Moody roommates, bunk beds, piled-up laundry, bad food, tyrannical wardens—hostel life is the stuff of nostalgia. Not quite so for some of Chennai’s young professionals. High rents, moral policing and overbearing parents —concerned about their children’s safety—have made working women’s and men’s hostels popular, though restrictive, ways of living for the city’s young workforce.
Chennai has had a long tradition of migrant working men staying in hostels, which are called “mansions”. Most of these traditional “mansions” were concentrated in the Triplicane locality, in the northern part of the city. These mansions have now found a place in popular culture—they have even inspired film songs.
S. Gopalakrishnan, a senior bank official, lived in one such hostel in the 1970s. “Triplicane was a magical place to stay for bachelors, with the beach a stone’s throw away and a row of cinemas bordering along Mount Road,” he says. “Living in a shared mansion at the cost of Rs 65 per month was a blessing.”
Fast-forward to the present. The women’s hostels are unlike the men-only Triplicane mansions of yesteryear. The rents are high and it is tough to find residents with good stories to share. Most interestingly, the hostels have sprung up in the past decade in south Chennai, where the IT companies are clustered and where real estate is booming.
The drill: (from left) Girls chatting in the KPS hostel’s common area; Hemavathi returns from work. Photos: Fatema Zoyeb/Mint
Why would a young, educated, financially independent woman choose to live in a hostel, and not in an apartment of her own?
“Working women are more free in hostels than they would be if they took their own apartments,” says Jayashree Menon, a former playschool teacher who runs the KPS Ladies’ Hostel in Mylapore, central Chennai. “Their meals, laundry and housekeeping are taken care of, and that’s a big relief, considering these women will have to shoulder all these responsibilities themselves once they are married.” The parents of these girls, many of them from small towns in Tamil Nadu, prefer hostels, which are perceived as being safer. They don’t mind the hostel rules; after all, the thinking goes, it can’t be bad for their girls.
In most women’s hostels, the residents have to be in latest by 11pm. “If someone has to work extra hours or do the night shift, she has to get a letter from her office supervisor,” Menon says. The hostels also arrange for cabs to pick up wards right at their gates and take them to their offices.
Hostels are serious business in the city. Some have expanded into chains. The Nissi Ladies Hostel is a chain of 10 hostels, each with 40 rooms that are home to around 350 residents on an average.
Company ID cards and appointment letters are the easiest ways to gain entry into these hostels. Rents are not obscenely expensive. The KPS Ladies Hostel, for instance, charges Rs 4,300 a month for a shared non-AC room and Rs 5,000 for a shared AC room.
People seldom ask for single rooms—and there is a reason for that. Says 26-year-old Subashree Vinayak, a BPO professional who has been staying in hostels in Chennai since she moved from Madurai in 2007: “A single room in Chennai’s hostels is essentially a room that has space only for a single bed. It gives you the feeling of living in a prison cell.” To put it crudely, it’s a choice between personal space and breathing space.
The Royal Women’s Hostel, where Subashree stays, is wedged between a warehouse, a bus stand and a railway station in the busy T Nagar market. “Being in the middle of a crowded marketplace ensures the safety of girls,” says M. Lalitha, the hostel warden. “They also don’t have to go far to do necessary shopping.”
(from left) Chatting in a hostel room; and hostellers watching TV. Photos: Fatema Zoyeb/Mint
An old lady is sweeping the floor as we enter the MM Women’s Hostel, essentially a bungalow partitioned with cardboard walls, in Adyar, an upmarket locality in south Chennai. Peeling paint and a strong smell of garlic greet you. The rules sheet of MM hostel reads: “Men not allowed to drop women at the hostel gate; resident not allowed to loiter around with men”.
“What we run here is a respectable women’s hostel, not anything else, hence the strict rules,” the hostel warden says. She says any girl who enters her hostel will be “safely passed” on from her father’s hands to her husband’s hands. “Parents often accompany their daughters when they join the hostel. Since these girls are coming from small towns, we make it our moral responsibility to treat the girls as if they were at home, with care and discipline,” says Lalitha.
Four years ago, Vinitha Murugavel, a 28-year-old media professional and a resident of Nissi hostel in Guindy, actually had to carry a letter from her father—addressed to her hostel warden—saying that his daughter was completely responsible for herself. He also said she needed no moral disciplining and that he would not hold the hostel accountable for anything.
Perhaps conservatism is beginning to make way for a more modern outlook in at least some ways. “But I still can’t have my room lights on beyond 11pm, the lights-off hour at the hostel,” Vinitha says. “Besides, even if I decide to stay independently in my own place, and even if I could have afforded the monthly rent, the problem would be the 10-month rental advance as security deposit,” she says, referring to the common practice in Chennai. “Also, it is not as though landlords are open-minded and liberal. It would be difficult to find one willing to rent out to a single woman.”
Being single is a stigma even for a man house-hunting in Chennai, says Kanagasabapathy S., a public relations professional. That is how he ended up in Chennai Hostel, a mansion in Triplicane. “Hostellers are expected to inform us when they go on long vacations. Apart from that, we do not interfere in their lives,” says Kanagasabapathy’s hostel manager Faiz, who goes by his first name.
Twenty-five-year-old Diana Ningthoujam, who is from Manipur, lived in Chennai’s hostels for seven years before moving to Delhi to pursue her studies. “Thanks to Delhi’s melting-pot character, the life of a young, single, working woman is less intrusive and more independent there,” she says.