The Beautiful and the Damned
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 demeanour with which Esther brought them their food and drinks, leaving them to talk to each other 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 these past few years in India, sometimes in Delhi and sometimes in other cities, I had noticed the women who worked as waitresses in cafés and restaurants and as sales assistants in retail stores. They were usually in their twenties, 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 myself had felt when I first 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 centres 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 stayed with in Bangalore, and who had moved back to Delhi since then, 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 was also a place riven by poverty, ethnic violence and insurgency, shut down from time to time by floods, 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, dressed in a black suit and with his BlackBerry always on display. 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 careful to emphasize the rarefied atmosphere in which he now moved. He travelled 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 okay hotel?”
We were sitting in the Horizon Club, easing ourselves into the atmosphere of soft armchairs, quiet conversation, tinkling glasses and attentive waitresses. The hotel reminded me of its sister concern, the one I had seen being built near Chak’s million-dollar house in Bangalore. But this Shangri-La had been around before as a government-run hotel called Qutab, which had been sold off to the Adarsh group 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 in reality it was at war with a harsh, alien environment.
The arms dealer’s wife joined us soon after we sat down. She too was from the northeast, from a ramshackle border town in Assam where I had last been fifteen years earlier, watching the winking lights of smuggling boats as they made their night-time run between India and Bangladesh. Unlike the arms dealer, however, she spoke only in English. Her stiff ness puzzled me until I realized that she was working hard to speak the language. Sometimes, her accent slipped, and she looked momentarily confused before catching herself and moving on. Her father had been a member of parliament, which meant that she was from a fairly privileged background. In spite of this, she said, she had not been sent to an elite school, the kind where English would have been the language of instruction. She revealed this with a touch of bitterness, and I understood that it had made her insecure. She wanted to belong frictionlessly to the elevated world she now moved in, the world that stretched from Hotel Shangri-La in Delhi to the Four Seasons Hotel in New York.
The arms dealer’s wife mentioned, very casually, that she had just come from a workout at the hotel gym. She said she had a doctorate and was a fellow at a research foundation, and when the arms dealer handed me his business card, she quickly handed me her own. They were both flying to Bangladesh the next day, she said, where they would be guests of the foreign minister.
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 in Seattle.”
“To sell commercial aircraft?” I said, somewhat confused.
“No, no, defence stuff . Boeing does lots of defence. Missiles, drones.”
He gave me a list of all the arms companies that were in Delhi – McDonnell Douglas, General Dynamics, Boeing, Northrop Grumman – some with offices in Hotel Shangri-La, while others had suites at Le Meridien, another luxury hotel nearby, all of them wanting physical proximity to the politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen and defence officials with whom they carried out their expensive trade. India’s arms budget was small by American standards, but it was still worth $30 billion, and according to data compiled by the Pentagon, India had bought weaponry worth $1 billion from American companies in 2008, making it ninth among the top ten nations buying arms from the United States.
The arms dealer took me to see his office. It was small but luxurious, 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 in front of me. They were scaled-down versions of the products the arms dealer sold. There was an armoured personnel carrier and a battle tank, both of them sand-coloured, as if to suggest that their theatre 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 us 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. My friend and I said goodbye to the arms dealer and his wife and wished them 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 on the corner of Tolstoy Marg and Janpath (or “People’s Way”), directly across from rows of handicraft stores selling tie-dyed scarves and jewellery to unhappy-looking backpackers. It was walking distance from the magazine office at Connaught Place where I had worked in the late nineties while living in Munirka, and I had often wandered along Janpath, looking at the handicraft stores and the tall office buildings. The neighbourhood had seemed to me then to be the climax of urban civilization, the centre of a fantastically alienating and alluring big city, and it was oddly disappointing to see the 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 mutton had been squeezed in as a replacement for the Mahaburger. 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 salwarkameez 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 not got home till three thirty. She was a couple of years older than Renu, lighter skinned 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 red nail polish painted on to her thick, square fingertips.
It was difficult, as I sat across from Esther, to imagine her at Shangri-La. She didn’t seem sufficiently polished and demure, unlike the waitresses I had seen when I had been at the lounge with the arms dealer. 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 the 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 centre 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 perhaps – 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, while her mother taught Hindi at a school. The background of her parents, 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, and as a student she had travelled with her friend to Patna, the capital of Bihar, and across the border to Nepal. It also meant that there were ways in which Esther felt removed from her own 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 gone on to complete 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 Taj Palace Hotel, and her salary increased to 6,000 rupees a month from the 4,000 she had made as a travel agent.
The Taj Palace Hotel was a very different work environment from the travel agency. It was a five-star hotel, the place where I had heard Vijay Mallya give his talk on luxury brands a couple of years earlier. In the plush surroundings of Taj Palace, 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 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.