New Delhi: With his bearing erect, his turban resplendent, and his closely tailored doorman’s uniform almost shining under the lights at a Taj Mahal hotel in New Delhi, Bijay Pal Singh looks taller, grander and almost more dignified than many of the guests he helps usher into one of the Capital’s most prestigious hotels.
He is 6ft 2 inches tall and, in a country of short men, Singh holds an ace card.
Regal welcome: Doormen Hari Ram (left) and Bijay Pal Singh at a Taj Mahal hotel in New Delhi.
He outgrew the national average—about 5ft 6 inches for men—when he was just about 12, he remembers, and since then, literally speaking, he has towered over most of India.
His height, he says, got him a good job in the army, working for an artillery regiment. And when he retired after 17 years and nine months of being a soldier, hoping to spend time closer to his family in Haryana, he heard about this job, a job that required, above all, that he be tall.
“How tall I am matters,” Singh says, on a quiet Saturday afternoon, as the rush of customers ebbed. “I couldn’t have gotten this job without my height.”
Working for the Indian Hotels Co. Ltd, the Tata group company that owns the Taj Hotels chain, he has managed to carve out for himself and his family a life on the bottom rungs of India’s aspiring middle class.
The monthly pay has been decent (between Rs8,000 and Rs12,000), Singh is eligible for a pension, and he has found a pride in his job that he never had before.
One son, 6ft 3 inches, works in Dubai, and another, 6ft 1 inch, will soon enter college. Someday, he says, “God willing”, maybe they, too, can afford a room at a place like the Taj Mahal Hotel, where a night’s stay for him would easily eat up more than a month’s earnings.
For the hotel, the doormen are a flourish that it spends considerable resources and time over. Their uniforms—an ensemble that makes the doormen look almost royal—are prescribed by a fashion designer.
Their training, which revolves around both being hosts and being part of an elaborate security team, is almost never-ending, says security manager Vipin Sharma, to whom all the doormen report.
Every morning, the doormen are given a list of guests who will check in, and they have to remember the names of the regulars. Singh reckons he remembers more than 600 names, among them guests with very public faces.
“Tony Blair, Narendra Modiji, the Chinese prime minister, film stars—so many film stars,” he says.
At other times, they keep the riff-raff out and keep an eye out for troublemakers— drunks, prostitutes, “guests” who have left without paying their bills. But above all, no matter how high the sun climbs into the sky on a merciless Delhi summer day, or how chilly the wind blows on an almost-freezing night, they must, at all times, look regal.
“Their look, their demeanour, the way they greet their guests, it is all part of their training,” says Sharma, who has recruited doormen for the Taj group for more than a decade. “Finding the right man, the right fit, it’s not that easy. The height has to be there. The look has to be there.”
Sharma and security managers at other hotels say they often had to interview many dozens of candidates before picking out one doorman and then train him for months.
That elusive look has made the doormen at these properties prime targets for poaching from the competition. Down the road, at a competing five-star hotel, a public relations person pleads to keep its star doorman’s name out of the paper.
“What if somebody hires him away?” she asks.
That almost 6ft 4 inches tall doorman, who will remain nameless because of the hotel’s request, is known as the doyen of New Delhi doormen. Men from all over the place, but especially from Buttar, a town near his village in Punjab, show up unannounced, asking for advice on how to get a similar job. He teaches them to fill out a job form, points out the hotels and asks them to grow out their moustaches, lose their paunches, and work on their English.
He’s held his job for more than 18 years, inheriting it from an uncle, whose ageing legs and aching back could no longer take the stress of standing all day and lifting heavy suitcases out from the backs of luxury cars.
And, on a recent weekday night, taking a 10-minute break to smoke a cigarette, the doorman, 48, lifts the legs of his crisply-starched pyjama pants, and reveals a dense map of blue veins on his calves—varicose, in all probability—and corns on his feet that he said bled during the winter. “I don’t know how much longer I will do this job,” he says, his voice a mix of both regret and a longing for the comforts of retirement. “But if I leave this job, what do I do? Wash dishes?”
For five-star hotels around the world, the look of the doorman is closely tied to the feel of the hotel.
In India, legend goes, the first Taj hotel had doormen dressed like Indian royalty to fit in with the overall grandness of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel that Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata built in Mumbai in 1903 after being denied entry into one of the British-run hotels in British-run India.
True or not, the “look” of the doorman at the gates of any major Indian hotel has always included three things: towering height, regal clothing and, as far as possible, a glorious moustache that often startles adults—and always entertain the children—who visit the hotel.
Singh, although capable of more, has adopted a minimalist approach to his facial hair, going for what moustache stylists call the “English”— not too bushy, not too long, but definitely going past the edge of his lips so that they can be pointed and stroked upwards.
Not so his partner in duty, Hari Ram, who left his small village in Uttar Pradesh and found his imposing size—he is 6ft 3 inches and easily about 110kg of muscle—perfect for the job of guarding banks. But tired of watching other people’s money, and unwilling to go back to his village, he decided to try for a job at a five-star hotel.
And for that, he needed to grow his moustache, which now measures more than 5 inches across, and covers most of his cheeks. He oils it (“every night, coconut oil”), dyes it, and, in between sentences, strokes it.
“This height, the moustache—not everybody can have them,” he says. “They are nature’s gift to me. Could just anybody have this job? No.”
Just a few kilometres away from the hotel, that fact—that not just anybody can get this one job—becomes painfully clear at the doors of a new restaurant, where Rakesh Prasad stands guard duty. His uniform, too, is resplendent, his thick, black moustache is perhaps the most glorious, almost defying gravity as its 7 inches swoop skywards.
But, alas, even with the wads of cloth he has tucked into his shoes, he stands no more than 5ft 8 inches.
“Three more inches,” he says woefully. “Just three more inches, and I could have worked at a five-star.”