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Vegetarian rules in housing hunt

In Mumbai, securing an apartment may come down to your name

By Marianne Bray

It pays to be in the know before applying for a place to live in Mumbai.



Real Estate

MUMBAI, India (CNN) -- Unless you are a vegetarian Hindu from the Indian state of Gujarat, don't bother applying for an apartment at the Mayfair Residency in the upmarket Mumbai suburb of Khar.

In this luxury bungalow-style seven-story apartment building in a leafy and very quiet part of India's commercial capital, no meat-eaters from any other state or religion are allowed.

There are no written rules to this effect, but on the Web site of the company that is building and managing the building, there is a veiled message to those in the know.

The complex is "located in the heart of the prestigious Gujarati prestigious commune 'Laxmi Nagar Society' in the midst of a calm and peaceful location with lush green Madhu Park nearby," according to the Mayfair Housing site.

Just in case that didn't spell it out, a brochure for the apartment states in bold that it would be "ideal for businessmen, senior management executives and professionals."

After some prodding, Kalpesh Jobanputra, who handles sales and marketing for Mayfair Housing, concedes that anybody who buys a flat should be a "vegetarian Hindu from Gujarat."

While outsiders might wonder how building societies in Mumbai are able to enforce such rules, Jobanputra says the job of identifying prospective buyers is made easier by looking at their last name.

"Muslims are Khan, Catholic are D'Souza, Sikhs are Singh and vegetarian Hindus from Gujarat are Shah," he says, sitting in the lobby, which features full length garden windows and marble floors.

Here, a 1,750-square foot apartment sells for $202 per square foot, a total of $353,000.

But it's not just Mayfair Residency. Most apartment buildings are vegetarian in the 39-plot residential enclave in Khar, an area that has been home for well-to-do Gujarati business merchants for seven decades. It would be hard to find any store selling meat within a two-kilometer zone.

"We don't like the non-veg smell," says Sangila Haria, who lives in a nearby vegetarian building and was enjoying a pre-dusk stroll outside Madhu Park, an area surprisingly free of the constant cacophony of car horns.

Even vegetarian hawkers are not allowed in parts of this area, where four to five-story bungalow apartments surround the circular Madhu Park, and new buildings are built in keeping with the style of the neighborhood.

Vegetarians only, thanks

The cosmopolitan metropolis of Mumbai, also known as Bombay, is home to 17 million people and is often described as the New York of India for the hordes of migrants it attracts.

The more affluent seek out such exclusive residences all over this coastal city, adding to the existing enclaves of Khar and the Maldar area near the Jain temple.

Around one in 100 new buildings is vegetarian in the southern area of Mumbai, increasing to one in 50 in the north, according to Poonam Mahtani, residential manager at Colliers.

While not all Hindus are vegetarian, Hindus and Jains from the neighboring state of Gujarat are among the most devoted adherents of a vegetarian diet. They follow the principle of "ahimsa," or non-violence and a respect for all life. For Jains, even eating root vegetables like carrots and onions is frowned on.

Residents see living in one of these buildings as a way to safeguard the values of their community and create a cocoon for their family.

In the northern middle-class suburb of Borivali, 31-year-old Pramod Mehta, who hails from Gujarat, lives in a meat-less building and says he likes the communal harmony that comes from being with like-minded people in a city he calls "a foreign land."

"We can share the festivals and common things and emotionally bond with people from the same caste," he said.

"You can't stop your neighbor from cooking meat in their own walls, but it could create ill-will and then bring down the value of the building as word of mouth gets out."

But vegetarian-only buildings are not just for Gujaratis. There are buildings for non-meat eating Hindus, Muslim-only buildings and Parsi-only colonies, says Jobanputra.

Despite the law

Vegetarian-only buildings have already caused some disturbances in the city. Restaurants selling meat in mainly vegetarian areas have suffered an onslaught of rocks and pebbles, according to local media reports, and some have had to close down.

Barring certain groups of people from living in a residential building is a breach of Section 23 of the Cooperative Societies Act, which guarantees open membership irrespective of caste, religion, race, creed or sex. In reality, however, such buildings exist in spite of the law, legal experts say.

"The law being practised is different from the law being enforced," says Dipesh Mehta, a solicitor who runs his own firm in Mumbai.

"If 29 non-veg neighbors barge into a house and make it difficult, even if the court gives an order for the building to allow meat-eaters, it's not possible to enforce it."

Buildings in Mumbai are run by societies that have their own rules and regulations and people chose to join them. Mehta likens them to a non-smoking society, or a society for the welfare of a particular group of people.

In Khar, the Gujarati society advertises only in magazines that members of their caste are likely to read, agents are in the know, and through networking people become aware, says Mayfair's Jobanputra.

Because some societies have had these rules from the beginning and they are open and specific about it, it doesn't create a problem in the real estate business, says Colliers' Mahtani.

Bombay Duck threat

Recently there has been a backlash, as some building owners in prestigious parts of town want to change the rules so they can lease their apartments out to foreigners, says Mahtani.

And even politicians have jumped onto the bandwagon.

Members from the Shiv Sena, a regional Hindu nationalist party that says it fights for local Hindus from Mumbai, have threatened to take their own action, according to local media reports.

One leader said that if he heard of a new vegetarian building, he would send them Bombay Duck, a fish that when dried emits such a powerful odor it must be kept in air-tight containers.

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