Almost every time I go out for a meal or a drink in India with a woman — she could be a friend, a cousin, a boss, a colleague or someone from my family — I'm invariably presented with the wine list at the start and the bill at the end.
The hierarchies are set the moment we set foot in the establishment, even at the posh ones, where you must pay tax for even breathing the delicately temperature-controlled air.
While a waiter usually pulls the chair for the lady and seats her officiously, the manager hands me the menu, then hovers around expectantly for the orders. If our order involves alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, the former is almost always placed before me. If both of us ask for alcohol, the more potent one, whiskey for instance, is offered to me. Beer, it is assumed, must be for the lady. In case both of us order wine, the woman is poured the tasting sip. Choosing the wine has to be the man's job, but the nod of approval must come from the woman.
The truth couldn't be the farthest, at least in my case. I'm a real lightweight when it comes to drinking. I'm also the happiest to go along with anything my lunch or dinner companion may want to get. As far as picking up the tab is concerned, I prefer going dutch, though I wouldn't say no to being taken out for a nice meal, just FYI.
Each time I find myself in these situations, I cringe, roll my eyes, express irritation. I try to imagine how infuriating it must be for my companion to be treated this way. Then, more often than not, we both agree to make light of such misdemeanours because we don't want to let someone's ignorant, probably unwittingly insensitive, behaviour spoil a potentially nice afternoon or evening. We choose to rise above the anger or humiliation we may have been momentarily jolted by.
And in this way, we — by which I not only refer to myself and my companion, but to all of you who find yourselves in similar scenarios — help perpetuate the everyday sexism practiced by countless restaurants, big and small, across this country.
On Saturday, the Facebook page of Feminism In India shared a meme, created by The Angry Indian Woman, which captures what I'm describing succinctly. The message couldn't have been better articulated.
When I shared it on my Facebook page, some of my female friends came forward with their own stories, similar to the ones recounted above. Other narratives emerged, too, in comments and private messages.
Solo eaters, both male and female, being frowned upon in India; waiters snatching away the plate as soon as you've finished eating, no matter whether others at your table have finished their meal or not; floor managers interrupting conversations with questions and comments — the list of complaints was varied. But all these seem like "first-world troubles" compared to the casual sexism of Indian restaurants.
A colleague informed me she and a friend had been turned away by a popular pub in central Calcutta several years ago because they were unescorted by a man. I told her, in turn, of the time when a friend of mine and I were refused entry by another beloved Calcutta establishment, a stone's throw from said pub, for not being accompanied by a woman, not too long ago. Although the restaurant was half-empty, we still couldn't be let into the "family section", where the free tables were.
We lied to the manager and told him we were siblings, but our deceit did not pass muster under the "family law" that governed the place. Family, as euphemism in India famously has it, must involve a man, a woman and, preferably, children.
Last week, Mocambo, another famous eatery in Calcutta refused entry to a woman who had wanted to take her driver there for dinner. After asking her to wait for a while, she was denied a table because Mocambo's policy did not allow "roadside people" in. As the manager explained to this publication, "He was a driver, he looked dirty."
Indian cities, especially metropolises, now offer you the world on a plate. Every second restaurant promises a fine-dining experience, the fanciest meal you can ever fancy, the costliest wine with an unpronounceable name that money can buy, the trappings of world-class service. But most of them still can't guarantee basic human courtesies.
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