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Skin is King

Getting a table at a posh city restaurant on a crowded weekend is easy - if you’re white and have a foreign accent. If you’re Indian, forget it. Riddhi Shah finds out...

india Updated: Aug 19, 2008 19:02 IST
Riddhi Shah

Brunch is the new black. And a brunch reservation at popular South Mumbai restaurant Indigo is notoriously hard to pull off.

Twenty-six-year-old Menaka Shroff was all too aware of this fact when she called the restaurant one monsoonal Sunday morning. “I wasn’t surprised when they told me they had nothing. But then just for fun, I called the restaurant back 15 minutes later with an American accent and asked for a table again,” says the fashion designer. Much to Shroff ’s surprise, the stewardess at Indigo offered to put her on the waiting list; 15 minutes later she had her table. “That’s when I realised that a foreign accent can work miracles for you,” she says.

Businessman Sameer Javeri, 27, identifies with Shroff. He had a similar experience at Indigo’s sister restaurant - Indigo Deli.

“We went there on a weeknight when the place was practically empty and yet they asked us to wait. Five minutes later, a foreign couple walked in without a reservation and was seated immediately in the loft area. We were only given a table after we threatened to leave,” says Javeri, incensed. As if that weren’t enough, the staff refused to seat Javeri and his friends in the ‘loft area’, stating that itwas only for guests with reservations. Did they think I was blind or stupid? It’s clear that they have different standards for foreigners and Indians,” he says.

It’s an issue that has taken on new proportions in the last two years—a time during which an ever-swelling expatriate community has ensured that the white patron is a permanent fixture on the city’s gastronomic scene.



own experience showed, being Indian is almost a disadvantage inwhat are considered the city’s ‘finest’ clubs and restaurants. Over the course of two weeks, two of us from


—British reporter

Naomi Canton

and I — called up a number of high-end Mumbai restaurants, asking for a table at the same time and for the same number of diners. Shockingly, four out of nine restaurants refused me a table but were willing to accommodate Naomi.

Looking down on brown

For Mumbai’s white residents, this is an old routine — it is common for them to be treated differently. Daniel Campbell, a 37-year-old American who works in the film industry, says he is habitually bumped up to the front of a queue, given faster service and better access to clubs and bars.

“I feel like I get into restrictive clubs more easily, and am often helped over other Indians waiting with me at a restaurant. In fact, just a few weeks ago, I saw a white woman get into the airportwithout a ticket or passport,” he admits. The city’s restaurateurs, however, are adamant that they maintain racial neutrality.

“If such a thing has happened, it’s probably because the person answering the phone may have his own biases. No restaurant has a policy saying that foreigners should be treated better,” says Vicky Singh, a partner at Aurus, one of the restaurants that offered Naomi a reservation. (The other three didn’t get back to us despite repeated attempts. And Indigo maintains that discrimination not restaurant policy)

He adds: “Foreigners often treat the wait staff as equals, something that those serving them really appreciate. And thismay be reflected in staff behaviour.” Kishore DF, a partner at Lemongrass and Seijo & The Soul Dish, is more forthright: “We still have a white fetish, not just in the hospitality industry but India as a whole,” he says candidly.

“Even if foreigners endorse a restaurant, it is automatically perceived as being better,” he says. Shop owner Taher Saleh was the only one among those we talked to who had no qualms in admitting that there is a marked difference in how foreign shoppers are treated.

“My boys will show a white customer many more shawls than they would an Indian who enters the store. An Indian would also not be wooed as aggressively,” says Saleh, who owns a shawl and textile store at the Oberoi shopping arcade. (That said, it should be pointed out that a daylong experiment Naomi and I carried out at five high-end stores yielded no dramatic results. Sales staff treated both of us equally and sometimes, equally derisively).

PS: The last round of calls to restaurants was made on the week that preceded Independence Day. Sixty-one years from the day we overthrew our colonial captors, two of the four Mumbai restaurants we called, decided to give a British customer a table over an Indian.