The Girl From F&B: A Portrait of the New India
The support center had been set up, Lansi told me, with the help of local church leaders. Lansi was a practicing Christian, but she emphasized that the cases of harassment they came across were not limited to Christians, and neither was the assistance provided by the center. They had a help line that people could call at any time, but the help line was really the mobile numbers for Lansi and a colleague of hers. Lansi took out a few cards with the numbers on them, pausing briefly to pass one to the waitress from Churachandpur.
The waitress looked surprised but slipped the card into her apron, and Lansi began talking about the kind of cases she dealt with.
She told me about two women working for a Pizza Hut outlet who had not been paid their salary for three months and who, after repeated complaints, were informed that their pay would be released in installments; of a woman locked inside her apartment by her landlord; of another woman taking Hindi lessons from a man who insisted that she make him her boyfriend—a euphemism for wanting sex—in order to improve her Hindi. The harassment moved easily along the bottom half of the class ladder, targeting semi-literate women who worked as maidservants as well as the more educated ones with jobs at restaurants.
It was possible to see a pattern in Lansi’s stories, of the clash between women from the northeast and local men, two disparate groups thrown together by the modernity of the new India. The sudden explosion of malls and restaurants had created jobs like the ones at Pizza Hut, where men and women worked together; it had drawn thousands of women from the northeast, prized for their English and their lighter skin; it had also stoked the confused desires of men from deeply patriarchal cultures. From the names of the Delhi neighborhoods Lansi mentioned—the areas where women had been harassed, assaulted and raped by landlords, colleagues and neighbors—it was possible to tell that they had been villages not too long ago and had been haphazardly absorbed into the urban sprawl of Delhi. These were neighborhoods where the local women went around wearing veils while the men eyed the outsiders, lusting after them and yet resenting them, considering themselves to be from superior cultures while also feeling that they were less equipped to take advantage of the service economy of globalized cities like Delhi.
But just as not all men in such neighborhoods were violent toward women, there were also men who were seemingly more modern and more capable of benefiting from the new economy, and who still turned out to be predators. The case that bothered Lansi the most was that of a young Assamese woman who had worked at a food stand in Gurgaon with her boyfriend. The stand sold the Tibetan dumplings called “momos,” ubiquitous in all Indian cities these days. One of the customers at the momo stand, a middle-aged executive working for a multinational, offered the woman a job cleaning his apartment.
“The girl had come straight from a village,” Lansi said. “She was so naïve. And I think the boyfriend encouraged her to take the job. She went to clean the apartment, and the man locked her up and raped her. He kept her there for days, raping her while going to work every morning as usual.”
Eventually, the woman managed to escape and approached Lansi. Because this had happened in Gurgaon, Lansi had to fight the case at the High Court there, something that worried her. The Gurgaon High Court was not as cosmopolitan as the Delhi High Court, Lansi felt. She thought it was more patriarchal, more prejudiced against women from other parts of the country. In the end, it didn’t matter because the woman refused to testify in court and the charges were dropped. Lansi assumed that something had gone wrong between the filing of the case and the trial. She thought the executive may have paid the woman’s boyfriend and used him to put pressure on the victim, but this was a guess, something Lansi had been unable to verify. When she went to talk to the woman again, she found the momo stand locked up. The couple had apparently left Gurgaon and gone back to Assam.
* * *
Esther’s experience of Delhi had been nothing like that of the people Lansi had talked about. She was smarter, tougher and perhaps more fortunate. Yet the initial sense of optimism she had conveyed to me, especially about F&B, gradually gave way to a more complex reality. If Esther had left home, she had done so as much out of a strong sense of independence as out of a need for employment. “I’m a graduate,” she told me the first time we met, clenching her fist to emphasize the point. “Why should I have to depend on my husband for money?”
But Esther’s independence in Delhi had turned out to be a strange thing, with others depending on her. “Most of my friends in Imphal didn’t graduate,” she said at the Barista cafe a few days after I talked to Lansi. “I did my degree and came here to work. But still, in spite of the money I make, I have to think twice before I do anything. I am not a hi-fi type, you know. I have a prepaid phone, on which I spend about 3,000 rupees a month on refills. That’s the only luxury. I don’t have money to buy new clothes or even just a pair of chappals.”
Although Esther’s salary at Zest was 13,000 rupees ($293) a month, the money was not just for her. She paid a major share of the rent and household expenses for the apartment she shared with Renu, an older sister named Mary and their brother. Mary contributed too—she worked for a collection agency, where she called up people in the United States who had fallen behind on their car payments to threaten them with repossession of their vehicles—but she earned less than Esther. Renu didn’t work, and neither did their brother. I asked Esther if she resented her brother.
“How can I be angry with him?” she said. “He’s so good to me. He massages my neck, clips my nails, washes my hair. Sometimes, he’ll get aloe vera juice from Renu’s plant for me to put on my hands.”
Yet Esther couldn’t help getting frustrated with her situation and how all her hard work hadn’t resulted in a significant improvement in her life. She talked resentfully at times of her bosses—all men—and sometimes even of the women who worked with her. “There’s this friend of mine who works at the restaurant, but she’s also a call girl,” Esther said. “I asked her why she does such a thing, and she said she needed money. But I need money too, yeah? I don’t stoop to selling my body because of that. If you go to Munirka, you will see some of these girls from the northeast waiting around. They have the taste of money and do these things to get the money. It feels so shameful. I can’t even look at them. I keep thinking that other people will consider me to be just like them.”
Even though Esther had talked about how she resented the way people in Delhi were prejudiced against women from the northeast, she sometimes exhibited a similar attitude. “Sometimes, I wish I looked different,” she said. “I wish I had bigger eyes. That I looked more Indian.” She began to tell me that when she had worked at Shangri-La, she had seen the most beautiful woman in the world.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“Priyanka Gandhi,” she replied dreamily, naming the heiress apparent of the Congress Party, a woman descended from a long line of prime ministers, part Indian and part Italian. Esther had been filling the water glasses at the table where Priyanka Gandhi was having lunch with her husband. “She was so beautiful,” Esther said, “so fair that she looked transparent, as if she was made of glass. I watched her drinking water, and it felt like I could see the water going down her throat.”