Taste of Darkness. No, that's neither a horror flick, nor a novel. It's the name of the restaurant in Hyderabad, the first of its kind in India. It is part of a global chain and is present in 160 cities.
As part of my job, I lead guests to their tables, seat each one of them and then guide them through their meal. What makes my restaurant, and me, different? Taste of Darkness serves a four-course meal in pitch dark giving guests a chance to discover 'food' through taste buds, olfactory senses and touch alone. In fact, the place and the concept are the first of its kind in India. And I am a visually impaired person. So, basically, I help people change their view of darkness by guiding them through the dark.
The Daily Drill
Apart from me, there are 17 other guides at this place and each of us is entrusted with a different group as they come to the restaurant. You could be a single guest, a couple or a group. You have to reserve a place and a time as there are limited tables. Here's the drill: I welcome the guests and take one person's hand as I lead the way and the rest of the group follows in a chain holding on to each other's shoulders.
It is not easy for visitors to get accustomed to the dark and it takes some time before they are comfortable. My job is to do everything possible to make them enjoy the experience. So, as we proceed to the dining table, I acquaint myself with them.
Once at the table, I lead each guest to their respective seats making sure that they are seated comfortably. At the time of booking, guests have to notify their food preference - vegetarian or non-vegetarian. The menu is kept a secret. It could be Mughlai one day and Chinese the next. That adds to the part of the thrill.
Having reconfirmed their choice, I proceed to place the napkins and explain how the table is laid out. This is important as the guests can't see a thing, and need to know how the food would be served. We use the clock analogy to familiarise guests: if the dining plate is a clock, the cutlery is usually laid out at where the hands show 3 o'clock, the glass of water at 11 o'clock, and the napkin is placed on the plate in the shape of a triangle.
Serving a Surprise
I then start serving the meal to my guests. As it is a four-course affair, I have to ensure that each guest gets to taste and relish each serving. I also have to make sure they are served the right meal - a vegetarian, for instance, cannot be served non-veg fare. As I serve, I try to make small talk, enquiring if they are enjoying their food, at times asking them to guess what it could be.
The answers are invariably interesting. While some people are good at tasting and guessing, some are completely clueless. Guests also occasionally end up relishing some dish or vegetable that they do not particularly like. Some are so taken in by the experience and the food that the darkness does not matter to them after a while. But yes, there are guests who take a little longer so I have to be alert and patient.
Getting Lucky Online
The going is good, but life has not been easy. I come from a middle-class family in Navi Mumbai and my responsibility to earn for the family came early on. After my graduation, I was lucky to have found a job in a medical transcription company. But just as I completed a rigorous six-month training programme acquainting myself with medical jargon, the company decided to shut shop. So there I was, back looking for a job, searching portals and job sites to find an opening.
I applied for this job earlier this year without informing my parents because they wouldn't have liked the idea of me moving out of Mumbai. But today, they are proud of me. I earn enough to take care of myself and send some home. Those interested should be willing to move base to Hyderabad, undergo training and work in shifts.
I have proved that I may be visually challenged but I am not handicapped. I have a job that many would envy and I believe I am luckier than many as I get to meet new people from different walks of life every day. More important, I am no longer an object of sympathy. I am now admired for my skills. This has been my biggest reward.
When I first joined, about five months ago, I wondered if anyone would bother to come back for this experience. But one of my guests recently surprised me by coming back for the seventh time. And I was his guide on five occasions.
KNOW THE MAN:
Guide, Taste of Darkness, Hyderabad, a restaurant chain present in 160 cities globally
Experience: Six months
Plans: To travel around the world and help build an inclusive society
My Daily Memo
Begin my day early to catch up with friends and family on Skype and Facebook
Check out online to know shift timings
At work, I prepare to take on the role of a dining guide or tour guide
What I Love About My Job
Unique experience; meeting new people and relating to them
What I Hate About It
My Best Moment
When a guest showed her admiration for what I do instead of sympathising with me
(As told to Soma Banerjee)