The Other Pay Gap: Why Won’t Indian Waiters Give Women the Bill?

Social Commentary

The Other Pay Gap: Why Won’t Indian Waiters Give Women the Bill?

Illustration: Ahmed Sikander

As an overworked 25-year-old woman, burdened with incurable laziness, mandatory gluten allergies, half-finished chores, and an ever-expanding Netflix watchlist, I am still ambitious enough to have some dreams.

I dream of waking up at 8 am and having a healthy breakfast like an adult before rushing off to work, instead of disregarding its very existence. I dream of a sleep cycle that lasts longer than a sweaty to-and-fro commute from Virar to Churchgate. I dream of a just world where putting aloo in a biryani is recognised as a civic duty. And I dream of a day when an Indian restaurant waiter decides that I’m qualified enough to be handed the bill after a meal.

Like Harry Potter, my biggest dream is also to be the chosen one.

For every Indian woman, heading to a restaurant for a meal is never just a chance to catch up with friends, colleagues, and Tinder dates, or getting a break from bhindi and tinda. It’s also a battlefield where an undeclared mental war is fought between the diner and the waitstaff, which guarantees that every meal is laced with ample tension. And crushing disappointment for dessert. The deadly call of “cheque please!” inaugurates the first skirmish. The waiter approaches the table, and hands the bill over to the solitary man at the table with a proud smile plastered on his/her face, regardless of whether said man is six or 60.

Only men seem to pass the Indian restaurant’s super-difficult screening test. Their talent that enables them to pay for the meal? Loads and loads of testosterone. The women at the table might as well be invisible.

Like most of my girlfriends, even I’ve been that invisible woman at the table. It hasn’t mattered if I’m with one male friend, with a mixed group, or with my younger male cousins: The bill never seems to find its way to me. No amount of making small talk with the waiter, putting on my most pleasant face, playing the deadliest mind games, or establishing eye contact seems to help.

I know it’s idiotic to blame the waitstaff: They’ve either been primed by their managers, or are a product of their own conditioning, or both.

I know it’s idiotic to blame the waitstaff: They’ve either been primed by their managers, or are a product of their own conditioning, or both. But women are a steadily growing part of the workforce; and single, independent women with disposable incomes can only add to a restaurant’s bottomlines. I’ve noticed that a local thela is often a little more liberated. The thelawallah will at least ask: “Paise kaun dega?”

So surely, restaurant managers can acknowledge this and try a little harder to be a bit more sensitive? Instead of watching a frantic scramble for the bill unfold after every other meal? I am not sure that’s pleasant for anyone to watch.  

I’ve had to devise my own war strategy. After every meal, I have to channel my inner Usain Bolt and snatch the bill from my male companion. Just when you think you’ve won the round on fair play and hand the cheque to the waiter with the afterglow of a victorious athlete, he will immediately go ahead and burst your bubble. Disregarding your lesson in gender sensitivity, he will hand the change back to the man. Like the country’s CBFC board, they never seem to learn from their past mistakes.

There have also been times when waiters have happily offered my male friends the card machine, though I’ve provided him the debit card with my own hands. I am fairly certain that if they see a gang of girlfriends dining together, they’re instructed to hand the bill to the man at the next table.

If I wasn’t so insulted by the hidebound chauvinism of these restaurants, I’d actually be touched by how much they care about ensuring that I save money. They’re basically the finance planners Indian women didn’t know they needed. But I’ll continue to yearn for the validation of a restaurant. Even a rite of passage like taking your parents out for dinner after receiving an appraisal will pale in comparison.

Last week, after years of being defeated in this game of one-upmanship, I’m happy to report that my little dream has made some growth. When the time came for the bill reveal, the noble waiter displayed a kind of progressiveness that I thought was non-existent. He put the bill in the middle of the table, equidistant from my male friend and me. It’s a small step, and it was one gentleman at one restaurant – but I’ll take it. If only the rest of our eateries could follow suit.