Risky business: My adventures in Pakistani real estatePakistan
“Tum kuch nahi lay kay jaa saktey. Yeh sab saman hamara hogia hay (You’re not taking anything. All of this stuff is ours now),” the young man threatened.
Our landlord’s slight son trying to appear thuggish was something of a comical sight, especially with two sneering friends on either side. The three stood on the staircase outside the front door to our home, ready for a fight.
The tough guy routine was difficult to swallow, and I couldn’t help but chuckle.
This only enraged him more.
He — let’s call him Theon 1 — purposefully patted the long dark brown game hunting rifle that rested in his hands. Although the weapon was designed to only kill small animals, I was wary of being a test subject. At the same time, I did not want to show this bully any fear, for fear is a source of nourishment for such beasts.
“I think you should step out of our house,” I said. “Our rent is paid through to the end of this month. We’ve also paid a two month deposit. You have no legal right to be here.”
“I am not the bound you!” Theon 1 shouted irritably.
I couldn’t help it. I chuckled again.
Looking back at this decade old incident, I realise I should have exercised more caution in my engagement with him, not only for myself, but for my family as well.
Standing right behind me were my mother and sister. I could sense their frustration. I felt it as well. But I was determined to make as light of the situation as possible to ease their anxiety.
Incensed, Theon 1 barked recycled lines from a Bollywood film, “Abhi dekho meh kerta kya hoon (Just watch and see what I’ll do.)”
“Tum neh meray bachon ko kuch kia to acha nahi hoga (Don’t you dare hurt my children!)”, responded my mother emotionally as she stepped in front of me protectively like a mother hen.
Alarmed by the raised voices, the three movers also stepped out of our home, joining us in the standoff of misfits.
I half expected a ball of tumbleweed to roll down the stairs and the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly to fill the air.
Noticing our growing numbers, Theon 1 finally decided to leave, glaring as he left. With relief, I thought the worst was over, but it was yet to come.
At present, I consider myself something of a veteran when it comes to renting homes in Karachi.
It all began when I moved back to Pakistan after time spent abroad. I lived with my grandparents for a bit, but with my sister also moving to Pakistan to pursue her education as a doctor, we needed our own place.
After a few taxing weeks of house hunting, my father finally located what seemed like a suitable home at a housing complex near Karachi's National Stadium. Considering that his two eldest children would be living alone, the home's security was my father's main concern.
My father is fairly religious, and hence was naturally more trustful of those who were, or at least appeared, religious until this incident. As a young boy growing up in a claustrophobically religious Middle Eastern nation, I rebelled by not being very religious, though I do not judge those who are. However, after ugly incidents with two landlords... I may have to revise my opinion!
When my father told us about a house he was interested in renting, aside from the place itself, he also mentioned that he was taken by the religious landlord and his sons, all of whom never missed a prayer at the mosque, much like my father himself. After such verbal praise, I expected Mister… let’s call him Botiwalla, to be a saintly and kind person.
Upon meeting him, I was struck by his magnificent white beard. The perfectly trimmed whiskers on his face fell from his chin and down past his waist. His beard looked so healthy, I was sure it could be tied around his waist like a belt, and it reminded me of the good wizard from Tolkien’s books, Gandalf. However, that's where Botiwalla’s similarity to gracious Gandalf ended. As time passed I had to accept that he had much more in common with the wizard's evil nemesis, Saruman.
During our initial meeting, Saruman Botiwalla left an alarm bell ringing when he mentioned how his previous tenants — three young girls — had left only six months into their lease after getting involved in an argument with his wife. Here, Mrs Botiwalla, a small woman with a shrill voice, claimed that the girls had been making too much noise and were always using up all the water.
Moving in had been a considerably expensive and arduous process, which is why we tried to stay as long as possible. My mother had intended to live with my sister and me for a month before moving back to the Middle East to join my father and younger brother. However, after the 'incidents' began, she stayed back due to fear for our safety.
Like all events, this began innocuously enough. It started with a phone bill.
The first telephone bill we received was fairly high, the charges on which were from a month before we had moved in. At the time the Botiwallas had been using this particular connection. The bill was placed at our door by the Botiwallas.
When my mother took the bill to Mrs Botiwalla to ask if it had been handed to us mistakenly, Mrs Botiwalla shrieked that it was our bill and we should pay it. Taken aback, my mother suggested the charges preceded our date of moving in. Here Mrs Botiwalla shrieked again, “Tum apnay aap ko bohot parhay likhay loug samajhtay ho. Ham jahil hein kya? (Do you think you are very educated and we are illiterate?). Unsure if Mrs Botiwalla was joking, my mother could only laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation.
Later that evening, I received a call from Saruman Botiwalla demanding an explanation. After listening to me he said, “Yeh mamala aurton ka nahi hay. Aurton may itnee samajh nahi hoti. Bohot jazbati hotee hein. (This matter isn’t for women. They don’t have the intelligence or emotional capacity to understand these things.)”
I can still remember I was left speechless by the sexist statement. For a few moments I could only hear him and myself breathing like we were part of some erotic prank call.
One of the toilets in our portion was leaking. They had promised to fix it before we had moved in, but now were refusing to do so. Worse still was how they shut off our water because they claimed the leaking toilet was wasting their precious reserve, even though the housing society had a fantastic never-ending supply of water.
Frustrated, I called Saruman Botiwalla asking him to turn our water supply back on. I described how I had closed the pipe of the offending toilet upstairs. Upon hearing this, he accused me of lying. When I asked how he knew I was lying, he mentioned how he had stuck his ear to our toilet’s pipe downstairs and could hear the water leaking.
I face palmed so hard, I'm sure the impact could be heard in other cities.
One fine day, without warning, Saruman’s elder son, Theon 2, brought a plumber to the house to fix the toilet without warning. At the time I was at work and my sister was at school. Theon 2 called my phone, angrily telling me that he had spent some time banging on my door. When I politely explained that I had been unaware he was coming, he snarled: “Kya mein tumhara naukar hoon key bataoon mein araha hoon? (Am I your servant that I should tell you when I'm coming?)”
“Well, considering I am not psychic, perhaps it would have been better had you told me.”
I may not have been a psychic, but I felt certain I was dealing with psychopaths. Randomly, the Botiwallas would cut off our water supply when they felt we were using too much water and our TV cable when they felt we were too noisy. Living upstairs, we were the first to run out of water, yet they refused to pump more from the reservoir, even though we paid a water motor tax like other tenants in the housing society.
One day as I was walked through my house gate, Saruman Botiwalla accosted me. He demanded why I hadn’t been seen at the masjid.
Because, I’ve never been there?
He aggressively suggested I visit the mosque and pray five times a day like his wonderful sons. When I told him this was none of his concern, he replied: “Tum namaz nahi parh rahay jiskee wajah say pooray mahollay may manhoosiat phail rahee hay (You are not praying and hence spreading a curse across the neighbourhood.)”
Yes, I curse my existence since I moved here.
Naturally, we began to avoid the Botiwallas at all costs. As frustrated as I was, I was intent on remaining civil for the sake of my mother and sister who were often alone at home. On Eid, we spent the day away visiting relatives. Later I learned that Saruman Botiwalla had called my father overseas to complain: “Tumhara baita mujh say Eid pay galay bhee nahi mila. (Your son didn’t greet me on Eid embracing me.)”
Yes, I certainly wanted to embrace him, but much like an angry bear embraces a human.
Finally, after months of the landlord from hell, we decided to cut our losses and move on. As luck would have it, several blocks away in the same housing society, we found a wonderful place to stay. It was a large ground floor home with a nice garden, which was also cheaper than our current rent. Although the landlord and his wife lived in the next house, they were lovely people. Both were professional poets and this new place seemed like a gift from above.
Our final 'incident' with the Botiwallas proved that we were right in wanting to escape their clutches as soon as possible.
The day we were leaving, Saruman Botiwalla was away at some religious jalsa. Meanwhile Theon 1 and Theon 2 did things to make daddy proud.
While I was at our new home beginning the process of shifting our furniture, the Botiwalla brothers took it upon themselves to try to break our door down. They wanted to keep our furniture, our air conditioners and everything else we had brought in. In their stupidity, they were willing to damage their own property in order to get their hands on ours.
After this, I realised why the Botiwallas spent their entire days in the mosque. It seemed that they were trying to wipe away a lifetime of sins.
Since the Botiwallas a decade ago, I have rented several houses in Karachi with varying experiences, though none as awful.
Aside from the home itself, many renters I spoke to claim the landlord’s attitude is a major factor influencing their decision to rent a particular house or not.
With rental prices skyrocketing across the city due to an increasing number of renters searching for decent living space, landlords have more options, and are hence less likely to be as accommodating. Friends mention incidents where landlords are less than willing to meet their responsibilities in terms of repairs, and if pushed will simply say, 'If you don’t like it, leave.’
When I asked renters the greatest issue they faced with their landlords, the answer invariably was: “Pani nahi charhatay. (They don’t pump water up into the tanks).”
In terms of houses, the most readily available are upper portions as the landlords themselves prefer to live downstairs. One of the most common problems renters of upper portions face is the availability of water. Renters typically rely on landlords to pump water from the reservoir up to the ceiling tank which supplies the house, and typically those living above run out of water earlier. This is because the first floor of a house is above the level of the pipes, which when half full are empty for those living above.
Here, the landlords are unwilling to pump more water upstairs unless they themselves run out. It is remarkable how many renters face this issue. I myself have come across this problem in three separate homes, including my current one, where I live alone with my wife above, while the landlord lives with his wife and grown children below.
The only solution is to be forceful in a manner which doesn’t result in friction. Renters today usually pay a share of the water tax, water pump maintenance and half of the cost of water tankers when necessary. They have every right to access water, and don’t deserve to face frustration.
Of course, good landlords themselves can often be victims of bad tenants. One landlord in D.H.A. confessed that a female tenant had begun using his space for an illegal business. She had moved in claiming she was a single mother with a few daughters, but he soon noticed her daughters had new faces every few days and received an unusual frequency of visitors. Her rent was always paid on time.
When he issued her an eviction notice seven months into her lease, he received several phone calls from her supposedly 'powerful friends'. He says he resorted to his own 'powerful friends' in order to have her honour the eviction notice.
Relatives of mine were also renting out a portion of their home when their tenants after several years unexpectedly stopped paying rent. They moved out several months after the eviction notice, but did not settle what was owed.
Another landlady named Ms Hina Zubaida shares a similar story: “Our tenants are always late with payments. After a month or so of non-payment they told us they had major financial problems and couldn't make their payments. They said they'd be moving out soon, but they haven't moved out yet and that was three months ago. The firm that helps us manage our rental has said we should just pressure them to move out as soon as possible by looking for new tenants and getting a new family in, and that we shouldn't be optimistic about recovering the rent that is owed to us. They said there's no point in pursuing legal action against tenants who don't pay as it'll cost more in legal fee and bribes to get any action taken. We're frustrated that we seem to have no means of getting the money owed to us, and there's no central place to get all the information we need to know about our rights.”
I spoke to an estate agent in Phase 4 D.H.A., asking him how he counsels people with such issues.
“Well, we try to mediate the problems [between tenant and landlord]. If they come to us then we listen and suggest a solution they must both agree to follow. If there is a major problem, it can bounce in the courts for many years. Otherwise both parties can end the relationship,” he said.
For tenants, the only solution is to move out. The process of moving is tiresome in any part of the world, but finding a decent home is especially difficult in Pakistan, and requires following estate agents around across town, who ride ahead on their motorbikes. Vexingly, when they stop, it is often near the exact type of home you explicitly told them you did not want.
On the other hand, landlords also face many risks when seeking a new tenant. Perhaps this is why the estate agent advises: “Our suggestion is to always resolve the problem. Even though it is profitable for us, we realise the alternative is a huge hassle.”