Dine at Taj By Day, Worry about Rent at Night: Confessions of a Lifestyle Journalist

POV

Dine at Taj By Day, Worry about Rent at Night: Confessions of a Lifestyle Journalist

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

I’m in an Ola Micro on my way to interview the new head chef of a major five-star property – you know the type, with custom A4 stationery paper to wrap their fish en papillote and iPads for menus. The cheapest thing on the menu in front of me cost ₹1,800; I had just over ₹3,500 in my account, and days to go before the end of the month. Luckily, I can drink a caprioska on the house, since I’m a guest of the in-house PR executive, and of course I’ll be talking about the restaurant in my article.

Yes, I’m a lifestyle journalist and this paradox – straddling (the much-maligned term) “urban poverty” and access to serious power and money – is a trademark of my life. My job is to attend glitzy events and eat expensive food that costs more per plate than the articles that I get paid to write (after sending out multiple passive aggressive reminder mails).

How did I end up here? To be honest, I still haven’t figured it out yet.

It’s a world I entered when I had just completed my masters and my two-bit internship with a publishing house when I saw the freelance opening. I did mention in my cover letter that I wanted to focus on music, but when you dangle the ₹4 per word carrot in front of a newly minted literature graduate, journalistic beats usually go duck themselves. “Even Hunter S Thompson diversified, I’m sure,” an aspiring influencer friend told me recently. “You eat at the Taj at least once a month. Check your privilege and stop whining!”

It’s like any other job really… except I rub shoulders with the actual one per cent Bernie Sanders’ campaign is about, without actually belonging in their preferred social circles. I don’t mind it, but I’m constantly aware of this Jekyll-and-Hyde dilemma. Like right now, as we join the chef at his Italian fine diner, he asks us to lunch – a ₹2,400-a-plate tortellini for some crummy article I’ll write using an online thesaurus. As we sit down, I get an alert on my phone reminding me that my five-figure credit card bill is overdue.

No matter how many glitzy soirees I go to, courtesy my indulgent editor, it doesn’t really translate into any real dough.

As I finish up the interview, I get a call from my editor. “Hi! Listen I’m invited to dinner at XYZ Pavilion Royale (or Grand, or SuperSized, whatever five star properties suffering from penis envy call themselves), they are hosting some food writers and some really cool food historians at dinner. I won’t be able to make it. Why don’t you go?”

“We’ll write about this right?”

“If you want to, sure. But go have fun, eat, socialise. It is an eight-course Lombard meal, you’ll love it.”

Do I want to go hang out with posh, food connoisseurs while the entire country disintegrates and the world around me grapples with a deadly virus? No. Do I have to do it? Yes. I get paid by the word. I imagine a table full of jet-setting, bruschetta-lovers in their mid-40s who can name a wine by its province, who are expecting my Max Mara-clad editor, but instead will find me – a freelancer in six-year-old denims, who just bought a second-hand microwave that only re-heats.

No matter how many glitzy soirees I go to, courtesy my indulgent editor, it doesn’t really translate into any real dough. I’m not broke like I don’t know where my next meal is coming from. But then there’s rent, electricity, internet, Uber, fresh underwear, Metro smart card, groceries, gym fees, phone bill, a new vacuum for mom. And Chef Alberto’s pasta doesn’t fix any of these issues.

I’m not the only freelancer caught in the crosshairs of capitalism. At media tables, I run into food writers, bloggers or influencers attempting to be a part of a lifestyle that’ll never be theirs. And then there is the question of what we are all personally interested in. I am certain we all feel the dissonance keenly – especially as the world around us erupts in protests against CAA.

Deep down, I am a bleeding heart liberal, but on the surface I am what everyone derisively labels “a champagne leftist”.

I get a WhatsApp message from a friend: “Hey. we’re headed to the protests towards the South Cross today. You wanna come?” I want to go, but I have the eight-course Lombard meal and sparkling conversation to make. It’s a strange, contradictory existence at times, but those bills won’t pay themselves.

I fire up the best distraction there is. Tinder. Message from Danny: “Hey it’s Danny. Remember we met at Mallika Tshering’s Bhutanese food pop-up? How you been?” This dude owns two gastro clubs, why is he DM-ing me? A hookup or a review? Probably the latter, because all the women on his Instagram are over six feet and look gluten-allergic. In the last few months, I’ve matched with enough brewery boys to know they don’t want to get with a random 5’6” freelancer with body dysmorphia.

The next morning, I find myself at another hotel, brunching with my editor and her designer friend, whose summer line-up I have to cover. The woman at the door had stopped me with a polite smile, wondering what business I had inside. I don’t mind; I wouldn’t let me in if I was her either. As the two chat about the designer’s sustainable fashion line, my thoughts are hovering over the ₹375 I paid to get to the hotel. Should I ask my editor when my payment is coming through? Is it in bad taste to talk about freelance paychecks in front of a ₹1,400 black rice salad?

Another ping: “Hey, we’re protesting near the HHI grounds. Come if you can?”

“See you there,” I write back. Yeah… I’m probably gonna miss my deadlines. This contradiction between my two lives is so incongruous. It is also exhausting, and I am aware that I am in the thick of a vicious circle. Deep down, I am a bleeding heart liberal, but on the surface I am what everyone derisively labels “a champagne leftist”. But I have no option but to live with it – women don’t live by fresh air alone. My paycheck should be in soon, but I’ll only be left with 20 per cent after I’m done with my bills and rent. I get another message while waiting for the metro. Tinder Danny. “Hey, all set for the review on Tuesday! See you soon!” For now, the choice is clear: Bleeding heart will have to wait.

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