M.S. Oberoi’s biography recounts the moral outrage his decision to employ female housekeeping attendants had elicited. Conservative Delhi was, expectedly, awash with the obvious innuendoes. But the legendary hotelier’s reaction was rooted in straight-forward logic. “He had set out to build his reputation, not to ruin it. Why, equally, should anyone presume that Indian women would part with theirs?” Initially, women applied with brothers and fathers in tow. Forty years later, I appeared for an interview at the same hotel. I went alone.
By then, hospitality was an accepted profession. But the spectre of male-female dynamics still persisted. During the interview, I was asked what my reaction would be should a guest want to sleep with me. I said I would laugh it off. For a young college co-ed, getting propositioned didn’t appear to be all that big a deal. No, my inquisitor persisted, what if he was serious? The interview, which had hitherto been friendly, had now taken a perceptible shift. “You will tell,” I was told.
Later, I realised that it was with those three words that I had been hired. And in them was reposed a clear message; I was being assured that I would never have to be afraid to stand up for myself.
Hotels are places where the need of the hour reduces externalities like gender or position to inconsequentialities. I remember an occasion when a guest appreciated the executive chef’s humility for serving him cigarettes at the bar. The inside story was very different. A strike had left the hotel with a skeleton staff of executives. Everyone was doing everything and the guests left without being aware of the turmoil we were in. As a hotelier, I have essayed the role of a secretary, baby sitter and room attendant because it was the need of the hour. And yes, I have been solicited.
But there was always a simple solution at hand. All I had to do was simply alert my colleagues and I would be immediately removed from further contact with the guest. Hotel rooms with their stringent privacy norms make the ideal mise-en-scene for a working day gone wrong. It is naive to assume that guests don’t take advantage of that. One I knew was habituated to calling me to his room past midnight by way of complaints. Most often, it was the air-conditioning, and on one occasion, an invisible lizard. On reaching the room, I would find a very different man from the one on the phone. I was always asked to sit and the minibar was flung open. As directed, the desk would call me in five minutes with an “emergency” and outside, the bellboy was on standby. The guest never knew of our opinion of him, we handled him as a team. However, in a situation at another hotel company, my staff was compelled to join the Russian mafia for a drink because declining hadn’t been an option.
Hotels are situational by nature and there is no standard phrase that can get you out of any and all situations. You have to think on your feet. In the first instance, after reprising the same situation over and over, I finally appealed to the solicitor’s sense of righteousness and told him it was inappropriate for me to be in his room at night. He concurred. I now put his behaviour down to a bad case of insomnia-induced loneliness. In the second instance, I didn’t write up a report on my subordinates for drinking on duty. In any case, most had emptied their vodka shots into the bushes when the benevolent Mafioso wasn’t watching.
As I advanced in my career, my trysts with this aspect of the business grew, for I now had to take up the cudgels for those who were under my protection. I have argued with a sceptical sexual harassment board on behalf of a subordinate amongst other personal trials, but not once have I felt unsafe. And I believe that is what most female hoteliers would say. This instinct for discretion, to not express beyond a point, is hard for outsiders to understand. Most dismiss us as politically correct or unengaged. Our profession is underpaid, physically demanding and grossly undervalued. Hotels are not dens of inequity but neither are they blemish-free. Yet, it attracts a loyalty rarely seen in working life. An attitude of “ghar ki baat ghar mein hi rahein” persists. In the current age of social media and easy opinions, scandals and insider accounts go unchronicled. And one can’t fault others for wondering how or why? The simplest answer is that hotels protect their own—whether guest or staff. The result? The reputation of the hotel as an oasis of perfection persists. And the payoff? The hotelier continues to pride himself as a conjurer of human interaction whilst the world remains intrigued.
(Advaita Kala is a bestselling novelist. She has worked at The Oberoi, Taj and Jumeirah Group of Hotels.)