Paying pale-skinned Westerners to do embarrassing things is a growing fad among India's middle classes.
A typical message from my employer
"I have a degree, you know," I tell the semicircle of mustachioed men around me, but they don't seem too bothered. "And I'm getting paid 10,000 rupees [$170] to do this." Their expressions suddenly change; they seem interested. "But that is a lot of money," they say. Yeah, it is. Why the hell else would I be doing this? Few jobs are so bad that they cause a woman to envy a pole dancer. Look at her, suspended above that giant cocktail glass, awash with the green glow of the lasers, dry ice, and the penetrative stares of a gang of voyeuristic 60-somethings, twirling around like she owns the place.
I wish I had her job. Instead, I get to be an inanimate object this evening. Not in the sense of being objectified, like, "Women are just pieces of meat." No—literally. Tonight, I am going to be a table! A human table wearing a glow-in-the-dark fireman's hat.
This is what it looks like to dress as a table.
Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of "White Girl Jobs" in India. Every backpacker who's wandered the pavements of Mumbai will have encountered the overly friendly young men lurking round the Leopold Cafe trying to scout random travelers for “starring roles" in upcoming Bollywood blockbusters. This is already kind of old hat. Watch any recent Bollywood film and in almost every dance, club, or party scene there will be a group of white men or women inexplicably placed amid the pros, looking lost and bewildered.
But now there is a new trend growing among India's middle classes. They've started to employ white Western girls to hang out at weddings, doing various weird things purely because they—we—are white and Western. Jobs can include anything from greeting guests while dressed as a London Beefeater, to leading the bride and groom's wedding procession on the back of a horse, to being a human statue.
Or, in my case, handing out drinks while dressed as a table—then standing there waiting to have the empties deposited back onto me. It really is as interesting and embarrassing as it sounds.
Among the luxuries at a wedding are an uncooked turkey and lobster.
Nevertheless, it pays well, and in many senses this is the whole point. It is impossible to ignore the uncomfortable racial and post-colonial undertones at play in my situation. For whatever reason, affluent Indians seem to place a premium on pale skin, and anyone rich enough to pay for ethnically white people to work as living furniture at their weddings is seen as kind of a big deal.
Back in the days of empire, no colonial Indophile worth their salt would have been without their harem of Indian entertainers. From snake charmers to sitar players, imperialists loved to surround themselves with what, to them, seemed exotic. Today, the roles have been reversed—an irony I mulled over as I stood there, laden with drinks.
Apparently a wedding planner ran out of things to spend money on.
From start to finish, the whole experience was insane. I received a call from a fierce-sounding Eastern European woman whose job it is to approve your pictures and measurements, then arrange a time and place to meet. In my case, this was a station right at the outskirts of the city. "Make sure you are there by five o'clock, otherwise no payment!" I was warned. "I mean it, girls. Don't fucking mess me around!"
I got there at five and then... nothing. By six, a few more girls had showed up—predominantly sad Russians speaking nothing but sad Russian. By seven, one of the guys who'd scouted me in central Mumbai had arrived, carrying three crappy phones, two of which he was speaking into simultaneously. His name was Pinky. He'd just got WhatsApp, he told me. And could he add me on it?
The next thing I knew, the ten of us were being bundled into a white Toyota Innova with "TOURIST" printed on the side—like we weren't conspicuous enough already—and driven off to God knows where. Like, seriously. I had no idea where we were going. I thought I was doing a two- to three-hour job on the outskirts of Delhi but eventually turned up seven hours and 200 miles later in Ludhiana, Punjab.
Upon arrival I hung around in the Green Room for an indeterminable length of time while the "Client" (whose identity is very rarely revealed) decided which of us were lucky enough to be allowed to work. While this process was going on, we were showered with the attentions of some Punjabi rappers. "They live in Canada," we were assured on a number of occasions. "They are very famous."
The green room: "Some famous Punjabi rappers… They live in Canada."
Most of the girls I met were either interning or studying in Delhi and doing the odd job to make ends meet. One of them told me she "couldn't believe" where she'd ended up: "This is where three years working my ass off at Oxford got me—dressed in a turban, miming playing the violin, while saxophone music blares in the background."
Some of the girls—from my experience, mainly Russians—work full-time on contracts. They get paid upwards of 80,000 rupees a month ($1,350—not bad at all in India), as well as having their accommodation and living expenses covered. However, these girls are pretty much unable to refuse work, no matter where or what it is or how long it lasts.
Most of them didn't seem to have any complaints, but it just seemed kind of weird and fucked up to me. Perhaps they work their way up until one day they become that terrifying voice at the end of the line, ordering girls to pickup points.
The stage. These have hosted everything from strippers to Hindi karaoke.
In the end, I can hardly complain of exploitation as a result of my alabaster skin in a country where millions are exploited every day for having the "wrong" skin tone. I was getting paid $170 for two hours' work—relatively huge compensation for this easy (albeit brain-hemorrhagingly frustrating) line of work. The main inequity, I felt, wasn't one suffered by me—or even the guys who felt like they needed to splash a bunch of money around just to have some white chicks dance to "Sunny Sunny Yaariyan" with them on the dance floor. It was that I was earning double the amount of the native Indian girls who were also working at the event. And why? Because I'm Western and white.
I guess you could call it positive exploitation. But, standing around as a table, I didn't feel all that positive.