RIP dear Light of our current lives

Very busy Sunday– writing and rewriting this piece in between hospital visits– don’t ask. At first, I included her name in the article.  As my editor said, what’s the point of asking them to name a law after her if we can’t mention her name.  My husband read this piece pre-publication and suggested that it wasn’t a good idea.  So removed.

A light leads the way forward from India’s crisis of conscience

Jan 7, 2013

What would Delhi’s “braveheart” have wanted? This is a question that faces India in the aftermath of the brutal rape of a student on the night of December 16.

The father of the victim revealed her name to The Sunday People newspaper in the UK on Saturday. “My daughter didn’t do anything wrong; she died while protecting herself,” her father told the newspaper. “I am proud of her. Revealing her name will give courage to other women who have survived these attacks. They will find strength from my daughter.”

More prescient words in the face of tragedy have rarely have been spoken. For far too long, and in too many cultures, victims of rape have had to shoulder the blame.

In many countries, laws grant victims anonymity, ostensibly to protect them and allow them to move on with their lives. But such protection also implies a certain culpability – “she invited it” – that is unusual with regard to the victims of other crimes.

The unspoken attitude is that women who have been raped – and the victims are usually women – are somehow different from the victims of other crimes. Attitudes in many societies, and not just in India, have a pejorative edge when it comes to rape.

In revealing his daughter’s name, the father was not just being brave. He may well change the course of Indian lawmaking and attitudes towards women. Certainly, his courageous action may break the stigma about naming victims, which still restrains journalists in India, including myself in this article, from naming this 23-year-old woman in print.

Politicians have gone on the record saying some very stupid things. One ventured that rape happens only in cities, not in rural India, which is absolutely absurd. On tea plantations and in villages, women are often molested by their bosses or even relatives. Others have made crass comments about how rape is a modern phenomenon. Also untrue, and idiotic to boot.

Naturally, these comments have been made by men. The good news is that such commentators have been mocked by Indians of every stratum. Protests and calls for more stringent laws against rape continue everyday. India, it seems, has finally risen in unison.

I am not 23, but I am a woman in India and, like most, I have experienced sexual harassment in a multitude of shades: in public and private, from relatives and strangers, on roads and in rooms, through word and deed. I am familiar with the sexual innuendo, taunts and threats that fall under the misleading phrase “Eve teasing”.

But my experiences are mere specks when compared to the scale of this tragedy. India is a minefield for women – as the mother of two daughters, I worry about this every day. It could have been any of us taking a bus home that night after watching a movie.

What would this woman have wanted? I believe that she would have wanted what her father has done: she would have wanted her name to be revealed. The nebulous way in which she has been described by the Indian media and public for so long is insulting given how much we know about the crime.

Some media call her nir bhaya, which means “without fear” in Hindi, when in fact she was probably terrified. They have called her Amanat, which means “treasure”, which she certainly was: a treasured daughter, sister and friend. They call her Damini, or bold, which she may have been. But it shouldn’t be an act of courage for a woman, with a friend, to take a bus in Delhi at 9.30pm.

The law is taking its course in this case with a speed that is unusual for India. People from all walks of life continue to protest in India’s unsafe streets. Politicians are half-heartedly crafting policy to make India safer – and keep the protesters at bay.

Given that her father has revealed her name, lawmakers have a new, powerful option. This woman could be honoured by a new stringent law on behalf of all Indian women. There is a precedent: in the United States, Megan’s Law and Amber Alert are named after children who were abducted and murdered.

If done right, and with a great deal of sensitivity, a similar law named after this young woman – a light who has been extinguished in our society – would be a step towards making our country safe. All Indians, both men and women, need such a collective conscience.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir


The Leela Delhi

My Mint column about The Leela Delhi here.

  • Culture
  • Posted: Thu, Oct 27 2011. 9:23 PM IST
Is anyone listening to the guest?
The hospitality industry spends countless hours training employees to act on certain principles: enhancing guest experience, prompt delivery of services, warm welcomes and goodbyes, among others

The Good life | Shoba Narayan

  It was 12.45 when I walked into the new Leela in Delhi to check in. I had scheduled a business lunch at the hotel’s Qube restaurant at 1pm and was worried I’d be late. All I wanted to do was go to my room, drop my bag, wash my face and get to the restaurant in 10 minutes. I said as much to the smiling young lady who came to greet me.

“Sure, ma’am. Please sit down and make yourself comfortable. I’ll get the check-in form.”


Small bites: Try the fresh salads from Egypt, Morocco and all over the Mediterranean, at The Qube, at the new Leela in Delhi

Small bites: Try the fresh salads from Egypt, Morocco and all over the Mediterranean, at The Qube, at the new Leela in Delhi


Minutes ticked by. I sat on edge, wondering what I should do to hurry them up. A waitress asked if I’d like anything to drink. Someone got a jasmine garland ready. Five minutes passed. Finally, the lady in red escorted me to my room and continued to fill up the forms, till I told her, for the fourth time, that I was late for lunch. Would it have been different had I walked into the lobby and started yelling for an express check-in? Yes, of course. Hotel staff is trained to deal with problem guests and I wasn’t behaving like one. But I had a distinct need that the hotel didn’t hear, let alone fulfil.

The hospitality industry spends countless hours training employees to act on certain principles: enhancing guest experience, prompt delivery of services, warm welcomes and goodbyes, among others. Consistency is key. So they embrace rules and uniforms. Always welcome a guest this way; always ask a guest these questions; always wish them a warm goodbye.

Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

The challenge for those in the service sector is to train employees not just to deliver service consistently, but also to discern and act on unusual requests, both stated and unstated. A man checks in with a headache and doesn’t want to be escorted to the room; he wants to go to the spa. A woman with low blood sugar comes in with one pressing need: food. How to get her to ask for it, and even if she does, will the front desk staff stop the check-in formalities to run to the restaurant and get bread? These are not crises, but the way the hotel staff intuit and respond to these needs will enhance or diminish the experience for that particular guest.

For this, hotels have to teach their employees not just consistency but also flexibility. Rather than impose a uniform welcome for all guests, receptionists have to customize. And customization involves figuring out guest needs at that moment in time by looking and listening, something that is hard to do in a busy hotel.

Listening is a key skill for all hotel employees, and it can be taught. For example, hotels could institute a simple rule. Any staff member who welcomes a guest should not leave the guest’s side for the first 5 minutes. That’s all it takes: 5 minutes. It’s no use asking the guest to “be comfortable” and then walking away, even if it is to get the check-in form. If you want to delve into psychology, you could call this “fear of abandonment”. We all have it, and it influences our behavioural responses, ranging from how we react when a spouse walks out in the middle of a quarrel to why we keep asking the doctor questions so that we can keep him near our bedside.

Hotels, spas and restaurants can factor in this fear of abandonment into enhancing the guest experience. Some spas do this. The massage therapist is instructed to keep her hand on the guest’s body at all times, even when she is walking around to the other side of the table. Similarly, hotels can give their front desk staff a simple diktat: Do not, under any circumstances, walk away from the guest in the first 5 minutes. That’s all it takes to draw out the guest and get a measure of his state of mind. Is he tense? Is she in a hurry? Do they have a specific need that needs to be addressed? Rather than instructing each guest to sit down and “be comfortable” (how I hate that phrase), the staff should be taught to converse with the guest and find out their psychological state of mind. This can have dramatic effects on the guest experience.

I stayed at The Leela Palace anonymously in July, paying what was then the standard rate of Rs. 13,963 per night. It was a fine experience, except at the beginning and the end. I enjoyed my lunch at The Qube. The salads from Egypt, Morocco, and all over the Mediterranean were fresh and beautifully presented in small plates. A butterfly danced on the glass wall that separated the restaurant from the garden. The tables were nicely spaced and two of the long tables were full of Punjabi ladies who lunched and then paid with wads of cash. The cutlery was stylish, yet easy to handle. The nouveau Indian music—sitar and drums—was at the correct volume. The staff was uniformly courteous, with nary a misstep.

I am conflicted about this hotel’s decor. I like that they don’t conform to the minimalism that has taken over the world. I like that they use what architect Rahul Mehrotra calls “local assertions” in their design. I like their Kovalam property’s pared down “assertions” most. But ornamental Indian isn’t for me. The Leela Delhi aesthetic is maximalist with baroque overtones: gilt-edged mirrors, crystal chandeliers, large potted (plastic?) plants, carpets with a faintly Aubusson touch, and flowers everywhere. The liftman told me that the hotel buys 3,600 roses daily. They are arranged artfully all over the hotel. The wood-panelled Club-level floor is stunning. I loved the self-designed wallpaper and upholstery; and the antique prints and photographs that are framed off-centre: a simple idea but so very chic.

When I checked out, I got a rude shock. I had booked for two days through a travel agent and then cancelled the first night. The hotel insisted on having me sign a credit card payment for the first night as a “pre-authorization”. The duty manager, Varsha, said she would do her best to waive the charge, but it took two weeks and two emails for it to happen. I can understand hotels doing this during peak season, but The Leela wasn’t full. The hotel eventually returned the money, but the damage was done. Next time, I’ll be more careful when I book The Leela because they don’t allow me to be flexible.

Shoba Narayan sees the triumph of the minimalist aesthetic as one of the triumphs of modern Japan. Write to her at