsible for his 'colony-ialism'.
In that sense we continue not to learn from history.
Santosh Kumar is senior consultant, ICRIER, and a former diplomat. The views expressed by the author are personal.