Where would you think I’d feel happier?
Would you rather spend time at a beautiful hotel, or in a slum without clean water? Where would you be most likely to go hungry?
Last week, I went hungry at a five-star hotel. It was at one of those fancy corporate parties. I’d been hired the day before as one of the foreign hostesses such parties require.
“Okay Grace, so you can please come there at Lower Parel at 11:30?” asked Sameer, the coordinator. “Aur late nahi karne ka hai na?” And don’t come late, he added in Bombaiyya Hindi.
“Mai yahan ki nahi hoon na?” I joked. “To mai late nahi ati hoon.” “I?m not from here, so I don’t come late.”
The next day, I tried my best to get there late. The coordinators and other girls are late as a rule, so there’s no point in arriving at the scheduled time. I struggled to sit at home a little longer, to walk more slowly in the train station. But even though I took the cab on the wrong side of the road outside Lower Parel station, I reached the ITC Grand Hotel at 11:50.
What can I say? I’m from Canada, and we always come early.
I was buzzed in by silk-clad Sikh doormen, and arrived in the grand lobby. There, other foreigners drank expensive coffee and chatted. They probably thought I was also a guest at the hotel.
So I sank into a sofa, surrounded by marble and heavy chandeliers and oriental lilies, until Sameer and the two other girls wandered in casually at 1 p.m.
Sameer saw me sitting there.
“See girls, how Grace is here? You all should also come like this, na.”
“Aray, baba, we came with you, how could we come earlier?” one of the Ukrainian girls pointed out, her Hindi thick with the accent of her mother tongue.
We changed and then waited around, as the event actually started at 4 p.m.
“Look at you girls, living like princesses in this hotel!” joked Sameer, waving a hand around.
We began to ask for something to eat. The other girls whined, limbs crossed, as they sat on chairs. The chairs wore tight white covers, like our tight black skirts. I reminded Sameer that I’d been there for hours already.
“Aap mujhe kyu itna jaldi bulate hain? Aap jante hain ki mai time per ati hoon,” I complained, knowing it was a lost cause. Why do you always call me so early? You know I come on time!
“Haan baba, don’t worry, I promise, you will eat. Just wait for some time.”
He disappeared for a while. And then returned with nothing.
“After, after only, then you will eat,” he promised. The other girls shrugged. It’s always like this, they said.
Hungry, I became grumpy.
We did the event. We stood and welcomed guests. We smiled.
Okay, you are finished, confirmed Sameer after an hour and a bit. It was after 5 p.m.
We sat down, and I asked again to eat. Later, Sameer said once again.
So we went to get changed, but then the client called us back to stand and welcome some more. Mid-change, we stopped short and came back out in our heels. At around 6 p.m., we were finished again.
So for a second time we changed in the sparkling, beautiful bathroom, the Ukrainian girls chatting and spritzing their collarbones with perfume. Outside, I found Sameer.
“Baba! Hello! We need to eat now! It’s been all day!” When I get tired, I’m not patient enough for Hindi.
“You will eat nice hotel food baba, just wait, I will arrange it.”
But it became obvious, finally, that there would be nothing for us to eat. So by 6:30 p.m., we were handed our few thousand rupees each and sent on our way.
Four thousand Indian rupees is about $90. I don’t live particularly extravagantly here, and can eat and travel on that for a couple of weeks. Being paid to do virtually nothing, while enjoying the air conditioning of a luxury hotel? I should have felt good.
But that day wasn’t nearly as good as one before, when I’d spent the whole afternoon volunteering at a kindergarten in Dharavi slum.
In Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia, I interview teachers at Muskan School, evaluating the progress of the program for a local NGO. The young women teachers at Muskan receive daily training and what i in their neighborhood s considered a good salary: 3,000 rupees per month.
I’m not paid. The building is not so fabulous, either - only unfinished cement and tin. There is definitely no air conditioning.
But in Dharavi, I have never, ever gone hungry. I’ve never had to ask for something to eat before it’s been given to me, in love. Whenever I go to Muskan school, I sit with the school teachers, and my empty plate is filled (more than once) with home-cooked food they share from their own tiffins.
Sameer joked about us being princesses in a beautiful hotel, but he was wrong. It’s in Dharavi where I’ve felt like a princess, because that’s where I’ve found the most generosity, respect and openness of heart.
Bronwyn McBride is a writer in Mumbai. She blogs at Bronwyn Grace.
5 comments about “A Five-Star Hotel, or a Slum?”
What's your view?
You must be logged in to post a comment.