Nivedita Barthakur had just ordered drinks and was about to settle down for lunch when two staff members walked over to their table at the Delhi Golf Club. They stopped before fifty-something Tailin Lyngdoh and told her she cannot sit at the table alongside the eight other people she was accompanying for lunch.
"Aap toh Nepali dikhte ho ... (you look like a Nepali)," one of them told Lyngdoh, before telling Barthakur that 'maids' are not allowed to sit in the lunch arena of the club.
Recounting the day's events, Barthakur says, she argued with the DGC staff that Lyngdoh was as much a guest at the club as herself and her family. Before that she says she tried to explain what Lyngdoh was wearing to the staff. "I told them it was a jainsem, a traditional attire worn by Khasi women," Barthakur told HuffPost India. However, the club was not in a mood to listen, and reportedly insisted that Lyngdoh, who's been nanny to Barthakur's 9-year-old son since he was born, must leave the area.
Later in the day, while a TV channel started an 'end racism' 'campaign', Twitter was abuzz with a mix of weary eye-rolling and righteous outrage at the club's 'racist' outlook.
A TV channel started an 'end racism' 'campaign', Twitter was abuzz with a mix of weary eye-rolling and righteous outrage at the club's 'racist' outlook.
While some, including Barthakur herself, have pointed out the obvious, others seem to be deeply annoyed at a traditional Indian attire being likened to clothes worn by 'maids'. The classism underlying this variety of outrage is almost unmistakable.
Speaking to HuffPost India, Barthakur said, "Tailin has been with our family for 8 years and has travelled across London and UAE. We have been to expensive restaurants and great Golf Clubs across UAE, she has not been stopped anywhere. I choose to treat my nanny as a human, what's their problem?"
It's a question another young woman asked, with great anger, on Facebook a year ago, when a Kolkata restaurant refused to let her driver enter the premises and dine with her.
The Delhi Golf Club or Mocambo restaurant in Kolkata probably never envisaged they would trip up doing what they consider their duty — zealously guarding the class corridors of urban India. How could the golf club have foreseen this wave of social media outrage while the likes of Delhi Gymkhana — displaying boards that say 'ayahs and servants are not allowed' — quietly go about their business, with zero hassles?
The argument usually invoked to defend such regulations is that clubs and other businesses are private properties and thus can control who gets to enter their premises.
The argument usually invoked to defend such regulations is that clubs and other businesses are private properties and thus can control who gets to enter their premises. As a comment on Barthakur's Facebook post pointed out, it is within the legal rights of these clubs to deny entry to whoever they fancy. While they may have walked an extra mile to mint and advertise their privilege, it won't be completely wrong to say they are merely operating within the structures of class and privilege that society — as a certain demographic knows it — is built on.
One section of society actively derives its sense of comfort, idea of safety and, often, notions of health and sanitation by 'othering' another section — be in on the basis of its economic clout, caste, religion or all of the above. It's so rampant and insidious that we are mostly (often unwittingly or unconsciously) party to it, so what we aren't waving a placard that screams 'stay off our air-conditioned bubbles, please'. So much so, even when some of us rise in righteous indignation, it reeks of our class anxieties. Like right now, headlines and tweets and Facebook comments are bristling at the jainsem being 'mistaken' for a 'maid's uniform'. As if the greatest insult you can hurl at an outfit is calling it one that should have belonged to a maid.
At times the patterns of exclusion are hiding in plain sight.
Three years ago, a friend landed a spacious apartment in an expensive Mumbai suburb at what was a pittance, considering real-estate rates in the area. As we gawked, rolled our eyes and cooked up myriad conspiracy theories about why the apartment, a shout away from Linking Road, was rented out at that price, my friend triumphantly declared it was because there was a 'chawl' right in front of the only gate to the sprawling complex. More so, because this chawl — no more that five or six shanties huddled together opposite the tall iron gates of the complex — was a bit of an anomaly in such a reputedly 'posh' area.
At times the patterns of exclusion are hiding in plain sight.
The area's USPs were quiet, wide-ish by-lanes lined with trees, expensive cars and tall, gated buildings. No other building had shanties in their sight, so the rents were low in this one for the 'inconvenience' of having to make eye-contact with those living in the five ramshackle huts across it.
The city, whose liberal-ness is a cherished cliche — as this remarkable Buzzfeed essay points out — often resorts to unsubtle exclusionary practices to afford one section of society the right to hedonism. It points out while Mumbai fawns over 'homegrown' rappers like Naezy and Divine, at events and popular venues, the rappers' friends and fans from the chawls are denied entry often on flimsy grounds. While Naezy or Divine's audience inside expensive bars and pubs congratulate themselves on having 'enabled' boys from places like Dharavi to follow their dreams, they wouldn't have their class bubble scratched by sharing space with people from the same place these rappers come from, where their music was born.
Just a few weeks ago, my timeline was crowded with friends from Kolkata outraging about another incident of 'discrimination' in the city. Two people — a man and a woman — had gone to a restaurant on Park Street. Turned out, the restaurant — not quite known for being a fine-dining establishment — also had a dress code. The man was clad in what could be called a haute version of a lungi and a kurta. The guard stopped them at the gates and said he will have to check with the management if men wearing lungis are allowed inside. The manager came and promptly allowed the duo in.
While much outrage was directed at the guard for daring to stop customers at the gate — that too for an outfit that was consequently widely appreciated by Facebook users — it probably didn't occur to everyone that the man was just following a rulebook and trying to earn an honest living. "Wow, what's wrong with this outfit?" some people chortled, rolling their eyes at the guard's apparent ignorance, completely overlooking the fact that he may not have had the privilege of following the evolution of fashion and suchlike and was merely following a rule-book set by people from an economic class that the outraged customers belonged to. This incident was particularly amusing, as fellow journalists pointed out, because several of those outraging over it have no problem accepting the formal dress-codes put in place by exclusive clubs they frequent across the city.
Exactly what a comment posted on Barthakur's Facebook update sought to bring up. While Barthakur was livid at the staff — who were following rules they are supposed to on the job — the comment asked if her acquaintance, the member of the club in this case, would rise in protest of archaic rules like this. Will he/she give up the membership of a club that perpetuates such class divisions? After Barthakur condemned the discrimination practiced by these clubs in her post, the club's management promised disciplinary action against its employees. The class understanding remained intact — the employees, who can't afford a membership in a club such as this one, are made the scapegoat — and all's well in the world of privilege.
While we are rolling our eyes hard at two club employees who were probably in the wrong place at the wrong time, it is perhaps time to reflect on how we have enabled the structures of such discrimination to last so long.
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