Remember Eliza Dolittle singing this song in “My Fair Lady”? 

It is not just Eliza but  many other girls who have sung this song over the years . I sang this in the 1990s when I moved to Chennai and started looking for a place to stay. Working as a beginner in the non profit sector, what I earned just paid for that room and two square meals a day! I was too proud to call it quits and go home you see!

After nearly two decades, it appears as though the situation has changed. I realized this when I was trying to help two young girls who have joined us as interns find an accommodation. The experience has left me shaken to say the least…!

We began this hostel hunting project last  Friday!

Unlike me who was trying to do this alone in the 90s , in this case both these girls had the entire office offering advice. The options also seemed a bit too many .I compared it to the only two options I had those days – the YWCA and Andhra Mahila Sabha!

We worked out a strategy and decided that we would only look at places near the office so that they would  not have to spend time and money travelling every day!

Now, our office is not located in exactly what you would call a very posh area- it is a lower middle class, quasi industrial area. So I had some misgivings about putting two girls straight out of college from places outside Chennai in  hostels within this area. However, there is no harm in looking is it?

The first place we visited  seemed okay. But we were not prepared for the fact that the girls  would have to share a room with three others. So we moved to another location in the next street- again, twin sharing accommodation was not available – four to a room seemed to be the norm. We asked to see a room – what we saw made my head spin ! The room looked like a poultry shed – the hostel management did little by way of cleaning it and the residents ( my colleague C who was with us kept using the word “inmates” and I kept correcting her but now I think she had used the right word) added to the mess by throwing things around the room! I also wondered about the lack of a table or even a chair in those rooms. There were absolutely no other furniture except those beds!Were the residents supposed to just live out of their  beds?

Our driver, who had by now become an expert on hostel hunting told us that he had found another place across the street. When we reached there we met with a very smart young woman with a mobile phone who took down our specifications and started making calls and letting us know which were the hostels that had twin sharing rooms. I was almost certain she was some kind of a broker until she introduced herself as the “proprietor” of these hostels. “ Oh, do you own all these properties?” I asked her. “No ma’m they are all rented” she said riding with us to the various locations and opening doors and letting us peek inside.

Twin sharing or threesomes or foursomes – all the rooms were uniformly messy! I was increasingly beginning to feel they needed someone like my mother to be in charge- she would scold all the girls living there into cleaning those rooms!!

Today’s experience was even worse. We moved to some upcoming residential areas around the office which can certainly be called “posh”. The buildings were new but the way the “hostels” were maintained were uniformly bad! Imagine this scene – a living room in one of these flats filled with steel cots lined around the perimeter with godrej bureaus dividing the space into two living areas. Each bedroom had so many cots that I was not sure anymore about how many were actually  expected to share that space. And when we asked for the “warden” they pointed to someone who looked like the domestic help!!!  I thought I had lost my power  of communication because every time I said “twin sharing” room they would take us to these cot filled rooms and tell us there were two beds vacant!

Finally we did find them a decent hostel – near the office but in a street that was really nice. Not twin sharing but three to a room. By the end of the day we had become so desensitised to the messy rooms that the bench mark was sufficiently lowered for this place to be counted as “acceptable”!! However what surprised me when we finally made the decision was that no one asked for any letter from the organization or any other particulars in terms of relatives of guardians in the town. They were satisfied with the token advance we paid and promised to hold the the room until tomorrow! 

But jokes apart – I am appalled at the kind of accommodation that this city provides for working women!! Most of these so called “hostels” are houses with portioned rooms and crammed in cots – each of them charging anything between Rs 4000- Rs 6000 per head per month with or without AC / washing machine.

And more than the kind of options available what sickens me is the fact that these girls who are probably quite decently educated and earn  decently ( all these so called hostels are located in the back streets of the big IT companies) live like chicken in these rooms! Their beds are never made and I think they never fold their clothes!! And  can you imagine four girls/ women living like this?

“Oh hostel rooms are meant to be like this” says a friend. I disagree! I lived in a hostel during my college days and later – I am not exactly meticulous about cleanliness but I think our rooms were far  tidier than any that I have seen during the last three days. My sister’s college hostel did not have cupboards and they lived out of trunks which were pushed neatly under the bed when not needed. The wardens ensured that we lived like humans.People whose rooms were untidy were severely reprimanded!

“It is a class thing” says the husband. I disagree. I have seen women keep a hut very clean while women who own huge houses have floors so sticky with dirt and grease that one’s feet get stuck on them. I refuse to take off my shoes when I enter such houses! Taking off one’s shoes is to keep the floor clean but if the floor were to dirty my feet then I would prefer to keep my shoes on!

It saddens me that our education system has not taught simple values around cleanliness and hygiene. Neither have the parents instilled it in them, it appears. It is probably education in only certain types of colleges and schools that still holds on to these values. And these colleges are possibly accessible only to people from a certain class –so I guess in way it IS a class thing!

One of the interns tells me that when she was studying in Delhi, she stayed in a hostel with four girls to a room but it was not like this. I believe her.  I am sure Delhi does not have as many working girls of a certain variety as Chennai does! And the single working woman in Delhi is probably not someone who is working crazy hours to save for a dowry or repaying a loan taken by her parents to send her to a ( probably no good)  private engineering college that cleaned out their entire life savings!

When providing accommodation to a vast number of working girls becomes a business where the demand is greater than supply and when the people who require that accommodation care very little about how they live or where they live then such filthy places are bound to flourish.  I wonder how many of the owners of those new houses we saw are aware of how their lovely flats are being misused? I wonder if there are any government regulations around this? ( not that they would be adhered to in our country)

As more and more girls come out into the job market, these conditions are probably going to worsen. Poor  Eliza would then be forced to sing “All I want is a cot somewhere”! She would certainly have to forget about that "enormous chair" ... None of the rooms would have space for that!

And sorry my dear Eliza- it would not be "Lovely"!!!

( pictures from the Internet)


  1. As usual, you have created an awareness, Meera.
    4 in a room?...when it is not a school environment?....My issue is the messiness ...yes, i agree with you, a woman living in a hut can keep it very clean when compared to her counterpart in high-rise building.
    Can a petition be written to the right ministry of housing? OR the sanitary / environmental ministry?

  2. Hostel accommodation for girls is a problem at all cities.
    There are many other issues.Who is going to be in charge? What kind of residents are there?Are they all going to be working women?
    Problems arise when few of them start creating troubles, like bringing visitors.
    It is difficult to find a place where like minded people can stay together. For those who run the hostel,it is just money and nothing more.

  3. M, it is the question of civic sense, be it in ones house, or public places. the other day I saw the picture in The Hindu, of the Presidency College Chennai with garbage strewn around.
    It is in the psyche, we, be it Mallus, Tamils, or another Indians, the matters of civic etiquette are always found wanting and education has not done much.

  4. You have highlighted a genuine problem in ladies finding good accommodation in a safe and secure place.Atleast the big IT and BPO companies that employ women in large number should have hostels owned or leased for women employees.

  5. @ Simply mee, your idea of complaining to the authorities is a good one but I am not sure what should I complain about - I don't think our ancient zoning laws have factored working women's hostels in their planning

    @ Dr.Antony you are right- all your questions are relevant. I do not have the answers and I doubt anyone involved in the management of those places has either.

    @ Anil civic etiquette is an alien word. I used to generally believe that we keep our houses clean but the streets dirty but these experiences in the hostels have confused me about that belief

    @ KP I think the IT and BPOs do have accommodation but it is probably not sufficient. Besides, what happens to women who are not employed in that sector. Where do they live?

  6. Meera,

    Really sad state of affairs. It seems that all the owners of such hostel are interested is MONEY. What you say about habit of living neat & tidy is so true. We need to inculcate this in youngsters.

    Take care

  7. I can totally understand and agree with each word u have written here.. lived in Chennai for 4 years..hostel hunting was really a task..but thankfully found one in Alwar peth clean and nicely maintained..and later on moved to a paying guest accomodation in single aunty gave 1 of her bedroom on rent.. again that was a very nice experience..

  8., u did write one on the hostels:P I have to agree to most of it- the conditions how they are maintained, hygiene, cramped living areas, but it is indeed a money spinning business. Just imagine the money so-called owners earn out of these chicken coops:(


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