WE SIT IN a large but crowded eatery I selected at the southern end of Mumbai, cramped elbows on table, our coffee cups and plates of dosa almost touching each other. I begin to wonder how the friendship with my companion will pan out. I had expected to exchange anecdotes with him, some jokes maybe here and there. But instead, all I get is silence. Sohail (name changed) sits on the other side, his face sullen and morose, wearing an ironic white t-shirt with a large yellow smiley. All he does is nod or grunt at every query directed at him.
In his early twenties, he has recently completed his college education, he says. After several minutes of quietness, he takes not more than three sips of his coffee, a few quick nibbles of his dosa. And then, at his suggestion, we rush out to catch a gaggle of tourists and locals taking a stroll by the seaside. We exchange very few words, Sohail munching through a packet of crisps I purchased for him without even once offering it to me. Then suddenly, having finished the crisps, he wipes his fingers on his trousers, scrunches the packet and chucks it like it was a pebble into the sea. And then looking at his watch, he opens his mouth to complete what looks like his first entire sentence in the last one hour. “Do you want to extend it?” he asks. I decline. He looks embarrassed as I pay him Rs 700, the agreed-upon rate for an hour’s worth of his friendship. And he makes his way, through the crowd, to catch a train home.
Sohail is a professional friend, a part of a bizarre service where people can rent friends by the hour. In this friendship rental industry, supposedly quite big in Japan, and now available in India, people can hire friends by the hour for various reasons—from having the ‘friend’ accompany you to a movie, party or art exhibition, to simply having him or her hang around with you or act as your wingman to help you ask out a romantic interest. The service is provided by the US-based website RentAFriend, established in 2009 and now available in India. It is, however, as the website insists, a strictly platonic website and not a dating site or an escort service.
All you have to do is sign up for a monthly fee of $24 and it gives you access to a large number of people who have put up their friendship for a fee. These friends charge an hourly fee of $10 upwards for every hour of their friendship, although some forgo this sum as long as the renter picks up the tab for meals and drinks. The website claims it has over 621,585 friends available worldwide. Several of them are people from India, both male and female, from cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru.
The idea of such a website, according to its founder Scott Rosenbaum, came from the existence of similar services in Japan. “Over there, it seemed like it’s important to have a full family structure… When people need family members for special occasions, like fathers and uncles for weddings and graduations, they can rent ‘friends’ to fill the gap,” he told ABC News.
One such for-rent friend in Mumbai, Kriya, has been hired in the past by tourists to show them the city, somewhat like a travel guide. “It depends on how people view the service,” she says referring to the concept of renting friends. “If someone needs companionship for some time, and has the money to afford it, it might look weird, but what’s wrong with it?” Another for-rent friend in Mumbai, a wedding planner who requests anonymity, joined the website a few years ago when she was going through a financial low. “I think it’s a great website. There are lots of lonely people out there who just want someone to sit and talk to them,” she says. She was recently hired for 20 minutes by a woman from Pune who was visiting Mumbai and wanted some companionship in a café. “She had the entire evening to herself, and wanted someone with whom she could share coffee,” she says.
Several other friends-for-hire turned out to have had enquiries from prospective renters, but very few materialised into actual meet-ups. My hour-long hired friendship with Sohail also turned out to be his first encounter with the service. He had registered on the website hoping to make a quick buck and I had been the first to rent him. Most of the women on the website I contacted scrutinise the details of the renter before agreeing to a meeting. The wedding planner, for instance, insists every person send photo identity cards like driving licenses or passports before agreeing to a meeting. “There was this guy once, who wanted me to be like a date. But he would come up with excuses to not send his ID,” she says. He eventually sent a hazy picture of his driving licence. “I don’t know what he had in mind. He was taking me for a fool… Here’s this website with a really cool concept and people like him misuse it.”
On another occasion, the wedding planner began receiving emails from a registered user in the UK. The user was planning a trip to Mumbai and he wanted tips on what he could do. She began responding, hoping that this would eventually lead to her being rented. “I would reply, but he kept emailing me for more and more tips. I think he didn’t quite get [the concept],” she says. “It was like he thought I was his real friend.”