In her book Desperate for Shah Rukh, Shrayana Bhattacharya followed the jobs and romances of a diverse group of women for 15 years. This edited excerpt comes from a chapter about a young woman from Jaisalmer, who works as a cabin crew on an airplane, entitled ‘A Girl Called Gold’.
Gold Mendiratta wore the tightest dress on the most blessed body in all of them from the club. The first time I heard her voice she was a lioness roaring at a business count in Ralph-Lauren shirt: ‘How can you be so damn cruel, chutiya. Never talk to me again!’ It was 2008. Gold, twenty-four, was furious at this young man’s attempts to grind with her on the dance floor. The man walked away, unabashed and amused, him and his friends grinning broadly at each other without any sense of shame or compromise. Gold’s wrath grew. “Go back to your Russian whores. I bet you can’t even get hard on them.’ The last salvo. The deadly flaccid cock attack.
It was a violent break from an otherwise peaceful night in Delhi. I was part of another entourage and fell silent in silence. Back then, Gold and her friends loved to party with the rich, young and lazy of India. It was a time of plenty and Gold’s single community was in the mood for sexual accumulation.
Collect, collect, collect and then select.
She walked out crying to smoke a cigarette, and I followed. ‘What happened there? Are you OK?’ I asked. “It’s fine, I can handle guys trying to get close. I can take good care of myself. But I can’t understand these guys and how they treat us. I know that man, he went out with me. He has taken me on dates to cafes, restaurants and clubs. For the past six months, we’ve been texting and talking almost every night. I thought we had something. He messaged that he would be at the club tonight and shows up with a white girl draped over him and then tries to grind with me. I’m so sick of these guys and how this all works. Shouldn’t they have some manners, some attention to how we feel? It hurts and makes me want to scream.’
I suggested she watch a Shah Rukh movie when she got home. It was a miracle cure, I said. Gold giggled. She was a fan, she confessed: “I watch or listen to his songs every night. But his movies are all lies, there are no such men in the world. He himself is not like that. But he calms me down.’ And when we started talking about Shah Rukh, we started talking about her anger at Delhi’s romantic scene. Our conversation would last more than a decade.
A French connection
In early 2010, a 26-year-old Gold decided to test international waters in both her career and her love life. She sought work on foreign flights and sex with foreign men. At a party she discovered a group of European expats in Delhi. I met some of these men with her; they traveled in a small tight-knit crowd and always clothed in linen. She fell for a handsome Frenchman.
Gold embarked on a series of long dinners and brunches with the Frenchman and his friends. She would describe these events with scornful admiration. ‘No one is smiling and everyone looks very stern. Like my Hindi teacher at school. Even if you have met people several times, they will never come up to you to say hello. Like saying hello costs money.’ Art parties were her favorite outing, where she would eventually see some famous models and newscasters. Gold loved taking notes on how people dressed and behaved, captivated by the self-assured and self-assured crowd of journalists, writers, and artists. They spoke in discreet lectures, giving speeches instead of conversations, drinking the ‘best drinks’ and all without a shred of self-doubt. Several smoked as glamorously as they pontified. Feeling awkward and out of place, she religiously Googled the ideas, photos, and people she encountered. She sought out Foucault, Walter Benjamin, and John Berger.
In addition to a crude introduction to postmodernism via Wikipedia, Gold learned more practical lessons during the months she spent with her Frenchman. She learned that she was a ‘true Indian beauty’. She found that French people hated a heavily made-up look, only to expect women to create “natural beauty,” which always required expensive cosmetic and dermatological products. She found that the French embraced the virtues of curvaceous women, but only married skinny ones. ‘You have to look beautiful spontaneously. All those French women do a lot to look like they did very little.’ She found that her journey from Jaisalmer to Delhi was her main contribution to the dinner. Otherwise people hardly spoke to her. “They think I’m an experiment, like he’s testing what a relationship with a small-town Indian girl would be like. I see it in the way the women talk to me.’
Gold had been reduced to a beautiful spectator at events, observing and reporting. She noticed how foreign-educated Indians politely ignored the village women who did all the unseen work to make these parties possible, how they desperately wanted whites to think they were hip, how the self-proclaimed “intellectual bande (men)” spoke only to women with a waist circumference of twenty-eight or less, as the taller women without husbands used to talk to each other. She found that her English was better than all the European expats in the room, although the goras always couldn’t understand what she was saying. She suspected that Europeans liked different ‘types of paneer’. Her biggest battle was with cured meats. During that year she was hungry all the time. Dying for the taste of kadi-chawal, only to get cheese platters and cold cuts that intimidated her. One night she confessed her fear of fromage to her Frenchman. He laughed and taught her everything there was to know. She had never felt so close to him, but also further away from the food she liked to eat. ‘He doesn’t like Indian food because it’s not subtle enough for him, our food is too spicy. We go out to dinner together for a few Indian meals, but the staple food at his friends’ house is tasteless and looks awkward to eat. I once cooked curry in his house, and he spent most of the next morning complaining about the smell.’
Gold was amazed at the confidence of civilization on display. Once she came back from dinner and called to say, “I had to tell you. This blond girl had just returned from Jaisalmer and was introduced to me. She said she loved the city and the fortress. And then she said I should be so proud of where I come from. And you know I realized that this is the difference between us and foreigners. I am not proud of the Jaisalmer Fort or the City at all. No one I know built that fortress. The city was never a free or fair place for me, so I left. But she was so proud of Paris, as if she had built the Louvre herself! I don’t love my past as much as they love theirs.’
She introduced her Frenchman and some of his friends DDLJ and Every two! India. She told how Shah Rukh was officially recognized by the French government in 2007 as an ‘Officier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres’. Her audience just enjoyed the dance scenes and laughed at the remaining content. She later said to me, “It annoyed me because I thought they thought Shah Rukh and Hindi films were stupid, because that’s not how foreigners show love.” Gold met whiteness as a universal subject.
As their relationship progressed over a year and a half, she increasingly lived in her own head. In every attempt to be attractive, she sacrificed herself. She started to dress differently and burned her savings. “Being his girlfriend was expensive. He always paid for meals, but I had to watch what I wore in his company. But whatever I wore, I could never be as elegant as those women. They weren’t as pretty as I was, but they looked so effortlessly glamorous. I felt like there was always something wrong with my outfits and the way I wore them.” For Gold, elegance became something whites invented to make brown people feel bad about themselves. Eventually she lost all interest in being interesting. She stuck to her role as the staple Small-Town-Beauty in very few words.