One of the great things about the emerging world is the service. In the West people spend their lives battling self-service checkouts or mesmerised by automated voices that tell them their custom is very important. In the emerging world waiters compete to pour your tea and masseurs vie to pummel your body. In Delhi I was once approached by a man who, Q-tip in hand, offered to de-wax my ears. But the service economy contains bear-traps for naive foreigners.
I once visited Tata Steel, in the depths of the Bengali jungle. Getting there condemns you to passing through Kolkata airport, which is run by the communist-dominated local government for the express purpose of humiliating itinerant capitalists. The man standing next to me in the security queue struck up a conversation about the evils of the British Empire. It was so humid that I couldn’t see through my glasses. The only thing that kept me going was the prospect of being pampered.
As soon as I arrived in my hotel, the Indian genius for service kicked in. A charming man knocked on my door, introduced himself as my personal valet, and promised to get my suit dry-cleaned, my clothes washed and my shoes polished so that I could see my face in them, and deliver my belongings to my room by sunrise. Exuberant at the thought of being treated like a maharajah, I handed him everything I wasn’t wearing.
The next morning an equally charming waiter brought me my breakfast but looked confused when I asked him when my valet would return. I repeated my question to a succession of ever-grander managers. It turned out that their hotel did not provide overnight cleaning let alone personal valets. My charming visitor of the previous night was, it emerged, a scam artist. With several days of meetings ahead of me, I was left with the clothes I was standing in: well-worn chinos, a heavily creased shirt and brightly coloured sneakers.
I spent the first part of the day visiting the steelworks – the hottest and sweatiest place I have ever been – and the second half visiting model villages in the jungle, which were dirty as well as sweaty. My host for dinner at the local gentlemen’s club looked a bit surprised but no doubt passed my appearance off as British eccentricity. My problem really began the following day when I flew to Mumbai.
I was staying in one of the world’s most elegant hotels, the Taj, where the male hotel staff were all dressed like British viceroys, the female staff, at least the ones at the desks, were swathed in thick silk like so many goddesses, and the public spaces were full of Bollywood royalty. My clothes now reeked from several days on my back, in steelworks, model villages and over-crowded airlines. I had arrived too late at night to buy any new ones and, as I put my stinking clothes back on with a full day of meetings heading towards me like an express train, I discovered that I had left my deodorant in Jamshedpur.
The Taj did a brisk trade in Bulgari jewellery but I could not find anything so vulgar as a pharmacy. So I ventured into the chaos outside. There were hundreds of street hawkers waiting to pounce on innocent tourists but it was the man with the peacock who proved particularly difficult to shake off. He forced me to contemplate the beauty of the peacock’s tail. He sang the praises of its gentle temperament. The more firmly I told him I didn’t want the bird the more dramatically he lowered his price and upped his rhetoric.
I eventually found a hole in the wall that seemed to sell everything. I gestured to the proprietor by pretending to spray under my arms. He signalled to various flunkies. Eventually a can of deodorant arrived. I ran back to the Taj, jumped into the shower, sprayed my underarms and various other smelly places with liberal amounts of deodorant, and headed to my first meeting of the day.
The man I was meeting was clearly a beneficiary of India’s service culture – his suit impeccably pressed, his shoes like mirrors, his skin glowing with prosperity. He looked shocked when I introduced myself as the man from The Economist, his nostrils visibly flaring, but quickly adjusted to being interviewed by a tramp. He ordered us both tea and did his best to make me feel at home. Ten minutes into the interview I became aware of a gentle burning sensation in my armpits and the other bits of my body that I had sprayed. Gentle burning soon became a raging fire. I began to sweat bullets. My questions became strangulated groans. I told the CEO that I did not need to take up any more of his time. He said that he had plenty of time – I had come all this way and we had not even scratched the surface of his fascinating strategy. But I’d reached my pain threshold. I all but sprinted from the room, leaving the flabbergasted businessman to finish his tea, and flung myself into a freezing shower. The trip was an education, but I never learned what was in that can.