Tag Archives: Essay

Is This The Man You Are Voting For?

There are exactly four paved roads in Juhapura, Ahmedabad.  The first is a national highway which cuts through the area, the second was constructed so trucks carrying solid waste could pass through the area, the third when the President of India visited a riot affected window house in the neighbourhood and the fourth was made after a Gujarat High Court intervention. Spread over 5 kilometers, the areas houses about 500,000 people. There are no sewage or water connections or a garbage management system.

It’s not a poor neighbourhood of Ahmedabad city. Judges, senior police and administrative officials, businessmen, small traders, working class people live cheek by jowl. No one in the rest of the city rents or sells them homes or commercial spaces.

There are no government buildings there – hospitals, secondary schools, ration shops. There is one government establishment – a police station. In 2011, a branch of a government bank opened here for the first time. Only because the central government came out with a rule that all minority areas must have banking facilities. Juhapura is a Muslim ghetto. It became one after the horrific 2002 riots. At that time the population of Juhapura was about 200,000. Within months it doubled.

It doesn’t matter that four feet of water enters homes during monsoon. Then the sanitary waste seeps into the borewells  meant for drinking water. That people fall ill every year. It just means that here – hopefully there will be safety in numbers, that at least there would be a chance to survive.



After months of using all my contacts and sources, having unanswered emails, phone calls unreturned or phone banged down in fear, I have finally found someone who is willing to talk about what happened in 2002. And when I get there – he is afraid to talk on-camera.

He starts talking about the Toofan of 1985. Toofan? Riot. And the Toofan of 1992-93 and then 2002. In 1985, he and the Hindu boys used to play cricket together on a vast piece of empty land between the mixed neighbourhood of Juhapura and the nearby largely Hindu area, ironically called the Unity Ground. And after the riots, a small wall dividing the area started extending into the field. In 1992, it extended further and now post-2002 Juhapura is a walled city. He calls the wall – border. At first I am uncomfortable at the use of the terminology.

But when I see the wall I am taken aback. It is a 30 feet tall structure and has rolled barbed-wire on top of it. Structure-wise I have seen smaller India-Pakistan borders than that. He turns to look at me and says quietly, “the wall is not a physical structure anymore. It is now built into the hearts of the people.” We continue to traverse the edge of the border. Organized, shiny apartment blocks and CCTVs peek from behind the Hindu area. On this side – garbage and human waste flood the streets. Because the Municipal Corporation refuses to build anything. Symbolically, a rotting, rusty ‘Work in Progress’ sign stands near the boundary wall.

I am appalled and disgusted in turns.

I ask him, “Can you go to the other side?” In a resigned voice, he tells me, “Not from this neighbourhood.” And then he adds, “at least at the Wagah border there is a gate.” There are small children playing cricket in one corner. Aged 10 and below, they were born and raised here. Division along communal lines wasn’t taught to them but it pervades through everything around them. They have learnt quickly that they are second class citizens of this country. A boy looks at my notebook and our camera, and mockingly says, “Apparently you are now in Pakistan.”

Someone asks me, “How can you tell 25 crore citizens of this country that we don’t belong here? That this is not our land.” I don’t have any answers.



“Are you still afraid?” I ask.

They smile at me. Like I am naive to even ask that question. “One fears death. And we have seen everything.” The elderly, the women, the young – all know their life is cheap.

A man tells me how in the first three days of riots VHP and Bajrang Dal ‘activists’, accompanied by the police would enter the area. Wave after wave would shout, “Kato, kato, miya ko kato.” (Butcher, butcher, butcher the Muslims). I cannot verify if he is exaggerating the words but the others surrounding him nod in agreement of the language used in those days.

Next day, a little girl who lives in the middle of Juhapura is accompanying us to the border for the first time. Before reaching there I ask her how does she imagine the border to be. Innocently she tells me, “I think it will be like the desert in the Kutch.” She talks nineteen to a dozen on the way, telling me about her favourite subject in school and how she loves horses and dogs and cats. When we reach the border she is suddenly very quiet. If she didn’t feel like an ‘other’ before, I am afraid she feels she is one now. And I wonder if it is too soon.

When a riot survivor describes me about the horror of seeing his son being hacked to death by a mob, I can’t look him in the eye. Instead I scribble notes in my notebook. “Should Modi be the next Prime Minister of India?” I ask. “No.No.No…he can’t be. We already live in enough fear,” he answers alarmed at that thought.

And I wonder is this the man people are voting for? Is alienating a section of the society the ‘Gujarat Model of Development’?




Filed under India

Girls Aloud

It’s a sunny morning as I make my way through the city of Lucknow. The wide roads and half built flyovers give way to narrow lanes on the outskirts of the city. A meta-city awaits me in a slum hugging one edge of the city.

There are vegetable vendors, cheap clothes shops, grocery stores, tailors, chai wala, samose wala, people going for their daily wage jobs, even a school and a college and a few wedding tents. There are no open spaces. Most houses are unfinished brick structures, a work in progress. The richer people have painted houses and the work designation of the male member is proudly painted outside – mostly police officers who have earned enough (by dubious manners probably) to build their imposing oasis in the midst of the mess which exists.

There are no electricity poles, no sewage lines and no visible signs of pucca roads in many places. Post-monsoon water and garbage stagnate every few feet and herds of mosquitoes sit nonchalantly on them until pigs take a dive in the water, forcing them to fly away. Goats, stray dogs, cows, rats and flies complete the animal kingdom.

There is a Japanese saying translated in English, which says – a nail that sticks out will be hammered it. Everything here is hammered, squished, battered and forced to live in the space where every breath is a mixture cooking oil, dust, sewage, and the perennial male gaze and comments. Class, caste, religion and gender intersect here, giving it an uneasy flavour of diversity.

There are lots of men on the streets. A few women are part of the public milieu with their heads covered if they are Hindu and wearing a burka if they are Muslim. It’s heartening to see young girls going to school. I wonder if things are really as bad as I have heard. The next few days are spent unraveling the web of my questions. I think I know the answers. I have travelled so much in this country. I have covered so many stories. I know how it works. But I am so very wrong. And I don’t know it yet.

The slum is a thriving centre of local economy but most importantly it has its own set of social rules. Rules if not followed can lead to the collapse of the system which exists. Men go to out to work and women stay in the house.

The lanes become narrower as our car jostles for space. Inching closer to our destination, we are brought to a rude stop by someone digging in the middle of the road, trying to repair a mud pathway which has become sludgy. We have to cover the rest of the distance on foot.

Two young girls meet us so they can accompany us to our destination. They have a bright smile and confidently say their hellos. We exchange pleasantries as we walk past a cow shed, a small shop which a TV blaring out loud, an open ground. We hop over a two feet wall and enter a small house. I am greeted by a young woman, her excited dog, her shy mother and a man and a woman who are sitting in a corner, narrating a story.

The room is bare except a bed with a bright yellow bedcover, diagonally opposite it is a rickety old table, a dirty mirror propped on it. A few certificates and trophies adorn the wall and the table. On close examination they give a ‘certificate of excellence’ to the courageous work of the Red Brigade and its twenty five year old leader Usha Vishwakarma.

As the dark curtain flaps away, I listen to a woman discuss her woes – successful with an entrepreneurial spirit, she is a figure of jealousy within the menfolk of her village community. The upper caste men unable to accept how can a mere lower caste woman complete a university degree, work and earn enough to support her family. She has been threatened with gang-rape along with her teenage daughter. There are menacing letters given to her community members which talk about how the upper caste policemen who will look the other way when she is raped and/or murdered.

As someone who has had equal access to education and opportunity at work – unquestioned – I am horrified to hear her story. I have heard stories of the Uttar Pradesh badlands and the defined gender and caste roles which exist there. I have heard of harsh punishments for not towing the line. I have heard of machismo that every ‘man’ is supposed to assert. I have never believed that stereotypes can be true. Surely, these are just stories which our pop culture and cinema talk about. An aberration which the media reports about.

I am obviously wrong.

And then I am wrong again. Because sitting next to her is her husband, supportive of her, trying to find a way to help her. Not all men are caricatures of the stereotypes. Usha finds ways to help her – holding a gender sensitization camp in her village, teaching the women and girls self-defense, teaching them ways to stand up instead of cowering in fear.

But this is a band-aid approach to a problem rooted into the system, woven into the fabric of the society. There are no easy ways to fix it.

Later Usha and I have a chat. She talks about a time, almost seven years ago when she was eighteen. To support her carpenter father, the eldest of four children, she had decided to augment the family income by working. She started to work with a local NGO, teaching under-privileged children when one day a male teacher tried to rape her. She fought back and ran away.

The next one year was a blur, spent dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. The social conditioning meant that she believed that she was responsible for the sexual assault, that she had asked for it. Approaching the local police would have meant dealing with questions like what was she wearing and why was she with a man. She didn’t tell her family either – the shame would make her unmarriageable. Dealing with the trauma on her own, at times she would break down, at others filled with rage. Slowly she began to confide in her friends. In turn they told her their stories of sexual advances, harassment and rape.

As the day progresses, we walk outside and she shows me the bushes and the open ground near her house. Many kuccha houses have been built on the edges but hers used to be the only house at the end of the maidan about four years ago. Many young girls would meet their lovers there at dusk.

Growing up on a diet of Bollywood films romantic notions of love like meeting of the eyes, sending love letters and walking past the boy one fancies is what love means for these girls, forbidden to interact with the opposite sex. As rules go, good girls stay at home or go out accompanied by a male member of the house and come back home to help with the household chores. Lover’s trysts are for bad girls who are game for anything.

Before the other houses were built, twice girls were rescued by Usha or her mother when in their eagerness to meet ‘boyfriends’ they were pounced upon by the boyfriend and his friends. Crying, shaking with fear, both girls were lucky enough to spot her house and flee there. The men, waiting outside Usha’s home so they could rape them. In neither of the cases, the girls reported the crime to police or told their families. And Usha says there is no data to confirm if others were violated in the same spot.

The men who mostly live there are daily wage labourers. They work for a few days or weeks on a job, earn enough to survive and drink. Then they idle away their time in frustration, jobless, standing around tea stalls, gossiping and passing comments as women and girls walk past. These socially acceptable behaviour patterns are cues for younger men and boys to behave in the same manner. Emboldened and influenced by the men around them and their favourite bollywood films – they sing sexually suggestive songs as girls walk past them. And if they really want to have some fun they grab her hand or snatch her scarf.

Usha tells me that the ground was a popular location to play cricket during the day. To access the main road, or visit the shop or exit the slums, one had to pass through the ground. With groups of men standing there the whole day, Usha’s ears would sting with sexually explicit remarks, wolf whistles and kissing sounds, undressing with eyes – in short street sexual harassment. She and other women complained to the police, but the officers asked them to change their routes or timings because boys were born to ‘eve tease’ girls.

Angry and helpless, Usha saw all around her that young girls and women were suffering in silence while unprovoked sexual violence continued in the slum. The last straw probably was when Usha’s one bedroom house expanded to two rooms and beyond, a jealous neighbour tried to assault her younger sisters.

And then enough was enough.

Usha, her friends and sisters decided on a novel approach – they started to verbally confront the boys. Taken aback at the insolence of the girls, the boys didn’t know how to react. Some retreated but others continued. The girls gave them a few chances and then visited their houses and talk to the parents, persuading them to talk to their sons. Some people responded with anger, labeling the girls as prostitutes for being outside their homes. But other parents spoke to their sons.

Eventually a smaller group of men remained in the ground, challenging the girls to try and avoid harassment. Being pushed in the corner for too long, the girls channelized their anger and beat the boys. The public shaming was enough for most to never come back there or look the girls in the eye. However, some filed police complaints against Usha for the assault and a slew of false cases.

But something began to change. The girls started to believe that they weren’t lesser than the boys, that they deserved the freedom on the streets as much as the boys did, that they deserved to be treated with respect, that their body belonged to them.

With the other girls Usha decided to organize a formal group. All the members were girls who had faced some form of sexual violence. They would wear black and red outfits, black for protest and red for danger. As they would walk down the streets of the slums, men would taunt, “Here comes the Red Brigade.” And that’s how the group was christened – by reclaiming the words from a bunch of harassers.

As more and more vulnerable girls started coming for help, the group expanded into learning and teaching gender sensitization. Someone did a story in a local newspaper and help poured in form of a martial arts trainer who started teaching the group self-defence. A silent revolution began at the homes of these girls as they began to question patriarchal norms and the culture of victim blaming.

Then the horrific December 16 incident happened.

A group of fifteen girls became a group of hundred. And even though core members remain between fifteen and twenty, many volunteers walk through the doors of Usha’s home, determined to change the society that colludes to keep them quiet.

National and international press has flocked to her home to try and understand why these girls have to take extreme measures – confronting and beating men. Is it the need of the hour? Is it symptomatic of a bigger problem?

The slum represents what is wrong with the society – men who believe sexual violence is the ultimate power, the victim who would rather keep quiet, the society which at one end is steeped into traditional values and at the other changing too fast, the lack of consent, the deficiency of the justice system.

On my second day there, Usha impassively points out to the house where a one month old girl was raped, another where a five year old and another where a twelve year old were raped. She spent days at the police station and the families’ homes pleading them to press charges, following up with lawyers and doctors. Having made the mistake of keeping quiet once, she knows the price of silence is much higher than the price of standing up to violence.

Outside in the slum when I ask people about the Red Brigade, men instantly clam up feigning ignorance about the group. They refuse to acknowledge the Brigade’s existence but when the girls walk past, they avert their gaze, knowing fully well that unacceptable behaviour will be punished. All the men I interview grudgingly tell me that now women want to step out of homes – for work and education. They are clearly unhappy with the way these girls are changing the rules about not bowing down, demanding equal presence in the public space and the consent of their bodies. They believe that the old system was far better.

By the third day, I have stopped noticing the flies, the pigs, the smell of garbage and stagnant water. I see girls walking nonchalantly on the roads, I see a woman manning a snack shop. And in Usha’s house the girls are getting ready for the monthly protests – to mark each month of the death anniversary of the Delhi gang-rape victim. The girls are painting posters, giggling, gossiping, their camaraderie and warmth palpable. Jokingly, they tell me that the boys of the neighbourhood are too afraid to date them, lest they get beaten up.

I ask them about school and their dreams. All of them have fought at home to continue their education, not so they can get good husbands, so they can be lawyers, activists, teachers and leaders.

The stirrings of a revolution are just beginning.

For Usha the fight continues everyday – to raise collective voices against sexual violence, to make sure that the girls complete education, that they are not forced to marry at a younger age, that the police registers complaints of sexual assault, that more women and men can be empowered through gender sensitization.

Wise beyond her age, she talks about reaching out to men, to make them equal partners in the fight. The feminist movement, according to her, cannot be restricted to women. She is not fighting for “women’s issues” but for equality and dignity of life. In her eyes, the balance of the society is restored only when both men and women stand together, not when the oppressed decide that one day they will become oppressors. She regrets that sometimes they are forced to beat men. As the sun is setting on a winter evening, slowly  she says she will be the happiest when one day there won’t be a need to have a group like the Red Brigade.

Till that time it looks like the nail which was battered and beaten into submitting to the pressure of the society’s structure is now starting to stick out, somehow managing to break free and vowing to pierce through. And in the slum of Naubasta Khurd, men are learning this the hard way.


The essay is based on a news story that I covered recently.



Filed under India

Pushing Boundaries: Sexuality and Gender in Mainstream Cinema

Note: This blog post contains spoiler alerts for Bombay Talkies and reveals plotlines

As Indian cinema celebrates 100 years of existence, a tribute to its glorious past and the influence of cinema in our daily lives has been released in the form of four short stories called Bombay Talkies. Karan Johar, Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar and Anurag Kashyap weave stories which are based in or lead to Bombay and the Hindi film industry, stories of urban couples, the working class, children and the small town people.  Of the four stories, it was interesting to see narratives of sexuality and gender becoming the backbone of Karan Johar and Zoya Akhtar’s stories.

Johar, known for making sweet syrupy romantic films and family dramas tells a compelling story which requires courage. The characters are layered and deal with complex emotions in the midst of their mundane lives. The story about a young gay man falling in love with his female boss’s husband is a story which was waiting to be told in the mainstream media.

In the multiplex where I watched the film, people squirmed in their seats as the man on-screen revealed he was gay and that he was attracted to another man. There was laughter in moments which did not warrant any, reeking of homophobia. In popular culture the gay man is meant to be a caricature, not human enough to feel emotions. The man who made this film, also made Dostana, a film which trivialized the gay man, stereotyping him. Numerous other films in the mainsteam have stuck to this narrative, propagating intolerance towards gay people and reinforcing the idea that being gay equates with sexual deviance. So there was laughter when Randeep Hooda’s character hit the openly gay man. And gasps of horror when they kissed.

Finally, Karan Johar redeems himself, offering a different narrative of homosexuality. A narrative which needs to be repeated often in the mainstream to normalize the presence of different sexual orientations. A film which makes people question their long held views, which makes them deal with oppositional meaning of the text, is a mark of a good story and direction. I hope that Johar will continue to experiment with his brand of cinema, challenging the norms.

Zoya Akhtar brings to fore a story of a young boy who wants to be a dancer when he grows up and is forced to play football instead. Though the story’s main narrative deals with the aspirations of the little boy and gender stereotyping, there is an underlying interpretative narrative of his sexuality.

Tight editing, well-etched characters and a strong script are the strength of the story. The middle class family where the boy is expected to be the man of the house when he grows up, the wife who meekly retreats when her husband bellows at the boy dressed in a girl’s outfit, makeup and shoes, the sister who can’t go on a school trip because the family budget allows only her brother to attend football coaching, is a theme many in the middle India can relate to.

The film raises pertinent questions of gender roles and the acceptable male behaviour, challenging them when the boy performs on a make-shift stage, his joy palpable as he comes alive dancing to Sheila ki Jawani. His innocent proclamation that he wants to be Sheila when he grows up is a theme which could be interpreted as gender dysphoria or being gay is left undeveloped, given this is a twenty minute film.

However, it is refreshing to see these narratives being played out in the mainstream and while an average audience member might not be able to read the sexuality of the child, he understands the textual meanings of dreams and gender stereotypes. Akhtar shows brilliance in restraint and realistic development of characters.

After hundred years of challenging what is acceptable in our society, showing a mirror to it, at times being progressive, at others regressive, our cinema continues to grow leaps and bounds, entertaining India’s masses, becoming the country’s soft power abroad and through these short stories, once again pushing the boundaries. Of telling stories of love and dreams, of broken hearts and crushed ambitions, of soaring love and triumphant success.  Of disobeying the rules of what kind of love is acceptable and what kind of dreams cannot be followed.

May Indian cinema continue to celebrate life and its stories.

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And There Shall Be Light

It is the end of the road and I get down from my car. A cool gentle wind envelopes me and with it, brings the smell of the fishes and the indication that the sea is nearby.

Coconut trees gently sway and ahead of me is a small bridge, wide enough for a scooter to get by. Beyond it are the Sayhadri hills. Towards my left is a four storey building, looking slightly neglected as the paint is peeling off.

A woman wearing a salwar kameez waits for us to disembark and walk towards her. With a smile she welcomes us and informs, “It’s on the fourth floor.” I nod silently, acknowledging her. At the same time wondering, it looks too small for 20 people.

I walk with trepidation, unsure of what I will find there. Will it be emotionally hard for me? Will it make me sad? In my line of work, emotions have to be kept in check, lest they interfere with the story, the facts.

I imagine a dark, depressing unlit corridor, sad faces and emotionally scarred girls cowering as we try and talk to them. My image of an orphanage being one which I have seen in films and assume to be true.

I walk up the stairs with a silent prayer to god and even before I can finish, a group of young girls, smiling, say in unison, “Welcome to our home.”

Bewildered, I acknowledge them as I walk into the lobby. A bunch of girls are huddled in one side of the room, making crafts, bit of coloured paper, boxes of water colours, scissors, paint brushes strewn around. Some of them giggle amongst themselves as we walk in.

Shyly some of them show us the Diwali and Christmas cards, beautiful wall hangings, envelopes and paper bags. Some of them continue without as much casting us a glance. The lady informs us that it’s for a fete they are participating in. “This is the first time they are doing it. I had a crafts teacher come in and teach them how to do it.” It will also help raise some money, she adds softly.

A girl, about 4 years old, smiles at me. She is fascinated by the camera and musters courage to touch it while I take notes. Suddenly she grabs my pen. I decide to rummage for another pen in my bag when she returns it minus the bright blue cap. A little puppy wags his tail and a girl has scooped him up in her arms, showering him with kisses.

I sit in the lady’s office with her husband and we discuss about how and why these girls have ended up here. Their stories are undoubtedly sad and reflect how our fractured society functions. Meanwhile a Labrador nonchalantly enters the room and curls up underneath my chair. Seeing a slightly frightened expression on my face, the lady says, “He’s old. You can pet him if you want.” A spray of water hits me and the husband gets up to close the window. It has started to rain.

We continue talking and are interrupted when a girl comes running. “Mom, your phone is ringing.” She hands her the phone and runs away. I continue asking questions and there is a second interruption. A teenage girls asks, “Mom should I get some tea?” Mom?

After she leaves, the lady tells me, they call us Mom and Dad.

I nod faintly and continue talking. Later we want to interview some of the girls. I ask the lady if we can ask them questions about their families or life in the orphanage. She says, “They all know where they came from and why they are here. Ask them anything.”

To me it’s hard to ask a twelve year old why her family left her there or if her parents are dead and if she misses them. I can’t break their hearts further and worry if my questions will leave an emotional scar.

The twelve year old gives me an encouraging smile as I ask my questions. The first few are the easy ones – as she describes her favourite subjects in school and what she wants to be when she grows up. A pilot, she says in perfect English. The tough questions are asked gently and answered haltingly.

I feel guilty but the deed is now done.

I look up to see a silhouette of a girl perched up on a concrete plank running the length of the large windows, staring out and looking at the sea. I wonder what she is thinking about. Yearning about her family perhaps? It has stopped raining and a cool breeze enters the room.

Suddenly a cat is thrust in my arms by a girl. Before I can react it has gracefully jumped down. The girl runs after it and I follow them to the living quarters. A big room has 5 bunks beds, each painted in a different colour. Two girls are sitting in a corner and doing their science homework. I hear a woof and turn to find a Dalmatian tied to one corner. A small girl is curled up and sleeping soundly on one of the beds. A big shelf is stacked with many schoolbags and a few girls are talking to each other.

My colleague whips out his camera and we proceed to take photos with 18 girls, 2 dogs, 1 cat and 1 puppy in tow. There is laughter all around. Cups of hot tea and patties have miraculously emerged from somewhere. There is an atmosphere of bonhomie. It almost feels like I have either walked into a boarding school or a family home with lots of children. “Didi, khao naa”; “Nahi, pehle ek aur photo”; I am accepted into their world, no questions asked.

My earlier discomfiture slowly melts away.

While we partake the evening snacks, one of the girls starts to sing for us. Incredulously, it’s an American pop song I sometimes hear on the radio. Her clear soulful voice fills up the room as she sings about falling in love. How do they know English songs, asks a surprised colleague. “Oh, they listen to them on the internet and memorize the lyrics,” the lady replies. But I am just marveling at the confidence of the young girl.

I remember my last words to the lady, “I think you are doing a wonderful job of raising them.” She replies, “I treat them like I would treat my own children. What would I do for them? I would give them the best education and make sure they stand on their feet.” She adds that’s why she decided to never have her own biological children.

Soon its time to leave. My last memory of them is bright, shining eyes, quick smiles and eager faces. Their arms interlocked, the girls gather around us and drop us to our car. Goodbyes take another fifteen minutes as another round of photos is taken, silly origami roses are exchanged, a light banter is conducted. And then its time to say the final goodbye as they keep waving their arms until our car disappears around the curving road.

I don’t know what the future holds for them. What I hope is that they will be able to overcome any challenge which comes their way.


The essay is based on a news story I am currently doing. For more details about the orphanage, check out their website http://www.amchaghar.org


Filed under India

The Girl From F&B: A Portrait of the New India

I am taking the liberty of copy-pasting this absolutely brilliant and well researched essay written by Siddhartha Deb from The Nation. It captures the dichotomous character of the metropolises of today in India. It’s a bit long but worth reading. Enjoy!

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.


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