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The business of letting out rooms to unmarried couples by booking sites is a tectonic shift for Coimbatore where even star hotels would hesitate to admit unmarried couples (Photo: Bloomberg)
The business of letting out rooms to unmarried couples by booking sites is a tectonic shift for Coimbatore where even star hotels would hesitate to admit unmarried couples (Photo: Bloomberg)

India’s hotel boom meets modern love

  • Several new-age booking sites offer rooms for rent with no questions asked. Now, there is a gathering backlash
  • A lot rides on how this conflict plays out. OYO alone is valued at $10 bn and is expanding fast in tier-II cities. The courts, civil society may need to find ways to peacefully resolve tensions

COIMBATORE : As the previous decade rolled in, women like Jothi Mani, a long-time Coimbatore resident, had enough reasons to be optimistic. In 2010, the textile town, which is Tamil Nadu’s second-largest city after Chennai, was at the cusp of many transformations—including a nascent diversification from textile to software.

The arrival of new-age businesses, however, didn’t lead to any social tensions. At least, not immediately. All that changed at the turn of this decade. And Jothi, a 53-year old community activist, was at the centre of it all.

On the morning of 24 June, 2019, Jothi, along with a few colleagues from the Left-backed All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), marched into the Collector’s Office in Coimbatore with a peculiar complaint. An OYO hotel was admitting unmarried couples and they wanted it to be shut. The group of women had come along with a bunch of local residents in tow, who had a lot to say about how the city’s “moral universe was being spoiled".

The very next day, the local Tahsildar acted on the complaint and sealed the property. A couple who were residing in the hotel at the time of sealing were hauled to the police station. And the ensuing legal tangle snowballed all the way up to the Madras high court which, in early December, threw out the sealing order.

“When a live-in relationship between two adults is not deemed to be an offence," the court said, “the occupation of a hotel room by an unmarried couple will not attract any criminal offence. The extreme step of sealing the premises on the ground that an unmarried couple was occupying it is totally illegal."

Despite a tense temporary truce, the hotel remains sealed. The neighbourhood still has moral concerns. And suspicions about new-age, app-driven businesses are still rife. How those suspicions took root in smaller towns like Coimbatore may be a consequential question not just for app-based hotel booking startups, but also for a number of businesses that have cropped up in recent days to ease the ability of Indians to move around more—for vacation as well as work.

At its heart, the episode in Coimbatore is a clash between two forces: technological change and the new social behaviours that it facilitates, and cultural custodians who resist rapid change.

Jothi’s presence at the helm of the pushback is an apt symbol, since the AIDWA women were backed by the electoral heft of the city’s new member of Parliamenta Communist Party of India (Marxist) veteran P. R. Natarajan—whose unlikely victory in a Lok Sabha poll in which the Left was decimated harks back to a quintessential Coimbatore “tradition" —textile union-led politics.

Very few topics highlight the tensions between the traditionalists and young app users as strongly as sex. And that is precisely why one relatively minor incident at an OYO hotel created a mini storm in Coimbatore. The fact that an organized racket of sexual abuse and extortion of dozens of young girls had surfaced in February in Pollachi, a town just 50 km away, and gripped local media attention, didn’t help matters much.

Despite her strident stand on the need to take action against new businesses like the OYO Hotel with their new permissive rules, Jothi also expresses a lot of ambivalence. When bluntly asked “Do you support premarital sex?", she refuses to say no. “But there should be some understanding about marriage. Otherwise, her life wouldn’t be protected. She wouldn’t get a groom later!" she insists.

Caught up amid these complex questions are a slew of new-generation businesses who are merely offering a relatively banal service: rooms for rent with no questions asked.

Neighbourhood of Nav India

Incidentally, the Coimbatore neighbourhood where all the drama took place is called ‘Nav India’ or New India, a posh residential layout that is so old that the local newspaper after which it was named has now become extinct. The colony belongs to a larger bloc called ‘Hindustan Avenue’, named after education group Hindustan Educational Institutions, which had established 11 colleges and schools in the neighbourhood in the last few years.

The arrival of the younger populace seems to have jolted the older, long-time residents though. It is now common, for instance, to find young couples holding hands and waltzing in the newest mall in the neighbourhood, called ‘Fun Mall’. But in public places, they are made to scurry away by the elders, sometimes even by police patrol vehicles.

Such localities, however, throw up new opportunities in a new economy for new-age hospitality sector startups, like $10 billion-valued OYO and $20 billion-valued Airbnb, apart from several other players such as StayUncle and LuvStay—all of which target unmarried couples.

Several of these new-age booking websites offer a filtering option to select hotels that will admit unwed couples, tapping into a latent need for a private room that is accessible easily, online, safe, and, crucially, cheap. The cost of stay in an OYO hotel in Nav India can start at around 400, which is roughly the cost of two multiplex movie tickets in the area.

It is a tectonic shift, especially in inner-city markets, where even star hotels would hesitate to admit unmarried couples. When asked about whether they will allow unmarried couples, a smirk spread across the face of Rijo Johnson, an executive at the five-star Radisson Blu Hotel, which shares its border with the Nav India neighbourhood.

“Unmarried couples... we allow. But (if they are) unmarried couples, we don’t allow them to stay for too many days," he said. “We check everything… whoever is staying... we see whether they have badges (to see if they are college students), what is their purpose. We actually find out everything (about them before giving the rooms)."

If there is one thing that could be safely said about millennials today, explained to me by a young student roaming with his girlfriend in ‘Fun Mall’, it is that they are committed to create for themselves the best possible experiences in life. Sex is part of this trend, he said, requesting anonymity, since his family doesn’t know about his love life.

“Having a fulfilling sex life becomes one part of having a fulfilling life in general. And with apps like OYO, it is easily possible even before marriage," he said. Kalidas Sundaravadivel, the general manager of the OYO cluster of hotels in Coimbatore, refused to comment on the topic.

The Silver Key hotel

The road to the sealed OYO hotel called Silver Key, which was a serviced apartment for eight years until recently, is filled with well-designed spacious houses and ends at a sports club, one that prominently advertises that it has a “separate space for ladies".

The residents are largely rich professionals, who were severely inconvenienced by the hotel’s presence, claimed Suresh, a businessman himself and the secretary of the local resident’s association. He is also the closest neighbour to the hotel.

He claims to have held several discussions with the hotel staff before escalating the matter to the civic administration. He said the guests would arrive even late at night, disturbing his sleep, and lazily park their vehicles, choking the road in front. His primary complaint though was that they indulged in several “indecent practises", such as drinking and sleeping together. “I have a young son in my house. I don’t want him to grow up seeing this culture."

In the complaint letter filed with the administration, the Silver Key hotel is accused of, among other things, becoming a safe haven for “indecent" and “immoral" things.

Asked if such allegations were based on any evidence which could be taken seriously, Tahsildar M Devanathan was quick to show some photos attached to the complaint letter.

“I think she was a pakka call girl," he said about a couple who were “caught" by the police during the raid. “She was in a drunken mode. She was not in a position to answer anything. That guy was also in a drunk mode," he said, flipping forward the file for me.

The file contained nothing major except photos, mostly of young people fooling around... like a person taking a puff of cigarette or having a drink at the hotel’s terrace. It was all low-resolution photos, possibly captured using a zoomed mobile camera, with the subjects unaware. What looked like pictures of casual cheer, so intrinsic to being young, was shown as evidence to prove claims of potentially “shocking" and “dangerous" behaviour.

A grainy printout of one of OYO advertisements, which simply said unmarried couples are welcome and are guaranteed a safe stay, lay at the center of the file.

When asked about the incident, police inspector TI Jothi, who accompanied the raid team, said, “Oh, it was nothing. They were just two couples visiting the city. We didn’t charge any case. We let them go."

When asked if their phone numbers could be shared, he said: “We didn’t take their contacts. They were free to go since there was no case." Even as the police dismiss any harassment, one person who was present during the raid, who did not want to be identified, said that it was a horrifying experience both for the hotel staffers and for the couple who were taken into custody.

The staffers were later taken to the taluk office and made to write a statement stating that they do not support unmarried couples, the person said, and the couple was kept in the police station from morning till around 8pm. How they were finally freed without a case, the person added, has the whiff of some deal being struck. Mint tracked down the male member of the couple and multiple calls and messages were made to his cell phone number. He did not answer.

Mother’s India

Coimbatore was once home to some 30 big textile mills, earning it the name the ‘Manchester of the South’. Now, there are about five big mills. But some vestiges of the huge communist trade union movements that once gripped the big factories still persist in the city.

In the 2019 polls, for instance, the largest party of India’s official Left movement, CPM or Communist Party of India (Marxist), plummeted to its lowest ever tally in history—three seats. But Coimbatore elected Natarajan as its MP.

People like Jothi, the local in-charge of AIDWA, is part of this legacy. Suresh said he contacted AIDWA for help to shut down the OYO hotel because AIDWA had recently attracted much attention for its protests to bring justice to a rape survivor in Pollachi.

How does a political outfit, that too one aligned with the interests of women and Marxist ideas, come out against the sexual choice of adult youngsters?

The answer lies in what a clutch of middle-aged mothers, essentially AIDWA’s membership profile, think of emerging business models such as OYO’s. In their minds, it is a tussle between women’s issues and doing what is right and ensuring the safety of their daughters, said Jothi. Jothi was born into a dominant Gounder caste, temple-going Hindu family in the suburbs. At a very early age, she eloped from the house to marry Nelson, a Malayalee Christian, whom she befriended during a communist literacy campaign. “My family, my friends, they didn’t talk to me until my daughter was born," she said, leaning forward from the sofa in Natarajan’s living room where we met.

Having faced such societal opposition for making an unpopular choice, Jothi says she knows how young people think. But, she said, she cannot fully embrace the idea of co-living or sex before marriage. “You think the police will help in such cases? The same police who will blame women for going out at night if she is attacked at night?" asked Vanaja, a fellow AIDWA member who had accompanied Jothi.

She immediately adds that even some within her own family do not agree with her entirely. “My second daughter is a journalist in Chennai. When I told her that we caught a couple in an OYO, she was like ‘it’s wrong ma’," Vanaja said. “She said that if she is not using an OYO, it’s because she is different. But she said this is not at all a crime. I replied that I don’t have your level of maturity."

“Well," she added, beaming with a smile, “I’m happy that she hasn’t taken an OYO, you know."

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