Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Lodger

In 1994 or thereabouts, I arrived in Khajuraho with two friends for a vacation and we sought out a relatively inexpensive but pleasant hotel (I think it was called "Sunset Lodge") recommended by the Lonely Planet guide. The hotel manager was not around, but a boy who worked there came up to us and explained, in Hindi, that this hotel was not open to Indians. Only foreigners could stay here.

I realise this may be inexplicable to non-Indians. Would a hotel in France refuse to let its rooms to the French? Could something like this happen in Japan? China? Iran? Actually, I know of a few hotels in Thailand that are exclusively open to Thais, which is the converse phenomenon. What happened in Khajuraho, though, was perfectly real and perfectly Indian.

Back to the story - when I tried to make a fuss, the hotel manager came up and smoothly denied what the boy had told us, adding that the boy knew nothing and didn't have the authority to talk to us (the latter was clearly true but the former was false, that boy obviously knew everything!). So could we have a room then? No, sorry, the hotel is full. Can you prove that you keep Indian guests? Sure, please take a look at the guest book. We did, but the only Indian names signed in were accompanied by manifestly foreign (i.e. European/American) spouses. Not having infinite time to spare, we then gave up and stayed in a different hotel.

Many years later, in 2003, I was in Kerala, strolling on the beach in Varkala, when a man came up and told me a certain part of the beach (towards which I was heading) was "off limits" to Indians. Only foreigners were allowed there. I asked him who the hell said so. "The police" he replied, at which point a cop came up to us. Quickly noticing the smoke rising from me, the policeman looked me in the eye and said there was no problem, I was welcome to go where I pleased. When I asked what the other man's "off limits" story was all about, he gave this candid reply: "We don't allow local men here. They just harass the foreign women". Having observed young Malayali males in action elsewhere in Kerala, I have to admit he had a point there. But of course that doesn't justify a blanket ban on "Indians", to be temporarily lifted when defiant middle-class people show up.

I could make a long list of shocking racist incidents in India, shocking only because the racism was directed against Indians by other Indians. But before my friend Rahul Basu posts a comment to the effect that I should grow up and get over it, we all know these things happen etc etc, let me move on to my main point. Which is that recently I found myself looking for a tenant for a flat I had bought in Bombay.

The first thing my agent told me was that he would try to get me a "foreigner" (I correctly guessed he had a definite skin colour in mind). Apparently my flat was upto the standard deemed acceptable for foreigners. And here were the advantages, according to the agent: (i) they would leave eventually so I didn't have to worry about the eternal lodger, (ii) they would keep the place clean, (iii) the society of the building would be happy to have white people on the premises.

Of the above "virtues", (i) is perfectly reasonable and objective, but I cringed upon hearing (ii) and (iii). I was tempted to stipulate that as a proud Indian I would only rent to Indians, but quickly caught myself on the verge of committing hypocrisy. So I decided to watch and wait. And here is where it gets interesting. The very first candidate tenant was an AFCP (Asshole From Cuffe Parade). Having grown up in Malabar Hill, I knew a number of AFMH's but had not yet met an AFCP up close, certainly not a recent version. Well Mr Asshole thought he was the cat's whiskers, did not bother to greet me, swaggered into the place as if only the agent was present, looked around with a disinterested air, spoke on his mobile while doing so, and left without saying goodbye. I narrowly prevented myself sending an SMS to the agent saying "Will not rent to this creature under any circumstances". The next candidate was an Indian woman and she was quite similar. She looked around with a scowl on her face as if my place was a repository of dead rats, and did not have the decency to acknowledge my existence.

I have to admit I was slowly taking on the point of view of the Sunset Lodge in Khajuraho. But the third candidate, who I took to be an Indian, surprised me. This young fellow was polite and friendly, shook my hand on entering and praised my flat and particularly its bathroom. Could an Indian be this polite? No, it turned out he only looked Indian, but was actually Malaysian.

The Malaysian did not make an offer, though. And so it went on, until finally a few offers started to come in. The first person to meet the minimum price that my agent and I had fixed was accepted, and I signed a contract with him yesterday. Turns out, he's French. He appreciated everything about the flat and had only the mildest of requests (he pleaded with me to get the gas connection, since his attempts to do so had failed due to language problems.) And he gave me a nice box of French chocolates after the contract was signed.

So what does all this prove? Nothing very much, perhaps. But I do think it's nice to have a tenant from a major chocolate-producing country.


Unknown said...

Prof. Mukhi,

I am mildly surprised that this racism hit you so late in life! Or perhaps being a Bihari (which I am), you notice it much earlier, or are MADE to accept it much earlier (in my case, when I was 9-10 years old, by my own relatives who do not live in Bihar).

I once made a very bitter statement: Indians treat Biharis the way the rest of the world treats Indians. Clearly not true in story; turns out we are our own worst enemies...!

- Gautam

Sunil Mukhi said...

Am posting this comment on behalf of Sushama, who thought (incorrectly, as I've explained to her in a mail) that non-bloggers cannot post comments here.

Dear Prof,
Your blog does not seem to allow comments from non-bloggers... hence sending my two cents on 'The Lodger' here.
Hm, wonder when our sense of self-respect returns to pre-European-invasion days... Thanks for the links to Rahul's and Zakintosh' blogs :) like them!

Sunil Mukhi said...

Siddharth: It didn't hit me late in life, it just shocks me every single time I notice it. I can't digest the hypocritical whining of the Indian middle-class about foreigners (e.g most recently the maker of Slumdog Millionaire) being racist or having biased perceptions of India etc.

Also just a few years ago there was so much whining here about apartheid in South Africa, with no recognition that its equivalent is alive and well here. I remember a news report, maybe two decades ago, about the now-famous Leopold's Cafe in Mumbai (I assume everyone knows it was one of the terrorist targets last November). Their doorman once turned away two stewardesses of South African airlines saying "we don't allow black people in here".


Shamashis said...

'I can't digest the hypocritical whining of the Indian middle-class about foreigners...'

Whether Slumdog Millionaire is a good movie or not may be a matter for debate. But thanks to Danny Boyle, the media is discussing about the Indians looked down upon by their own countrymen. Its surely difficult to acknowledge that everything is not as glorious as India Inc!

Ramanan said...

We Indians are more explicit, whether on TV or on record .. but I believe that people elsewhere are racist too. Its just that its not on paper and in their minds.

Also, hate to say this .. foreigners have higher creditworthiness. Doesnt mean they are richer .. Mumbai is a place with superrich people, but I am doubtful of their creditworthiness because their money is put to work elsewhere. That is the reason some landlords insist on having a company signing the agreement on behalf of the person rather than the individual taking it on his name. Of course tenants have an opposite view!

Rahul Basu said...

Having lived a few years in an American dorm (in fact the same one as Shri Mukhi), the assumption that a Westerner would be automatically cleaner than an Indian is so patently absurd, that it doesn't bear responding. In fact over the years I have seen dorms/hostels in other Western countries including the super cultured French and they are hardly the sparkling, shining smelling of roses kinds of places you would think.

Of course it's possible that a foreigner in India would be careful about a flat s/he rents, but then so would most reasonable Indian families. In Chennai, there is a marked bias towards families rather than bachelors (with, I hate to say, some justification) but not with the colour of their skins (or so I think -- I have no experience with renting flats to (white) foreigners)). Of course there is also a marked bias towards vegetarians and people of a certain caste, but let me not open a can of worms here and get on to my favourite TN bashing theme!

Unknown said...

I am missing something here. If a person does not acknowledge/greet and talks on the mobile, he/she becomes an asshole!

Quite a difference from the credo "live and let live." And also the post by the author seems to be typical of a hierarchical society like India where a class of people (old people for example) don't like it when they are not greeted without paying regard to the fact that the other person is just not interested. Is it necessary to obey basic niceties? I don't think so.

I am hiding my name. Sorry about that. But would like to be enlightened.

Sunil Mukhi said...

Dear Subhu,

Although you have chosen to remain anonymous, your question "Is it necessary to obey basic niceties?" seems to be a giveaway. Are you from Cuffe Parade?

Unknown said...

Dear Prof. Mukhi:

I am not from Cuffe Parade or Malabar Hill.

I will confess that I cannot stand Indians (especially the older ones) who pass judgements at the drop of a hat on small things like being nice. And this set includes some of my own family members (dead or alive).

Again: Is it necessary to obey basic niceties?
I'll wait for your response.

This is particularly so since occasionally when I read your blog, I've found some interesting posts like live and let live, on the fragility of Indian ego etc.

This post was surprisingly different. But then it should not surprise me since I hardly know you.

Sunil Mukhi said...


"I will confess that I cannot stand Indians (especially the older ones) who pass judgements at the drop of a hat on small things like being nice. And this set includes some of my own family members (dead or alive)."

What can I say... aren't you're being as judgemental as the people you can't stand?

Unknown said...

Dear Prof. Mukhi:

There is a subtle difference. In one case, the judgement was followed by action such as forming an unfavorable opinion for renting an apartment. In the other case (such as mine), the judgement had no follow-up action.

We are all entitled to our own judgements since based on that, we live our lives.

Whether these judgements are imposed on others by follow-up action is the crux of the issue at hand.

Do keep writing.