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Societies and firangs just don’t mix

Elizabeth Flock, a 24-year-old American journalist, arrived in Mumbai in August 2008.

entertainment Updated: May 11, 2010 15:12 IST

I’ve lived in two housing societies in Mumbai. And both tried to kick me out on the street. A housing society, as I had always understood, is just a residential complex with flats. And the point is, for everyone, to have access to its utilities, help keep crime at bay, make sure the mail is delivered and so on. But in Mumbai, it is so much more. Here a housing society is an association of people with similar interests. There are Muslim societies, vegetarian societies, wealthy societies where every kid goes to The Cathedral and John Connon School and so on.

In the past year-and-a-half, both the societies I’ve lived in have shared the same interest: to preserve that ever-elusive term ‘Indian culture’ in their housing complex, in any way they could. My first landlord sat me down before signing the lease and asked if I was loose, and whether I’d get up to hanky panky in the house. Because if that was the case, I could go elsewhere. “You have nothing to worry about,” I assured him.

Being new to Mumbai, I mistakenly thought that many of my western habits could stay with me. Especially since I was residing in a flat in Union Park in Khar, right near where Bollywood stars live. My two roommates and I sometimes drank, putting beer bottles in the trash. I wore gym shorts and a T-shirt to the gym. I played rock ‘n’ roll. I smoked cigarettes. And when I got into a fight with a friend, we went outside to talk about it instead of keeping the problems safely within our four walls.

It wasn’t long before the entire society had gathered in our 1BHK to inform me that due to my firangi habits, we’d have to vacate. So, when I moved into another society in town, with co-op in the name, I should have known better. Half a year went by peacefully. I kept many of my western habits to myself this time. I adopted the Indian head nod, spoke in broken Hindi, and ended my sentences in Yaar or Na. I befriended my neighbours. Some cooked with me, others crowded around my TV at night. I attended their festivals, and played with their children. When I hadn’t paid my electricity bill, they formed a human chain to stop the BMC from cutting my line.

But one evening, a vegetable vendor came up to my room and tried to sexually assault me. Twice. He was entirely unsuccessful, but I was shaken. I told my elderly neighbour. Soon hundreds of neighbours had gathered in an angry mob to beat the boy for his indecency. My society was actually standing up for me. What happened next, I hadn’t anticipated. The next day, my landlord called me to say he wanted me out. “Madam, you know how Indian culture is. They are saying it is your fault this happened. You are too open, Madam. And these boys think you are loose.”

“Who is saying this?” I asked. I went on a door-to-door campaign to talk to my neighbours. No one admitted they had said they wanted me out. Finally, we came to a compromise—from now on, I’d dress only in Indian clothes, and not talk to anyone. No more dal fry cooked with the girl next door, or attending poojas (prayers) with the family down the hall. I was, once again, an outcaste. I’m not angry. I should have known better. Societies and firangs just don’t mix. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been here, or how much you adjust. You’ll never be Indian, and that’s enough.