The management of Kolkata’s fabled restaurant, Mocambo, must have thought that their explanation that they don’t serve food to “roadside people” was perfectly legitimate. After all the restaurant and others like it in the city, cling on to nostalgia and tales of its heydays while explaining the restaurant’s menu.
Take for instance the Kolkata Press Club, the oldest press club for ‘working reporters’ in the entire subcontinent. It was established in 1945, but still hasn’t accorded photojournalists full membership rights. The Press Club’s management is sent an annual letter by the city’s many, extremely talented, photojournalists, only to be assured that the matter is “urgent” and will be discussed immediately.
Then there are the multitude of restaurants along Park Street which dissect customers using the arcane tags of ‘Family’ and ‘Bachelor’. The understanding being that the ‘Family section’ will be suitable for women and children, while the ‘Bachelor’ or the less euphemistic ‘Gentlemen’s only’ section, is for drinkers — a space for men, of different ages, to leave sobriety behind. One such restaurant at Park Street explained to me that “No one had ever complained about this before. Women, drink, of course they said. But the ‘Family section’ offers drinks too’.”
Mocambo, one of Park Street’s ‘must visit’ places, is an ancient establishment celebrated for its food and ambiance. Like most things in the city, this restaurant too has a long history, a tradition, if you may, which it continues to serve up in the face of inevitable change. So, when a woman wanting to eat there on Saturday narrated in a Facebook post how she was refused service just because she was accompanied by her driver, Manish, many were shocked.
Dilashi Hemnani, Marketing Manager at Tata Motors, wrote a post on Facebook giving a detailed account of the restaurant’s alleged discriminatory behaviour. “How shallow and inhuman have we become,” she wrote, explaining that Manish had been driving her around for a week and she waited for a while in a queue for a table at Mocambo, but those who came in afterwards were let in first. When the explanations ran out, the management finally explained to her that they don’t let “roadside people” in.
“Madam, he is not properly dressed,” a Mocambo staff allegedly told Hemnani. Hemnani was not contactable over Facebook, neither was Siddharth Kothari.
But I find the shock that many on social media expressed online, while talking about Mocambo’s ‘racist’ and ‘elitist’ behavior, quite surprising. In the city for exactly a year today, I have found evidence of such elitist behavior quite often, most commonly disguised as vestiges of an establishment’s proud history. Clubs that don’t allow people in unless ‘properly dressed’ — read no sandals, definitely no Indian clothes. Restaurants that turn up their nose when someone doesn’t order in Bengali or English. A press club that doesn’t recognise photographers as equal members of the reporting fraternity.
It was perhaps inevitable that there would be a dharna outside Mocambo. The Congress, a party which has been accused of elitism for years, ironically has taken the lead and is going to organise a protest outside the restaurant, which has since the incident tried to manage the snowballing outrage. But most outrage continues to position the restaurant’s behavior in opposition to city’s liberalism.
But is Kolkata really such a liberal city?