The Girl From F&B: A Portrait of the New India
The land of F&B, where Esther lived much of the time, was a place of reversed polarities. I began to understand this as Esther and I met over the course of the next few months. Since she worked six days a week, we had to squeeze our meetings into her workdays, mostly at three in the afternoon, when there was a lull in the rhythm of the restaurant. Esther usually sent me a text message to let me know that she could meet. The messages arrived at three or four in the morning, when she had just clocked off for the day and was in a van heading home to North Campus, trying to stay ahead of the early summer dawn. I got used to my phone vibrating under my pillow, displaying messages that were oddly cheerful and bouncy for that time of the night but that seemed to reveal only one facet of Esther’s personality. I was living with a friend in Vasant Kunj, not far from where Esther worked. I would meet her at the mall in an auto-rickshaw or taxi, and we would drive to an older, smaller shopping complex in Vasant Vihar fifteen minutes away, where we would sit at a cafe and talk.
The first time I arranged to pick her up, Esther asked me to wait for her at a nearby bus stop rather than at the mall, and I wondered if she felt self-conscious about being met by a man or if the bus stop was part of a familiar routine. After the initial occasions, however, she seemed to mind less if I went right down to the mall. When I got there, I always found it hard to spot her. She tended to hug the wall, staying away from other people, looking small against the vast facade of the mall, with its granite, glass and luxury-brand logos. The heat was fierce, about 110 degrees at the peak of summer, and Esther seemed utterly isolated from the swirl of activity at the mall entrance: uniformed guards shoving their metal detectors under vehicles being taken to the underground parking garage; attendants rushing to take over those cars whose owners wanted valet parking; shoppers in sunglasses making the transition from air-conditioned cars to air-conditioned mall in a burst of perfume and jewelry.
When we arrived at the Barista cafe—an expensive, Starbucks-like franchise—in Vasant Vihar, Esther stood out among the carefully made-up women meeting their dates or friends. Even though she was the same age as these women, who were mostly in their 20s, she looked older, more worn down. She also didn’t know what to order the first time we went to the Barista. When the waitress came to our table, Esther looked self-conscious and said she wanted a Coke. The waitress eyed her with surprise, puzzled that Esther didn’t know that you couldn’t get a Coke at a Barista.
But it made sense, in a way. The view from F&B was about serving, not about being served. It was about what one was able to offer the customer sitting at the table, across that almost invisible but impregnable barrier of class. At the Barista, Esther happened to be on the wrong side of the table. She would know everything on the menu, down to the minute details, if we had been at Zest or Shangri-La. She would be able to advise customers on what mix of drinks, appetizers and entrees to order. But she hadn’t waited tables at a Barista, and so the menu there became an unfamiliar, alien document, something she hadn’t studied sufficiently.
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Esther finally chose an iced drink, frowning at the menu with its abundance of superlatives. Then she asked the waitress, a slender 19-year-old, “Where are you from?”
“Manipur,” the girl replied.
“I’m from Manipur too. Where’s your home?”
“Churachandpur,” the waitress said, easing up a little in her posture.
The three of us chatted for a while about Churachandpur and Imphal, the Barista waitress telling us that this was her first job and that she had been in Delhi for just four months.
“How much are you making?” Esther asked.
“Four thousand,” the girl said.
“That’s not bad,” Esther said.
“She looks barely 16,” I said when she had left.
“Oh, she’s not so young,” Esther said.
Esther was intimidated by the Barista despite the fact that she worked in one of the most expensive restaurants in Delhi. Zest had been described to me by Manish, a cigar dealer I had visited recently, as “the most happening place” in the city. Manish was less enthusiastic about the Emporio mall, where Zest was located. “It’s a bit imitative. Dubai in Delhi, you know?” he said.
At the beginning of our interaction, Esther had appeared quite dazzled by the glamour of working F&B at Zest. It was a “forty-four crore” restaurant serving “seven cuisines,” she told me, with twenty expert chefs, a “mixologist” from Australia, four private dining rooms and an 1,800-bottle wine cellar. The bricks had been imported from China, the marble from Italy and even the music in the restaurant was sent over the Internet by a company based in Britain. “It’s so beautiful,” Esther said.
There were 408 “girls” who worked at the restaurant, all of them reporting for work at noon and most of them finishing their shifts at two in the morning. Only the hostesses got to leave slightly earlier.
The restaurant was split into seven divisions, one for each cuisine; each division had a staff of seventy and a hierarchy that started with the manager, continued through assistant manager, hostess, various levels of waitresses who were called “station assistants” and finally “runners” at the bottom. There was a similar hierarchy among the kitchen staff, and one’s position determined how many “points” one had, with more points translating into a greater share of the tips. In the past fifteen days, Esther said, her division had received 75,000 rupees ($1,690) in tips, of which she might receive around 500 ($11).
Esther was in the middle of the hierarchy. She was a station holder, one of nine in her division. “The others are all guys,” she said, “so I have to challenge them all the time.” Her job was to explain the menu, take orders and serve the food, which brought her into close contact with her customers. “They come in with bags and bags of stuff,” she said, “with Louis Vuitton, Cartier, all these names written on them. Sometimes, a customer drops a receipt on the floor and when I pick it up to give it back to her, I’ll see that the amount of money she has spent runs to tens of lakhs.”
Despite its long hours and stream of wealthy clientele, the restaurant was still waiting for its liquor license from the government. That hadn’t stopped it from functioning unofficially as a restaurant for Delhi’s rich patrons, many of whom knew the owners. Zest was part of the holdings of DLF, India’s largest real estate company, which owned the Emporio mall as well as the restaurant. DLF is “primarily engaged,” as a Bloomberg Businessweek profile of the company put it, “in the business of colonization and real estate development.” Like other large Indian companies, and despite being publicly traded, it is more or less a family business. In 2008 the executive chairman, K.P. Singh, was rated by Forbes as the eighth-richest person in the world and perhaps the richest real estate businessman in the world. But the global downturn had come to India since then. Singh has fallen to No. 130 on the list of the world’s billionaires in 2011, but he remains one of the richest people in India.
* * *
Esther’s part in such wealth was tiny, something like the role of a serving maid at a great imperial palace, one of history’s unrecorded, unremembered millions, a barbarian in Rome. Yet Delhi as an imperial capital was also a postmodern, millennial city, where Esther traversed different layers of history every day on her way to work.
She left home at ten in the morning, taking a 10-rupee ride on a cycle rickshaw from her flat to the metro station of North Campus. This area is dominated by Delhi University but contained within the walls of the old city that had for more than two centuries been the Mughal capital of the Indian subcontinent. From North Campus, Esther took the metro, built in the past few years, to Central Secretariat, not far from Shangri-La and sitting at the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi, so called after the Edwardian architect who planned the neighborhood as a center for the British Raj in the first decades of the twentieth century. After independence, this stretch of Delhi, with its juxtaposition of ministerial buildings, luxury hotels and private mansions, became the heart of the Indian government, although a corporate presence has been added to the neighborhood in recent years. From Central Secretariat, Esther traveled on a bus that took her south into a wealthy, postindependence part of the city that was expanding into the suburbs of Gurgaon. Her journey across these layers of history involved two hours of traveling, 30 rupees in fares and three modes of transportation.
Nothing of this long journey and transition through the different worlds of Delhi would be evident once Esther stepped into the locker room of the restaurant. There, she changed into her uniform and put on her makeup of kajal eyeliner, eye shadow and blusher—items the restaurant required its female staff to have but that each employee had to provide for herself. Finally, she would arrange her hair in the mandatory zigzag pattern that represented the letter Z for Zest. At 1:30 she would have lunch along with the other staff. It was usually Indian food, but if the chefs were feeling good, they would throw in a special dish. Because evening happened to be the busiest time in the restaurant, there was never any opportunity for dinner. Nor was there much chance of a break. When Esther was really tired and could steal some time from being on the restaurant floor, she sat and dozed on a chair in the locker room. “I could lie down on the floor and go to sleep right there, but they’ll come and wake you up even if you’re dead,” she said.