The Girl From F&B: A Portrait of the New India
The “McD” where Esther had wanted to meet me was near the corner of Tolstoy Marg and Janpath (or “People’s Way”), directly across from rows of handicraft stores selling tie-dyed scarves and jewelry to unhappy-looking backpackers. It was walking distance from the magazine office at Connaught Place where I had worked in the late 1990s while living in Munirka, and I had often wandered along Janpath, looking at the handicraft stores and the tall office buildings.
The neighborhood had seemed to me then to be the climax of urban civilization, the center of a fantastically alienating and alluring big city, and it was oddly disappointing to see a McDonald’s insert itself into the area. It was meant to emphasize how global Delhi had become, but what it accomplished was a diminution of scale. The McDonald’s was a reminder that Janpath was not Times Square. It was no longer even Janpath.
There was a doorman to salute and let me in, a man dressed like a soldier on parade with his peaked cap, sash and boots. The menu had no beef, and chicken had been squeezed in as a replacement in the form of the Chicken Maharaja Mac. The crowd was lively and vocal, gathered in large groups of family and friends, making the place quite unlike McDonald’s outlets I had seen in America, with their often solitary diners. Numerous women in uniform, mostly from the northeast, circulated around the restaurant, taking away trays when customers were done eating.
Esther and her younger sister, Renu, were sitting next to each other at a table pushed against the wall, watching me with curiosity as I approached. Renu was slender, darker than Esther and dressed in a salwar kameez that made her seem more at ease among the Delhi clientele of McDonald’s. She had just graduated from college and seemed full of energy, hurriedly finishing her Happy Meal so that she wouldn’t be left out of the conversation.
Esther hadn’t ordered any food. She sat pushing around a large Coke, the ice rattling in the cup. There were dark circles around her eyes: she had finished work at two in the morning and got home at 3:30. She was a couple of years older than Renu and stockily built, and her hair was cut short. She was dressed in a green top and jeans, cheap and functional clothes, and the only visible decorative touches were a pair of small earrings and the red nail polish painted onto thick, square fingertips.
As I sat across from Esther, it was difficult to imagine her at Shangri-La. She didn’t seem sufficiently polished and demure, unlike the waitresses I had seen at the lounge. The women there had been soft-footed and soft-spoken, flaring momentarily into existence with a smile, putting down a saucer or taking away a cup before receding into the background. Unlike them, and unlike bubbly Renu, Esther exuded both tiredness and toughness. She was a worker, clenching her fist occasionally to make a point as she told me about her journey from the northeast to the imperial center of Delhi.
Esther had grown up in Imphal, the capital of the northeastern state of Manipur. Her father was a Tangkhul Naga from Ukhrul district, while her mother was from the Kom tribe in the Moirang area. To the people sitting in McDonald’s, Esther probably looked no more than vaguely Mongoloid, perhaps a Nepali or—in the pejorative language commonly used in Delhi for all Mongoloid people—a “Chinky.” Yet the different backgrounds of her parents indicated a coming together of opposites, a meeting between a Naga from the northern mountains of Ukhrul and a Kom from the watery rice valley of Moirang that had produced the contrasting looks and personalities of the sisters in front of me.
Esther’s father was a minor government official, now retired, and her mother taught Hindi at a school. Her parents’ background, along with her mixed tribal heritage, meant that Esther had grown up in a way that was quite cosmopolitan, interacting with people from other communities. (Her best friend, she said, was from Bihar; as a student she had traveled with her friend to Patna, its capital.) It also meant that in some ways Esther felt removed from her ethnic background. “I don’t know how to speak Tangkhul,” she said. “If I mingle with them, I feel different. They’re not bad people, Nagas. But I want to move ahead. I don’t want to look back. I want to see the world. If I was at home now, I’d be married and with two kids.”
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In Imphal, Esther had received a relatively high level of education. She had studied biochemistry in college and then began working on a master’s degree in botany. She had wanted to be a doctor, she said, but she had settled instead for a one-year tourism course in Chandigarh, Punjab, in 2004. Her time in Chandigarh went by quickly, and she had seen little of the city by the time she finished her course and moved to Delhi. Her first job, in 2005, was doing ticketing for a travel agency in Malviya Nagar. She was living near Delhi University in an area called North Campus, and the office was in South Delhi, which meant that she had to take a series of buses across the city to get to work. The men in the buses were aggressive and uncouth, and she often lost her way. But soon she found a better job at the front desk of the five-star Taj Palace Hotel, and her salary increased to 6,500 rupees ($146) a month from the 4,000 ($90) she had made as a travel agent.
The Taj Palace Hotel was a very different work environment from the travel agency. In its plush surroundings Esther found herself serving wealthy Indians and foreigners, who were luxury brands of a kind too, and it was while working among them that Esther began to feel that there were better jobs at such places than serving on the front desk. “I had a friend who worked on a cruise ship. She made so much money, yeah. Every time she came back, she had one lakh [100,000] rupees in her pocket,” Esther said, her tone more of wonder than envy.
The friend worked in F&B, Esther said, by which she meant “food and beverages.” She always used the phrase in its abbreviated form, and she used it often, so that it ran through our many conversations like a potent code, generating positive or negative meanings depending on how Esther was feeling that day about herself, her work and her life.
At that first meeting, Esther was cautious. She was opening up her life to a stranger, and she was understandably anxious to portray that life as a success. She therefore depicted F&B in a particularly optimistic light, emphasizing how much it had given her and how it had allowed her to move away from the narrow life—married with two kids—that she would have had if she had stayed in Imphal. Esther’s cruise ship friend convinced her that she should move from the front-desk position to one in F&B. The work was harder, but the money was better, largely because of tips. “I wanted F&B so badly,” Esther said. Although there were no openings for her at Taj Palace, a manager there helped her get an interview at Hotel Shangri-La. She began working at Shangri-La in 2006 and remained there for more than two years, earning a salary of 8,000 rupees ($180) before tips.
At first, she was stationed at the Thai-Chinese restaurant on the first floor. Then she was moved upstairs to the Horizon Club. “The food and drinks are complimentary for club members,” she said, “and there’s a fixed budget from the hotel for the costs run up in the club. We’re supposed to manage within that.”
On February 13, 2009, Esther said with sudden specificity, she left Shangri-La to work in Zest, a new restaurant located in a mall in South Delhi. The salary, with tips, was significantly more than what she had been making at Shangri-La, although money was not the only reason she changed jobs. The hours were far longer at the new place, starting at noon and finishing at two in the morning, and she worked six days a week. “But it’s OK,” Esther said. “In F&B, every day you learn something new.”
A sudden burst of “Happy Birthday” from an adjoining table drowned out Esther’s talk. I looked at the busy tables around us. No one was paying us any attention, although I wondered what they would see if they looked at the two young women sitting across the table from me, an older man. We had been talking for a couple of hours, and Esther and Renu had to leave. Although it was Esther’s day off, she had to go to Shangri-La to pick up some papers from the human resources department. We made plans to meet again, and I offered to give the sisters a lift to Shangri-La. The driver of the car I had hired that day, a young man from Rajasthan, was parked across the street, and he reached around to open the door for me when he saw me coming. I registered the sudden shock on his face when he saw the women accompanying me and realized that they were coming too. He went numb as I let Esther and Renu into the back of the car and came around to sit next to him. He hadn’t said a word, but I knew what he was thinking. He had assumed that the women were prostitutes and that I was going home with them. When we stopped at Shangri-La to drop off Esther and Renu, his expression changed. But I could see, as we drove homeward, that he was puzzled by what I had been doing with them in the first place.