The Girl From F&B: A Portrait of the New India
This essay is adapted from The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India, by Siddhartha Deb, forthcoming from Faber and Faber, Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2011 by Siddhartha Deb. All rights reserved.
Esther once worked as a waitress at Hotel Shangri-La, serving breakfast, high tea and happy hour drinks at the Horizon Club on the nineteenth floor. Some of her guests were businessmen passing through Delhi, while others maintained small but expensive office suites along the corridors twisting away from the club lounge. In the evening, these men sat in the lounge sipping Black Label Scotch with lots of ice, appreciative of the quiet, smiling demeanor with which Esther brought them their food and drinks, leaving them to talk to one another or on their BlackBerrys while outside the sheer glass windows the sun went down softly over the Parliament building and the palatial bungalows of industrialists and politicians. One of the men who sat in the club lounge was an arms dealer. I met him before I met Esther, although the reason I went to see the arms dealer was because I was looking for Esther.
All through the past few years in India, sometimes in Delhi and sometimes in other cities, I had noticed the women who worked as waitresses in cafes and restaurants and as sales assistants in retail stores. They were usually in their 20s, soft-spoken and fluent in English. In the shape of their eyes, their cheekbones and their light skin, I could read their origins in northeastern India. They were polite but slightly reticent until I spoke to them and told them that I too had grown up in the northeast. Then they seemed to open up, and often there were extra touches of attention as they served me. I flattered myself that they liked me. After all, I knew where they were from, I was generous with my tips and I thought I understood something of their loneliness in the loneliness I had felt when I began to leave my small-town origins behind and started my drift through cities. But in most ways, I wasn’t like them. I had grown up in Shillong, the most cosmopolitan of urban centers in the northeast, while the women were from Nagaland or Manipur, the first generation from these states to abandon their poor, violence-ridden homes for the globalized metropolises of the mainland. Their journey was longer and harder than mine had ever been, and although there were tens of thousands of them in Delhi alone, they were in some sense utterly isolated, always visible in the malls and restaurants but always opaque to their wealthy customers.
Samrat, whom I had met in Bangalore, and who had moved back to Delhi, knew I was looking to interview one of these women. He took me to meet the arms dealer because he thought the man might be able to introduce me to a waitress who worked at the hotel. The arms dealer, who did not like being called an arms dealer and referred to himself as a “security specialist,” was also from the northeast. He had grown up in a small town in Assam called Haflong, a picturesque stop on the train I used to take during my college days and where local tribal men often sat on the platform selling deer meat on banana leaves. But Haflong had also been riven by poverty, ethnic violence and insurgency, shut down from time to time by landslides, an ambush by insurgents or a retaliatory rampage by paramilitary forces.
The arms dealer had risen far from such origins, and although he was making a business of the violence that was endemic to his hometown, his role in it reduced violence to an abstraction. He was bald and suave, wearing a black suit and carrying a BlackBerry. Because of our common background, he came across as welcoming and gregarious the day I met him, slipping into Sylheti, the Bengali dialect that we shared, while at the same time emphasizing the rarefied atmosphere in which he now moved. He traveled around the world, he said, including the frequent trips he made to his company’s headquarters in Virginia. When he visited New York, he stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel. “Not bad, right?” he said. “Is that an OK hotel?”
We were sitting in the Horizon Club, easing ourselves into the atmosphere of soft armchairs, quiet conversation, tinkling glasses and attentive waitresses. The Shangri-La had once been a government-run hotel called Qutab, which had been sold off as part of India’s ongoing “divestment” process. It had been rebranded since then, and through its windows Delhi looked nothing like the place I knew. It appeared instead as a vaguely futuristic city, a settlement on a distant planet where human ingenuity had created a lush green canopy of trees, broken up occasionally by the monolith of a government building or the tower of a luxury hotel. I almost expected, when looking up, to see a faintly visible glass dome that kept the oxygen in, as if the city I was looking at was artificial, its comfort and organization disguising the fact that it was at war with a harsh alien environment.
An Indian man with an American accent came over to say hello to the arms dealer. When he left, the arms dealer turned to me and said, “That was Boeing.”
“All the way from headquarters at Seattle.”
“To sell commercial aircraft?” I said, somewhat confused.
“No, no, defense stuff. Boeing does lots of defense. Missiles, drones.”
He gave me a list of all the arms companies that were in Delhi: General Dynamics, Boeing, Northrop Grumman. Some had offices in Hotel Shangri-La, while others had suites at Le Méridien, another luxury hotel nearby—all of them wanted physical proximity to the politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen and defense officials with whom they carried out their expensive trade.
The arms dealer took me to see his office. It was a small but luxurious space, with a sitting area that showed us the same futuristic view of Delhi—all trees, neon lights and granite buildings.
“I’m thinking of writing a book,” the arms dealer said. “Wouldn’t it be nice to sit here, with this view, and write a book?” “Yes,” I said, looking at his desk and at the files arranged neatly around the computer and fax machine. I wondered if there was a stray document lying around that I could steal. I had no idea what I would do with such a document, but it felt like that was what the script demanded.
“If I can’t write a book here, with this view and all this nice stuff, then I wouldn’t be able to write a book anywhere,” the arms dealer said. I was examining a low shelf in front of his desk. There were small models resting on it, looking like toys and making me think momentarily of my son. But these weren’t toys. They were scaled-down versions of the products the arms dealer sold. There was an armored personnel carrier and a battle tank, both of them sand-colored, as if to suggest that their theater of operation would be a desert. There was a strange-looking ship too, and Samrat asked the dealer, “What’s that?”
“A littoral combat ship,” the dealer said, dragging out the t’s. He led Samrat and me back to the lounge, pressing us to stay for dinner. When we declined because we had another engagement, he was insistent that we meet again. Then he remembered the reason I had come. He called over a tall Sikh who was in charge of the club lounge.
“What was the name of that girl who used to work here? The one from Manipur?”
“The girl from F&B?” the Sikh said. “Esther.”
“Can you get me her cell number?”
The Sikh came back with the number written on a piece of hotel stationery. The arms dealer called, chatted for a while and then handed me the phone. If Esther was surprised, she didn’t show it, and we made plans to meet on Saturday afternoon at the “McD” on Janpath. I said goodbye to the arms dealer and wished him a good trip to Dhaka.
“Do you sell to Bangladesh as well?” I asked.
“I sell to everyone on the subcontinent,” he said. “It’s business.”
The “McD” where Esther had wanted to meet me was near the corner of Tolstoy Marg and Janpath (or “People’s Way”), directly across from rows of handicraft stores selling tie-dyed scarves and jewelry to unhappy-looking backpackers. It was walking distance from the magazine office at Connaught Place where I had worked in the late 1990s while living in Munirka, and I had often wandered along Janpath, looking at the handicraft stores and the tall office buildings.
The neighborhood had seemed to me then to be the climax of urban civilization, the center of a fantastically alienating and alluring big city, and it was oddly disappointing to see a McDonald’s insert itself into the area. It was meant to emphasize how global Delhi had become, but what it accomplished was a diminution of scale. The McDonald’s was a reminder that Janpath was not Times Square. It was no longer even Janpath.
There was a doorman to salute and let me in, a man dressed like a soldier on parade with his peaked cap, sash and boots. The menu had no beef, and chicken had been squeezed in as a replacement in the form of the Chicken Maharaja Mac. The crowd was lively and vocal, gathered in large groups of family and friends, making the place quite unlike McDonald’s outlets I had seen in America, with their often solitary diners. Numerous women in uniform, mostly from the northeast, circulated around the restaurant, taking away trays when customers were done eating.
Esther and her younger sister, Renu, were sitting next to each other at a table pushed against the wall, watching me with curiosity as I approached. Renu was slender, darker than Esther and dressed in a salwar kameez that made her seem more at ease among the Delhi clientele of McDonald’s. She had just graduated from college and seemed full of energy, hurriedly finishing her Happy Meal so that she wouldn’t be left out of the conversation.
Esther hadn’t ordered any food. She sat pushing around a large Coke, the ice rattling in the cup. There were dark circles around her eyes: she had finished work at two in the morning and got home at 3:30. She was a couple of years older than Renu and stockily built, and her hair was cut short. She was dressed in a green top and jeans, cheap and functional clothes, and the only visible decorative touches were a pair of small earrings and the red nail polish painted onto thick, square fingertips.
As I sat across from Esther, it was difficult to imagine her at Shangri-La. She didn’t seem sufficiently polished and demure, unlike the waitresses I had seen at the lounge. The women there had been soft-footed and soft-spoken, flaring momentarily into existence with a smile, putting down a saucer or taking away a cup before receding into the background. Unlike them, and unlike bubbly Renu, Esther exuded both tiredness and toughness. She was a worker, clenching her fist occasionally to make a point as she told me about her journey from the northeast to the imperial center of Delhi.
Esther had grown up in Imphal, the capital of the northeastern state of Manipur. Her father was a Tangkhul Naga from Ukhrul district, while her mother was from the Kom tribe in the Moirang area. To the people sitting in McDonald’s, Esther probably looked no more than vaguely Mongoloid, perhaps a Nepali or—in the pejorative language commonly used in Delhi for all Mongoloid people—a “Chinky.” Yet the different backgrounds of her parents indicated a coming together of opposites, a meeting between a Naga from the northern mountains of Ukhrul and a Kom from the watery rice valley of Moirang that had produced the contrasting looks and personalities of the sisters in front of me.
Esther’s father was a minor government official, now retired, and her mother taught Hindi at a school. Her parents’ background, along with her mixed tribal heritage, meant that Esther had grown up in a way that was quite cosmopolitan, interacting with people from other communities. (Her best friend, she said, was from Bihar; as a student she had traveled with her friend to Patna, its capital.) It also meant that in some ways Esther felt removed from her ethnic background. “I don’t know how to speak Tangkhul,” she said. “If I mingle with them, I feel different. They’re not bad people, Nagas. But I want to move ahead. I don’t want to look back. I want to see the world. If I was at home now, I’d be married and with two kids.”
* * *
In Imphal, Esther had received a relatively high level of education. She had studied biochemistry in college and then began working on a master’s degree in botany. She had wanted to be a doctor, she said, but she had settled instead for a one-year tourism course in Chandigarh, Punjab, in 2004. Her time in Chandigarh went by quickly, and she had seen little of the city by the time she finished her course and moved to Delhi. Her first job, in 2005, was doing ticketing for a travel agency in Malviya Nagar. She was living near Delhi University in an area called North Campus, and the office was in South Delhi, which meant that she had to take a series of buses across the city to get to work. The men in the buses were aggressive and uncouth, and she often lost her way. But soon she found a better job at the front desk of the five-star Taj Palace Hotel, and her salary increased to 6,500 rupees ($146) a month from the 4,000 ($90) she had made as a travel agent.
The Taj Palace Hotel was a very different work environment from the travel agency. In its plush surroundings Esther found herself serving wealthy Indians and foreigners, who were luxury brands of a kind too, and it was while working among them that Esther began to feel that there were better jobs at such places than serving on the front desk. “I had a friend who worked on a cruise ship. She made so much money, yeah. Every time she came back, she had one lakh [100,000] rupees in her pocket,” Esther said, her tone more of wonder than envy.
The friend worked in F&B, Esther said, by which she meant “food and beverages.” She always used the phrase in its abbreviated form, and she used it often, so that it ran through our many conversations like a potent code, generating positive or negative meanings depending on how Esther was feeling that day about herself, her work and her life.
At that first meeting, Esther was cautious. She was opening up her life to a stranger, and she was understandably anxious to portray that life as a success. She therefore depicted F&B in a particularly optimistic light, emphasizing how much it had given her and how it had allowed her to move away from the narrow life—married with two kids—that she would have had if she had stayed in Imphal. Esther’s cruise ship friend convinced her that she should move from the front-desk position to one in F&B. The work was harder, but the money was better, largely because of tips. “I wanted F&B so badly,” Esther said. Although there were no openings for her at Taj Palace, a manager there helped her get an interview at Hotel Shangri-La. She began working at Shangri-La in 2006 and remained there for more than two years, earning a salary of 8,000 rupees ($180) before tips.
At first, she was stationed at the Thai-Chinese restaurant on the first floor. Then she was moved upstairs to the Horizon Club. “The food and drinks are complimentary for club members,” she said, “and there’s a fixed budget from the hotel for the costs run up in the club. We’re supposed to manage within that.”
On February 13, 2009, Esther said with sudden specificity, she left Shangri-La to work in Zest, a new restaurant located in a mall in South Delhi. The salary, with tips, was significantly more than what she had been making at Shangri-La, although money was not the only reason she changed jobs. The hours were far longer at the new place, starting at noon and finishing at two in the morning, and she worked six days a week. “But it’s OK,” Esther said. “In F&B, every day you learn something new.”
A sudden burst of “Happy Birthday” from an adjoining table drowned out Esther’s talk. I looked at the busy tables around us. No one was paying us any attention, although I wondered what they would see if they looked at the two young women sitting across the table from me, an older man. We had been talking for a couple of hours, and Esther and Renu had to leave. Although it was Esther’s day off, she had to go to Shangri-La to pick up some papers from the human resources department. We made plans to meet again, and I offered to give the sisters a lift to Shangri-La. The driver of the car I had hired that day, a young man from Rajasthan, was parked across the street, and he reached around to open the door for me when he saw me coming. I registered the sudden shock on his face when he saw the women accompanying me and realized that they were coming too. He went numb as I let Esther and Renu into the back of the car and came around to sit next to him. He hadn’t said a word, but I knew what he was thinking. He had assumed that the women were prostitutes and that I was going home with them. When we stopped at Shangri-La to drop off Esther and Renu, his expression changed. But I could see, as we drove homeward, that he was puzzled by what I had been doing with them in the first place.
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.
* * *
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.