The Girl From F&B: A Portrait of the New India
The restaurant Esther worked in was located on the top floor of the Emporio mall, a granite monstrosity that had been a work in progress for many years. It sat on the foothills of the Delhi ridge, a forested area that ran all the way from south to north Delhi. The construction of the mall had been temporarily held up by environmentalists taking the developers to court, but theirs was a losing cause in the new India. The completed mall boasted the “largest luxury collection” in Asia, with four floors of designer stores topped off by the experience of dining at Zest.
Although I had often stopped by the mall to pick up Esther, I had never been inside until I decided to take a closer look one afternoon. I wandered around for a while, increasingly puzzled by what I saw. The people around me were middle-class, no doubt fairly well-off, but they didn’t look like the luxury-brand clientele Esther had spoken of, purchasing items worth lakhs. The shops too were run-of-the mill franchises. Finally, when I asked one of the attendants where Zest was, I discovered my mistake.
I was in the wrong mall. Although it looked like one vast complex from the outside, there were actually two malls next to each other, both owned by DLF. I was standing in the more down-market one. If I went outside and made my way along the winding walkway to the next building, I would reach Emporio.
The luxury mall was like a five-star hotel, with a fountain, brass railings and marble floors. The impression of a hotel was emphasized further by the open lounge on the ground floor, where people sat on couches eating pastries and drinking tea. I went up and down the mall, sometimes using the stairs and sometimes the elevator, wondering what it was like for Esther to work here. The luxury stores seemed quite empty. I decided to go into one, a Paul Smith store, but I lost my nerve at the last moment and veered away from the door. Instead, I continued on my circuit of the corridor winding around the atrium, puzzled that I had been unable to go inside the shop. Below me, in the lobby, I saw a woman stride out to the middle of the marble floor, pirouetting on high heels and sticking out her hips. She was tall and slender, and as I looked more closely I could see the group of people she was posing for. It was some kind of a fashion shoot.
I was still wondering why I had been unable to enter the Paul Smith store. I didn’t normally go to designer stores, but when I had ventured into some of them in New York out of curiosity, I hadn’t felt such unease. Somehow, I was more exposed and vulnerable in Delhi. This wasn’t because it would be apparent to everyone in the shop that I couldn’t afford to buy anything—that would be pretty obvious in Manhattan too—but in Delhi it mattered to me that people would know, as if the very objects would sneer at me for daring to enter their space. In the West, with its long excess of capitalism, it might be possible to scoff at luxury brands. They had been around so long that they had lost some of their meaning. But in India, luxury brands still possess power.
I went up to take a look at Zest. Earlier, I had thought of going in and having a drink. But now I felt uncertain, remembering what Esther had said about how it wasn’t officially open. And who knew how much a drink there might cost? Instead, I loitered near the entrance, staring into the dark interior of the restaurant while trying not to be too obvious. I could see the bar, generic with its dim lighting and polished wood. The dining areas were much further back, and I couldn’t see anything of the places where the seven cuisines were served. It was still early in the evening, and despite the music playing softly (piped over the Internet from Britain) and the waitresses walking around looking fresh in their crisp uniforms, there seemed to be few customers. It was like a stage set before the opening of the play, holding no meaning for the audience. It was alive at the moment only for Esther and her colleagues.
I went back down the stairs. When I reached the lobby on the ground floor, I passed the woman I had taken to be a model. Now I understood that I had been mistaken. She had been trying on a pair of shoes, using the vast expanse of the lobby to check out how they looked and felt on her feet. The people I had taken to be a photographer and makeup artist were just her friends.
* * *
One afternoon Esther took me to meet a friend of hers in Munirka, someone with whom she occasionally stayed over. I had been curious about how the neighborhood had changed in the years since I last lived there. There had been plenty of people from the northeast when I was a resident of Munirka, but few of them were single women. It had been an unsafe area for women, with sexual assaults not uncommon in the deserted stretches of land between the crowded village and the university campus.
As Esther and I approached Munirka, there was much about the neighborhood that seemed immediately familiar, from the unkempt park on our right to the garbage dump that sat at the beginning of a row of concrete buildings. Some of the buildings had become larger, with decorative flourishes like fluted metal bars on the balconies, but they still stood cheek by jowl, separated by little alleyways. People could still jump from one balcony to another if they wanted to.
I slowed down when we came to the building where I had lived. It was unchanged, the passageway in front of it deserted at that time in the afternoon. I felt no sense of triumph that I had seemingly moved up since I lived inside that one-room flat, its back door opening to a sheer drop. The neighborhood became more crowded as we went further in. There were little groups of local Jat men and those from the northeast, keeping their distance from one another. The men from the northeast worked night shifts at call centers, while the local men were either unemployed or running small businesses that did not require their presence at that hour. The street running past the buildings was still a dirt track, but the buffaloes that had wallowed there had vanished, giving way to cars and motorcycles. The young Jats who stood around looked like prosperous street toughs, wearing branded jeans and sneakers, occasionally sending a glance sliding up the body of a young woman emerging from a building.
Esther’s friend Moi lived a couple of buildings down from my former residence, on the third floor. We climbed the narrow stairwell of the building, passing flats whose doors had been left open because of the heat. Moi’s single-room flat was almost exactly like mine, from the size of the room to her belongings. There was a cheap mattress on the floor, probably bought from Rama Market; a portable red gas cylinder with a burner attached to it, something easier to get than the regular gas cylinders, which required an immense amount of paperwork; and an odd mishmash of crockery, cooking utensils and clothes.
Moi was from Churachandpur, slim and stylish in jeans and a T-shirt. She shared the flat with two of her siblings—a brother who worked at a laundry and a sister who was a waitress at a cafe in IIT Delhi. We sat on the floor and chatted about how Moi had come to Delhi. She had moved around a lot, working in Arunachal Pradesh as a teacher and a warden at a school, in Calcutta for a Christian charity and in Chennai for another charity doing relief work for people affected by the 2004 tsunami. She had moved to Delhi the year after with a job at a children’s home in Noida, which she had followed with a position at a call center for two years. It had been hard going, she said, working evenings and nights at a call center while living in Munirka. One evening, while waiting for a van to pick her up, she had been harassed by men in a car asking if she was available for the night. On another occasion, two men on a motorcycle had grabbed her by her arm, trying to drag her onto the bike and letting go only when her screams attracted attention from passers-by.
At work, Moi had been a “precollector,” making calls to American customers falling behind on their payments. I asked her what it had been like. She responded with a surprisingly good rendition of a deep masculine growl. “Tell me the color of the panties you’re wearing,” she said. The two women started laughing. Moi eventually left the call center because her employers wouldn’t give her the two weeks’ leave she needed to go home. Since then, she had been looking around for work without much success, and she was considering returning to a call-center job, since it was relatively easy to get one.
Moi’s life sounded to me like a strange combination of Victorian and millennial motifs: on the one hand, there were all those children’s homes and boarding schools she had worked at; on the other, there was her job as a precollector talking to men on the other side of the world. But the same was true of Esther, I thought, as we left Moi’s flat and walked out of Munirka. She was so modern in some ways, with her job at a fancy restaurant; yet there were other forces acting upon Esther’s life that made her look back home, toward possibilities that seemed to have little in them of the new India.