He wore a crisp white shirt with matching trousers, a golden wristwatch and lots of gold jewellery. And yet, Bhimsen (name changed) hesitated before stepping inside the vast doors of the five-star hotel.
A bellhop rushed towards him eagerly and ushered him into the banquet hall where the Dalit Samrakshana Samithi (DSS) was holding a seminar on Monday on BR Ambedkar's contribution to modernising India. The event at the five-star hotel in Bengaluru was held to commemorate Ambedkar's 124th birth anniversary year.
Speaking about the incident near the hotel lobby, Bhimsen later said, "That scene of the waiter running to help me with a smile kept coming back to me."
Bhimsen lives and runs a small hotel in the Marianpallya slum and this was his first time in a five-star hotel.
"Excellent service," he beamed, even as he stubbornly refused to be photographed or named.
Over a hundred Dalit activists from slums across Bengaluru had gathered for the seminar. The choice of venue was central to the plans of the event's organiser and DSS leader, Lion Balakrishna.
"The difference between a five-star hotel and a temple is that in a hotel nobody asks you questions as long as you pay the bill. In a temple, you might not be allowed to enter even after paying the priests' bill," Lion told the gathering.
As they cheered, he said, "For too long have we held our programmes in street corners and community halls. It's time for us to walk out of our slums and enter other worlds. It is time we stopped calling our neighbourhoods slums. Let's call them colonies like everybody else. Let's win back our self-respect."
The event was put together by donations, some as little as Rs. 10, from residents of Dalit colonies from across the city.
But was the hard-earned money well spent?
"Ninety percent of the people you see here, including me, don't even own a house in Bengaluru. Yet, we dressed up in our best clothes and walked in confidently. It was a huge morale booster and as important as any temple entry by Dalits," Lion told HT.
Lion explained that had the same event been held at the government-owned Ambedkar Bhavan, they would have to shell out Rs. 1.5 lakh per day plus arrange their own food. Here, for roughly the same amount, they got the banquet hall free by just paying for the food.
Dalit Samrakshana Samithi leader Lion Balakrishna at a function commemorating Ambedkar's 124th birth anniversary year. (Sudipto Mondal/HT Photo)
"What we have done is change the way our people think. Because of our own insecurities, we never allowed ourselves to think that such things are possible," he said.
A large section among the one crore Dalits in Karnataka continue to face some form of untouchability or the other. Dalits are prevented from entering hotels and temples in most villages on the outskirts of Bengaluru.
The IT city itself is not free from prejudice and it's tough for Dalits to buy or rent properties in posh neighbuorhoods. This issue came to light when prominent Dalit activist and Right Livelihood Award winner Ruth Manorama confessed publicly in 2013 that she was unable to find a house on rent in south Bengaluru because the upper caste owners did not want a Dalit as a tenant.
Activist Y Mariswamy said this was a symbolic move to celebrate the two basic ideals that Ambedkar stood for - modernity and self-respect.
"We want to normalise such things. We want do this so often that nobody will even think it remarkable that Dalits from slums are dining in five-star hotels. Everything about Ambedkar - from his scholarly work to his personal grooming - was defined by modernity and self-respect," said Mariswamy.
He said a small minority of young Dalits from the slums in the city have managed to get an education in English medium and employment in the BPO sector. Now, they have a little more money but no experience to help them enter a higher social milieu, he said.
Social interactions in elite circles, Mariswamy feels, are not defined only by money but also by subtle and codified behaviour. To enter these circles one must know the right codes, he said, comparing it to the game of gentlemen versus commoners in England.
"Earning money is still easier. How will our children learn to nurse a glass of wine, wear the right facial expressions, get a hang of the humour and make small talk in a posh gathering while still retaining their poise?"