The Girl From F&B: A Portrait of the New India
When I first met Esther, she was confident about her F&B work. She said she was better at the work than many of her peers. She knew the menu inside out, knew what to suggest to customers and how to serve the food correctly. Even when she talked about quarreling with the manager, that was part of her ambition, of wanting to become an assistant manager.
These days Esther spoke differently about her job. “I wanted to be a doctor, not this F&B. Sometimes, I want to go back home, but what is there back home? If I go home, what will I do? But this job has no security, no pension.” She told me that she had taken an exam for a government schoolteacher’s job in Imphal. The salary would start at 14,000 rupees ($315), and it came with benefits like a pension, and afforded more security than a job in F&B. Her mother was a schoolteacher too, and what Esther sometimes wanted, after all her independence, striving, exposure and mobility, was a simple repetition of her mother’s life.
“My mother wants me to take the job if I get it,” Esther said. “I got through the exam, but the interview is still left. I’ll take the train home, which will take three days, give the interview, get back on the train for another three days and come back to this F&B. If I get the interview call, that is.” She began talking about home. “You know, once I flew home to Imphal, and my parents came to get me at the airport. They had become so old that it was painful to see them. I feel scared about them. I think, Kitna din wo rahega? How long will they be alive? My mother has a nerve problem; she shakes her head like this.” Esther demonstrated how her mother’s head shook. “My father has memory loss sometimes. And me, after all these years in Delhi, I have 42 rupees in my bank account. At times I’m fed up. I think I’ll go back. At least I won’t have to pay rent in Imphal. Then sometimes, I think I won’t go back to Imphal but maybe just get out of Delhi. I want to go to Simla.”
I remembered that I used to feel that way when I lived in Munirka, when I felt the need to get out of the city and went for a brief holiday to the nearby hills of Uttaranchal or Himachal Pradesh. But Esther didn’t have that option. “I haven’t been able to go to Simla even for a week’s holiday,” she said. “I made plans so many times, but every time I had to cancel. At work, I sometimes get sick of the people I am serving. Sometimes, there are fights at the station because no one wants to go and serve a party that’s come in. Everyone can tell they’ll be difficult. Once, a Korean couple left a 2 rupee coin for us as a tip. At least that allowed us to have a good laugh. Last night a party of Delhi ladies came in. They ordered the Indian appetizer platter. The platter weighs two and a half kilos. I had to hold it with one hand, while with my other hand I held the tongs with which to pick up the food. My back was hurting, the platter was so heavy, and when I got to the ladies, none of them would let me put food on her plate. They were doing that Indian thing, ‘Pehle aap, pehle aap. No, no, serve her first.’ And so I would go to the next lady, who would refuse and send me on to the next one, and it went on and on until I was so sick of all of them.”
Esther had begun looking for other jobs, even in Delhi. She wanted something that offered permanence and regular hours, something that demanded less of her body and was not as susceptible to the whims of rich customers. On the last day I met her at the Barista cafe, she told me that she knew a man who was a member of Parliament.
He was from the Congress Party in Agra, she said, one of the youngest MPs in the country. She had come to know the man through his Mizo girlfriend, and he had hinted that he might be able to get her a job in the Parliament.
It was a possibility that excited Esther, but she was worried that he might ask for a bribe in exchange for the job. She was expecting to meet with him later that afternoon. “If he wants money, I’ll have to say no. I don’t have any money,” she said. Esther decided to call the MP to find out when he wanted to meet.
The conversation was brief. “You’re too busy today?” she said. “You want me to try again in a few days?” She put the phone down and shrugged. “Sometimes, I really regret why I joined F&B,” she went on. “My elder brother wanted me to study further and get a job with the central government. Sometimes I think I want to do that, study something, maybe get an MBA through correspondence. But that would cost me at least 80,000 rupees ($1,800). And the problem is that now I know the taste of money, I cannot go back to the student life. I called a friend recently who works in Taj Mansingh. She’s also fed up with F&B. But we were talking, and I got scared. If I change jobs, what if, in the future, I regret leaving F&B?”
I dropped Esther off in front of the mall and watched as she vanished inside that vast building. It was nearly dusk, and the lights were on everywhere, each luxury-brand logo carved out on the wall bathed in its own glow. When I went home, I decided to look up the Congress MPs from Agra to find out more about the man who had held out the prospect of a job in the Parliament for Esther. It would be nice if it came true, I thought—if a young woman from the border provinces who is smart, hard-working and good ended up working in the building that was the symbol of India’s democracy.
I looked for a long time on the Internet, sifting through the names, parties and constituencies of the various MPs. There were no young Congress MPs from Agra.
No one at all with the name Esther had given me.