Where to spend time: a five star hotel, or a slum?
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 confirmed as one of the foreigner hostesses that they require for such parties by a Sameer the coordinator, the day before.
“Okay babu, so you can please come there at Lower Parel at 11:30. Aur late nahi karne ka hai na?” And don’t come late.
“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 come late. The coordinators and other girls are late as a rule, so there’s no point arriving at the proposed time. I struggled to sit at home a little longer, to walk more slowly in the train station… but even taking the cab the on the wrong side of the road outside Lower Parel station, I reached th ITC Grand Hotel at 11:50. What can I say? I’m from Canada, and we always come early.
After being buzzed in by silk-clad Sikh Sardar doormen, I arrived in the grand lobby. There, other foreigners drank coffee and chatted and probably thought I was also a guest there. How funny.
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 1PM. Sameer saw me sitting.
“See girls how she is already 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 bargained, her Hindi words thick with the accent of her mother tongue.
We got changed and then waited around, as the event actually started at 4PM.
“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 the tight black skirts we wore. I reminded Sameer that I’d been there for hours already.
“Aap mujhe kyu itna jaldi bulate hain baba? 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 their shoulders. It’s always like this, they said.
I became grumpy because I was hungry. We did the event, stood and welcomed guests and smiled.
Okay, you are finished, confirmed Sameer after an hour and a bit. We went to sit down and I asked again to eat. Sameer said later, so we went to get changed.
We weren’t actually finished: the client called us back to stand and welcome some more. So mid-change, we changed again and came back out in our heels. At around 6PM, we were finished again.
We changed for the second time in the sparkling, beautiful bathroom, the Ukrainian girls chatting and spritzing their collarbones with perfume. Outside, I found Sameer.
“Baba! Please na? 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 was nothing for us to eat. So we were handed our few thousand rupees and sent on our way.
I didn’t know quite how to feel. I’d sat in the air conditioning of the luxury hotel since morning, been paid a good amount to do virtually nothing. But that didn’t compare to the day before, when I’d spent the whole afternoon in Dharavi slum.
In Dharavi, I’ve been interviewing teachers as part of a process documentation I’ve been doing for one kindergarten called Muskan.
I don’t earn money for the time I spend at Muskan school. 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 schoolteachers with an empty plate, and my plate is filled, more than once, with homecooked food from their tiffins. In Dharavi is where I’ve felt like a princess, because there is where I’ve found the most generosity, respect and openness of heart.