I Suffer From the Mocambo Malady and So Do You

Social Commentary

I Suffer From the Mocambo Malady and So Do You

Illustration: Akshita Monga

It was déjà vu when my social media feeds did a collective eye-roll, after a restaurant named Mocambo in Kolkata refused service to a driver because he was either “ill-dressed”, or “eating jhalmuri, walking around and grazing people” or “drunk”. Even the restaurant management couldn’t seem to decide what imaginary line this poor bastard had crossed, so they coined a new excuse – roadsider.

Roadsider. Oxford dictionary defines the word as “a person standing, walking, selling something, etc., on or by the roadside”. Now the Mocambo management didn’t mean this literally, but it was a metaphor for people who acquaint themselves with the grime of the streets, far more than you and I do inside our air-conditioned offices and houses. It’s a big enough umbrella to cover our maids, drivers, istriwallas, chaiwallas, rickshaw-wallas, and so on, without delving into their individual professions, incomes, education, or how close or far from the road they actually live. Roadsiders. An all-encompassing, rather indicting verdict of roughly 55 per cent of our population.

We’re a nation that can’t live without roadsiders – we count on them to run our houses, raise our kids, drive our cars, and repair our TV sets. And yet we are a nation that can’t live with roadsiders either – they don’t eat where we eat, don’t watch movies in plush multiplexes, and their idea of a Sunday is not a swim followed by brunch. We consciously live in separate Indias, wholly cognizant of the fact that the other India is living another life, and when someone spells it out, we’re the first to outrage.

And yet, we participate in the idea of this segregation every day. How many times have you come across a prosperous, label-toting upper-middle class family eating at a trendy restaurant with a tired, unfed maid, often called didi, sitting invisibly on a chair pulled behind, just in case Junior shits himself? How many times have you entered a club or gymkhana without making a fuss about keeping your maid waiting outside because rules don’t allow house help to enter? How many of you keep separate utensils for your maids and drivers and will not even conceive of them using the same loos as you do? But did any of that make you take a pause from all the social media outrage and think a little about glasshouses and stones and stuff like that?

It certainly made me think.

She quickly gave me the once-over and then decided it was my footwear that was at the heart of the problem. I asked, about seeing some documented evidence of a dress code at play. There was none.

Our household of three is run by good old Shalini maushi. She’s about 50, has been working at our home since I was born. She gets to work every day around 11 am, dusts, cleans, runs errands, and then bounces before the clock strikes one. She’s paid a fair salary, and is treated as a member of the family, accompanying us on holiday at times, not to work, but to chill. Also, her favourite beverage happens to be beer. So every now and then, usually on a Sunday, she’s poured a glass when we’re sitting down for our afternoon tipple. Noble, right?

Not really.

Because as much as I’d like to pontificate about treating her as family and being better than the rest of you, I must confess I am not. You see, while I sip my gin or rum out of a crystal-cut highball, maushi has to make do with a plain old quarter barwala glass that came free with a bottle of Old Monk, eons ago, and that is always to be her glass. There can be no other.

We don’t realise how insidious and deep-rooted our classism is. You could belong to any class and you’d still find someone lower than you to turn your nose up at. Shalini maushi wasn’t good enough for my crystal and I have not been good enough for someone else’s. We do not know the everyday indignity of being a roadsider, until we’re shown our place, just like I was.

It was late last year. Having been newly freed from the slavery of a restaurant kitchen, I walked into a watering hole in South Mumbai, which I’d always dreamed of drinking at, but could never gather the scratch to do so. My new-found job meant I was making 400 per cent more money and hence could now afford alcohol at places off limits to my earlier self.

So there I was, sporting a beard, wearing a T-shirt, cargos, and crocs. Now I love this attire so much, if I were a character on The Simpsons, this is how I’d be dressed. I walk into the restaurant wholly prepared to wait, being Friday night and all. I can’t remember the receptionist’s exact words. I think they were, “Sorry sir, you cannot drink here for this is hallowed, upper-class ground, off limits to lowly fiefs such as yourself, dressed in your peasant rags. Be gone you choot, before I smite you, and enslave your kin, behenchod,” or were they, “Sorry sir, you cannot enter the premises because we have a strict dress code and cannot allow you inside.”

I was made to slink away but wait, there was another patron in there, dressed in shorts, which I bought to the receptionist’s notice. Admittedly his shorts were linened and his watch was Rolexed, but as far as dress code went, he was flouting the damn rule.

The receptionist seemed a bit flustered after realising there was indeed an uncle wearing shorts inside. She quickly gave me the once-over and then decided it was my footwear that was at the heart of the problem. I asked, about seeing some documented evidence of a dress code at play. There was none.

Why then wasn’t I being allowed to get my drink? The answer lay behind me. Lined up as far as the eye could see, were young boys and girls, aged 19-23, dressed in their finest threads, with a partner in tow. It was then that I realised two things: 1) I was holding up this line, and 2) The reason I wasn’t getting in wasn’t how I was dressed, it was why I dressed the way I did, like the broke/slacker/stoner/fat kid that I am, and that just wasn’t good enough. That night, as far as this swank South Mumbai bar was concerned, I was the roadsider.

I never outraged on social media. I kept mum just like millions of roadsiders, who are shown their place in society every day, as they shuffle along. The problem, after all, does not lie with these fancy restaurants or snobbish clubs – that’s merely where it ends. The problem begins with our homes and until I get Shalini maushi a good, tall glass for her beer, I’m part of that problem. No amount of social media ranting is going to take that away.