The Girl From F&B: A Portrait of the New India
Esther’s long working hours left her little time for reflection. Yet whenever we met, she liked to talk about who she had become, and was still becoming, in the course of her long journey from Imphal to Delhi. In this vast city, she found herself among a wide range of strangers, and her experience of these people through F&B had given her a body of knowledge that was a blend of prejudice and wisdom, sometimes perceptive and sometimes contradictory.
I asked her if there were women from other parts of India among her colleagues.
“There are, but you know, I think, those of us who are from the northeast, we’re stronger. I can fight, like that day when I had a quarrel with the manager. The women who are not from the northeast, they won’t challenge authority. But also, they won’t mingle with other people, the way we can. We girls from the northeast are independent, strong.”
“And what about the men?”
“The guys are high-profile people,” she said, laughing. “Chota kam nahi karega. They won’t do small work. But me, what to do? I was not born with a kilo of gold. I have a cousin brother in Imphal. He’s a 365 drunkard. You understand? He’s drunk every day. When I go home, he asks me for money. What to do? I give him money, but he doesn’t know how much I sweat to earn the money. In Delhi, I have fifty-four cousin brothers and sisters. Most of the girls are working. The guys are all home ministers. They stay at home, do nothing. They’re looking for a good job, the right job.”
In Delhi, Esther often felt conscious of her difference from other Indians. “We have small eyes,” she said. “They can tell we’re from the northeast. Sometimes, the way they think about us, the way they talk about us, makes me not think of myself as Indian. I want them to accept me the way I am, not the way they want me to be.”
She thought for a while and then told me of the event that led her to leave Shangri-La. “I worked hard there, and pushed myself to learn F&B. Then, on November 23, 2008, I was working the afternoon shift. At 10:30 pm, I finished work. The rule is for the hotel to drop you off if you’re working late, so I took a hotel car, with a new driver. In North Delhi, a drunk man in a cream-colored Maruti Esteem jumped through a red light and rammed into our car. The hotel driver, he just ran away, leaving me there.”
Esther was in the back seat, writhing in pain. She dragged herself out of the car and onto the road, but although there were people around, no one came to help her. Finally, a couple walking by stopped and approached her. They asked her where she was from. They were from Manipur too, and the woman was a nurse at a nearby hospital. They took Esther to the hospital, where she got twenty-three stitches in her head.
She still had a scar on her forehead. She lifted her hair so that I could see the bunched-up tissue on the right side of her forehead. She had lost three teeth. “The ones I have now, they’re all duplicates,” she said. “The people from the hotel came to see me, and the first thing they wanted to know was when I was coming back to work. I said, ‘I can’t even get up from bed by myself, and you want to know when I can work?’” She was in the hospital for a month, and the hotel, after some initial fuss, covered her medical costs. “They put me on painkillers, on a saline drip, and for one month I just lay in the bed. I got fat, and my weight went up from fifty kilos to sixty-five. That’s how much I weigh now. My back hurts if I stand for long, and of course, in this job you have to do that all the time. When I went back to work, I began to feel bad about being at Shangri-La, and that’s when I started looking for another option.”
* * *
Women did not have it easy in Delhi, whether they were local or from other parts of India. The recent globalization of the city had indeed created new opportunities for some women, especially those working as waitresses and sales assistants. The same globalization had also allowed the use of ultrasound technology to abort some 24,000 female fetuses every year, resulting in a skewed sex ratio of 814 to 1,000 in Delhi. It was into this contradictory realm that women from the northeast arrived in search of work, and the media were full of stories of them being assaulted, molested and killed, of mobs encircling the rooms they rented and beating women up while the police looked on. For its part, the Delhi police had issued a manual for people from the northeast living in the city, whose guidelines, as reported in the Calcutta Telegraph, included:
§ Bamboo shoot…and other smelly dishes should be prepared without creating ruckus in neighborhood.
§ Be Roman in “rooms”—revealing dresses should be avoided.
§ Avoid lonely road/bylane when dressed scantily.
One afternoon I met Lansinglu Rongmei, a lawyer who had started the North East Support Centre in 2007 to help people facing violence and discrimination. We went to the same cafe where I usually talked with Esther, and the waitress from Churachandpur served us. Lansi was stocky and energetic, her lawyerly cautiousness alternating with a sense of regional pride that made her talk about the cases she took up of people who had been bullied or violated. She was from Dimapur, a small town in Nagaland, but had gone to high school and college in Calcutta. She had moved to Delhi to study law and now argued cases in front of the Supreme Court, but after fifteen years in the city she still didn’t feel fully at home.
“Going from Nagaland to Calcutta wasn’t so much of a culture shock,” Lansi said. “I felt they didn’t judge you as much. In Delhi they do. They size you down and they size you up. What kind of a gadget do you have? What kind of a dress are you wearing? What kind of a car do you have? When I was a law student in Delhi University, I had friends from southern India and from Bihar. I felt that Biharis, whom they call ‘Haris,’ are sometimes targeted no less here than people from the northeast.”
I asked her what it was like to be a lawyer in such a place.
She thought about it and said, “The racism is very subtle sometimes, but it’s there. Still, the Supreme Court is a pretty cosmopolitan place. When I am presenting a case there or at the High Court, I can wear shirts and trousers, and they won’t judge me for it. But if I’m at a district court, I have to wear a sari or a salwar kameez or they’ll be prejudiced against me.”
Lansi’s confidence and legal profession allowed her to deal with the city in a way that wasn’t possible for many of the women who arrived here from the northeast. Lansi could voice her anger, as she had done in an article where she described eloquently how children from the northeast were grabbed from behind and asked, “Chinky, sexy, how much?” The article had made me want to meet her and find out more about the kind of cases she dealt with at the support center, but Lansi was less combative in person, more reflective and funny.