One house renovation – Many lessons learned

It’s been too long since I last blogged and I missed writing and sharing my experiences with my readers for the last 2-3 weeks. I usually don’t like such long absences, but in the last few weeks, I have been drowning and trying to find a way to balance my work load (private practice) and deal with the politics and insanity of house renovations. Everything else, such as exercise, re-discovering Mumbai, spending time with friends and relatives, etc, have taken a back seat.

The house renovation started on March 12th and the house looks quite different, even in its nascent stages. And it’s incredible how all the stuff that has been accomplished so far, such as breaking down unnecessary walls and clearing out all the debris, has all been done by hand! Manual labor – no machinery or sophisticated tools – just the bare hands of laborers, their blood, sweat, and toil.

One of my first lessons in house renovations is that neighbors in India are generally quite nosy. Living in San Francisco, neighbors knew each other, but usually stayed out of each others business. In fact, they make it a point to keep away from each other, not because they are disinterested in each others lives, but because they see the sense of just minding their own business. I often thought it strange, when I first moved to the US, how disengaged neighbors were from each other. I thought they were unsocial and inconsiderate of each other when compared to the close ties I had with a few of my neighbors back in Mumbai. Now that I have started my house renovations, I am sensing that some neighbors are more nosy than helpful, and it is irritating the hell out of me. I’ll share an example: On Tuesday when I was having a conversation with the Secretary of the building and discussing some changes we were planing to the house, one of the top floor neighbors was passing by. I know the guy on a “hello! how are you?” basis and have never gone beyond that. But on Tuesday, he was walking through the floor’s passage way, on his way to work, and made it a point to stop dead in his tracks and listened intently to our conversation. I even tried to hint to the Building Secretary by telling him, “Mr. X is behind you and you are in his way.” The Secretary did move out of the way, but Mr. X’s response was, “No, it’s OK.” He smiled and waited till we finished our conversation. I could not believe how blatant he was about being nosy and how politely he stood there and smiled at me when it was clear that the conversation was just happening between the Secretary and myself.

One of the many other lessons I have learned is that when you live in a “co-operative society”, such as we do, you certainly own your flat, but any changes that you may want to do to it, such as move or eliminate walls, or switch a “wet area” (such as bathrooms or kitchen) with a “dry area” (such as a bedroom), will require permissions from the Society. This was a whole new concept to me and I could not believe my ears when the Chairman explained it to me, when my relatives were trying to explain it to me, and when my own mother tried to drill this idea into my head. For god’s sake, what sense does it make to say to someone, “Sure, you own your flat in the building for which you paid a heavy sum, but the society committee will determine the extent to which you may make any major changes to your flat.” This was a hard pill to swallow and resulted in some amount of battle, discussions, and negotiations with the society committee, until it was only recently solved.

I have to admit, had I had a better understanding of how these “cooperative societies” work, I would have covered all bases before starting on this project. There would have been no sleepless nights or heated arguments with the society, nor would there have been incessant meetings with our architect and interior designer or a visit or two to a lawyer. The stress and the worry that we have gone through in the last few weeks are beyond description. It’s left a bitter taste in my mouth and I am hoping that it will fade over time.

Speaking of architects and inter designers, when they tell you they are “professionals”, it’s a whole different ball game. The word “professional” does not mean the same thing as it does in the USA, at least in my experience. By god, if the architect who claims he has been in the business for 16 years and has done some pretty good work does not insist that you get a stamp of approval for a house design that involves some major changes before the work gets started, then according to my mother, he should be sued! And I agree. God damn it! We were so excited about re-structuring our house to open it up more, and now we have to settle with a less dramatic plan, only because we did not go through the right channels. I have heard from many people, and I used to fight it, believing that my architects are professionals and know what they are doing. I have head from several people that architects will design stuff and re-design the structure of the house but not take any liability for anything that may go wrong; that they are only interested in making their money and letting you deal with the aftermath. Now I am beginning to believe this more and more and am becoming more stringent with them.

One of my greatest surprise was on day 3 of the job and the main contractor was around. I came to inspect the house and found that all the electrical fixtures and appliances, such as the fans, light sockets, wall sockets, etc, were neatly packed and tucked away in the corner. When I asked the contractor where all my stuff was, he kindly informed me that he will be taking all the fans and will be using it in his house in the “village.” For a couple of moments I was speechless, and that seldom happens to me. Yet another cheeky Indian who thinks he can get away with murder just because he smiles when he tells me he is stealing my stuff. I realized at that moment that I could not get too angry because that would mean I would be taking a risk of the contractor acting up. So I had to be political about it and came up with the following story, “I spoke to my husband about the fans and we had promised those fans to an orphanage. But since you would like them too, you can keep 2 and give us back the other two.” It was ridiculous how i had to be diplomatic and ask for what was mine. The next day, the contractor’s assistant said that he would like a few other pieces of furniture and that’s when I lost it and informed him that my house was not a charity and that I had very intention of selling off things I could not use.

These are some of the things that I have been dealing with in the last few weeks. To add insult to injury, the weather is getting more unbearable with every passing day. It’s a nightmare going to the house and standing amongst concrete with no fans and the sun blazing down. I am drained and exhausted and every muscle in my body is aching.

The title of today’s posting says “many lessons learned”, but I have a strong suspicion that there will be a few more to come. Such is the nature of life, especially in Mumbai.


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