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.”