House no. 282 in Gurgaon’s Sushant Lok, Block A, looks like a lavish villa, just like the other houses in the neighbourhood. Inside, an unusual number of young men and women have gathered, making small talk, as they pet an unusual number of mutts. Welcome to a community dog therapy session, but that’s not the only unusual thing about this house. This Sushant Lok villa is what you call a community living facility and it is home to about a hundred men.
Community living — sororities or fraternities — has been hugely popular in the west, represented often in popular culture, especially in films, making its most recent appearance in acclaimed director Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some. House number 282, is one of 11 such community villas that CoHo (Co-Housing), a startup from Gurgaon, runs. “We are basically asking people to return to the idea of a mohalla, which we have distanced ourselves from in the cities,” Uday, co-founder of the company, says. CoHo, is the first company of its kind and is limited to Delhi and NCR, with most of its leased properties in Gurgaon. It also targets a particular bracket of clientele — aged between 22 and 33, working professionals — who have got enough to get by but not enough to get ahead. The rentals are anything between Rs 8,000- Rs 24,000 per month. While single rooms and amenities come fall in the higher end of the spectrum, shared rooms start at Rs 8,000.
The idea of a community, in a multi-cultural country like India, means various things to various people. To some, it is outlined by language; for others, it might be class or religion. These broad and basic definitions are undergoing change. “I immediately liked the idea of living in a large place like this, with people from different communities. Being from Chennai, I didn’t speak Hindi. So, when I arrived in Delhi, I knew I would be the outsider. It would be difficult not only to make friends, but even to speak to people. Here, I get to do all of that,” says Gopi Ramachandran, 27, a tech analyst. He got married six months ago, and says he will eventually have to leave once his wife moves to the city or he decides to go back.
Young men and women, who either study in universities or are in the early stages of their careers, have been renting and occupying spaces together for years. What then sets apart a facility like this from a flat or a villa, or even a marginally liberal hostel or a dorm which you can rent? The answer is two-pronged. “I’ve had a conservative upbringing. I’m a vegetarian and I neither smoke nor drink. So, the way the system works here suits me perfectly,” says Venkat, a 28-year-old civil engineer. He is referring to the common boundary that is mandatory to facilitate co-existence of any sort. “We simply look at the lowest common denominator here: vegetarians, non-smoking and non-drinking. Although we are liberal with who you are, there is a certain boundary to how you treat people around you in our facility,” Uday says.
Once the basic framework has been set up, there is every attempt to encourage the tenants to be a part of each other’s social lives. Step into the basement of the villa, and one enters the recreational space, fitted with pool tables, foosball tables, giant LED screens and even a small gym. The attic has a breakout space where one can smoke a hookah or just spend time admiring the capital’s skyline. The concept hopes to encourage people to gather, talk and, unwind. Events like a therapy session, a Valentine’s Day party, movie and match screenings — all of which have happened here — are simply ways of getting people to come together.
What exactly does a brand or a startup bring to the concept of community living? “Most people who come to us are those who struggle to find places — working women or Muslims — or have simply given up on framing and editing the rules of a personal household. Here, there is a common rulebook for all residents,” Uday says.
There is also, of course, something distinctly aspirational about living in a facility like the Sushant Lok villa. The amenities, the space and the security enable the millennial’s lifestyle, while still being within their budget. The fluidity of movable homes is unheard of in jaggedly mapped communities like ours. But, here, technology is the new enabler and, it has widened the net in the real world. “A roommate of mine actually shifts between villas according to the season. He lives a few months here, and then he moves to their other villa in the winters, when he can commute longer distances,” Gopi says.
Umran Mufeed is 24 years old and works with an image consultancy firm. He moved to Gurgaon from Srinagar six months ago and chose the community experience. “This place was my first attempt to find a house. I knew I could expect some discrimination, but nothing has happened since I’ve arrived. I have become friends with so many people. Maybe, I’m just lucky,” Mujeed says.
Toko Rinya, 19, a student of political science from Arunachal Pradesh, who lives in the only facility CoHo owns inside Delhi, concurs. “I had already lived in a couple of PGs before coming to the place. I haven’t faced any problems so far, because everything is systematic and taken care of. There is more control in terms of who you can talk to about issues. We complain through an app, and not to each other,” she says.
That said, despite the freedom from brokers and middlemen that it promises, there are problems. In a growing atmosphere of intolerant and exclusionary practices, everything from eating habits to sexual orientations can be a step towards conflict. “Recently, a flatmate of ours was asked to vacate the flat. She made some advances towards a roommate, and eventually got violent. We wrote to the management. They asked her to leave,” says Divyadyuti, a 22-year-old intern at a sourcing company.