Binyamin’s struggle for acceptance in an unfamiliar city
“Come back home if you don’t feel safe there,” his mother told him over the phone. In her voice, Binyamin found both solace and refuge after a property broker in the city he had never visited before refused to rent him the flat he liked.
Initially, the broker was enthusiastic and jovial in the way he showed Binyamin around, taking him from one society to another on his motorcycle and showing him flats and single rooms that were on his list. Binyamin found them either too big for him to live in or they required some renovation before he could move in. He, however, had less time on his hands as the company he was working for had recently changed its policy of providing their newly recruited employees, posted outside of their home states, with hotel accommodation for a week till they found a place to settle. He was paying for his stay at the hotel and for food from his own pocket, and could not go on like that for more than a few days if he failed to rent a place.
“There is a vacant flat outside this gated society,” the broker who was in his mid-twenties suggested. He asked Binyamin to sit behind him on his motorcycle and rode a mile or so before they reached a patch of dilapidated road that turned right and revealed a two-storey building painted in light yellow and white.
The building was among only a few that were constructed at a sparse distance from each other. One could easily tell that some years ago those concrete structures would be non-existent and that piece of land must have been lying vacant and been home to some forms of plant and animal life only. Binyamin, in his mind, began to think if his house in Kashmir was as big as this one. Save for a small front yard of his house, he found the building of almost the same length, width, and height.
The broker opened the padlock on the main gate and asked Binyamin to follow him inside. “Take a look, sir,” the broker opened the door to the bedroom and went across quickly to another room to open its door. The kitchen was contemporary in style except that it had nothing in it that Binyamin wouldn’t have to buy from the market. The taps in the washroom functioned properly, and so did the geyser. Each room, including the lobby, had cupboards in it. Binyamin got a homely vibe as he kept looking at the walls, the floor, the ceiling, and anything that attracted his eyes and attention.
“This is perfect,” exclaimed Binyamin, his face lighting up. “Let’s seal the deal then,” he turned to the broker who was standing near the kitchen counter.
“You will have to pay in advance rupees 5500 as monthly rent, a security amount equivalent to a month’s rent, and my 50% brokerage charges, which is half the month’s rent. 13,500 rupees in total,” the broker laid it out for Binyamin, who seemed to have been a bit lost in the motion of a key chain on the index finger of the broker’s right hand as he kept wiggling it.
“If I pay you 10,000 rupees now and pay the rest of the amount next month along with the new rent, will you be okay with that?” requested Binyamin. The broker hung his head down briefly, as if seriously thinking if this could be possible, and said, “No issues. Let’s get back to my office to do the paperwork and other formalities.”
Binyamin always wanted to live in a neighbourhood which showed him signs of development, his version of development at least: huge buildings, bustling markets, metros, and most importantly, where people didn’t judge you based on the place you came from or the religion you believed in. He was quick to accept that living in that gated community was not meant to be, but the accommodation he found now was not bad either.
“Please take a chair, brother,” the broker asked Binyamin and at the same time occupied his own on the other side of his desk. “I will need your Aadhaar Card to get its photocopy,” he added.
Being an avid social media user and someone who, as a hobby, liked to keep abreast of the latest developments both at home and outside, Binyamin had an eerie feeling about something that was going to happen next. Out of a few other cards in his wallet, he picked the laminated one with a picture in which he had reddened cheeks and spiky hair. His name, his father’s name, his date of birth, and his address needed only a few seconds to read, but the broker took his eyes off the card only over a minute later. Binyamin observed the broker’s face keenly as he looked at his Aadhar card. It felt like the broker was reading a novel and had suddenly reached its end which he had not expected.
“I can’t give you that flat,” the broker, shaking his head and avoiding eye contact with Binyamin, pronounced. “The owner has barred me from renting his property to someone who belonged to your religion. And you are also from Kashmir.”
Binyamin did not ask WHY and instead told the broker that it was okay. He, however, asked him if he could still shake his hand before leaving, to which the broker obliged. The broker’s hand felt cold like it does in winter in Kashmir when you are not using a pair of gloves or anything to protect your hands from freezing cold.
“This is some cold response I am being subjected to,” Binyamin thought as he drew his hand back. “I feel like a person who has a gigantic amount of a loan to repay and is waiting for a cheque, his only hope, to be cashed but gets declined by the bank citing lack of sufficient funds. That is a weird analogy,” he thought to himself. He took his Aadhaar Card from the table, eyed it for a while in jest, looked at the broker with a smile, and put it back into his wallet.
On the way back to his hotel, sitting in a rickshaw, Binyamin was overcome by an assortment of strong emotions of helplessness and anger and felt what could he have told or done differently at the broker’s office, if at all he could have, to avoid this last-minute humiliation.
“Either I am a coward who can’t face the world or can’t ask the right questions, and instead chooses to fight and bruise himself,” Binyamin shook his head, cupping his face in his hands. “Or, I am so mature as to be able to understand people’s issues without even needing them to explain or I am so dumb that I don’t get to see how people subtly stab me in the heart and all I can do about it is smile at them,” Binyamin briefly mimicked the smile he gave to the broker and again shook his head. “I need to man up. I have done it in the past. I will have to do it again now,” he blew cold air into his hands, gave his face a rub, and straightened his posture.
The phone call with Binyamin’s mother lasted only 10 minutes. After telling her what he had to experience during the day, he reassured her that not everyone might think that way in the City. “I will be fine. I will explore a few more places tomorrow,” Binyamin told her. “Take good care,” he heard his mother say before he hung up on her, and went straight to the reception. He asked the receptionist, without saying a word but using a hand gesture, for the key to his room.
Binyamin did a bit more thinking in his room, trying hard to think objectively. Yet, he stumbled upon a sentence he once heard from someone he thought he knew: Forever a suspect, forever a scapegoat. “No, times change. People change. The world has not yet shrunk so much to be completely inhospitable to people like us. Everyone deserves a second chance and this chance I am giving to the City. I will try again tomorrow,” at this thought, Binyamin also realized how important it was to have a positive mindset. “My entire world changes when I think like this,” he picked up his phone and began to search for more places online. Binyamin ended up shortlisting two properties, mostly because they had religion-neutral names, unlike the rest of the places listed online.
An hour or so into sleep, Binyamin suddenly woke up to a loud bursting of firecrackers. It took him a while to jog his memory that his hotel was surrounded by several wedding venues and these gunfire-like sounds were coming from one of those places. He got up from his bed, walked up to the window, and drew the curtains to see if he could put his finger on where the sound was coming from. But as long as he stood there at the window, no further firecrackers exploded. The night, it felt, reclaimed its silence which was broken by the staccato barking of dogs in the distance. “Very common in my place, too,” Binyamin drew the curtains and went back to his bed.
The effect of confidence-building thinking that Binyamin had done the previous night seemed to have vanished with the arrival of the new day, except that he remembered that he had noted on his phone the names and addresses of the properties he was visiting today. He seemed to be in need of more motivation now and there was none he could turn up to.
Binyamin typed the name of the first property in the search engine for directions after boarding an auto rickshaw and began to prepare a script of sorts in his mind for his part of the communication. Unlike his previous experience where the broker got to know about his place of birth through his Aadhar Card and after hours of travelling and house-hunting, he decided to reveal it voluntarily in the first few sentences of his conversation this time.
“Was it you calling,” asked the bespectacled, middle-aged person behind the counter. Binyamin nodded after exchanging pleasantries. “My name is Binyamin. I am from Kashmir and have been posted here as part of my work,” Binyamin introduced himself. He watched for any sign on the face of the person that could foretell whether he was going to get the room or not.
“Kashmir,” the man exclaimed. “I served there for eight years before retiring. I was in army. This is my small-scale post-retirement business. I love to be busy”. Binyamin was taken aback by the fact that the ex-army man did not show even an iota of resentment or any other expression that would spell the doom for this meeting.
“So, my being from Kashmir is not a problem then,” Binyamin asked to double-check. “Not at all,” the retired army man said.
On his way back to his hotel, Binyamin couldn’t think of an explanation as to what he had just witnessed.
Younis is a short story writer from Kashmir. He specialized in Narrative Journalism with Masters in Convergent Journalism from the Central University of Kashmir. He was awarded the 2013 Student of the Year prize and Best Debater of the College by SP College, Srinagar. He can be reached at [email protected]