The small town girl with big dreams – By Shruti Johri

Ms. Priya Paul
March 20, 2018
India: Evolving Faces Of The Modern Indian Woman
March 23, 2018

The small town girl with big dreams – By Shruti Johri

The incredible ordinary small town girl

‘Things are scarce. Opportunities are few. If you don’t work hard, you won’t survive!’

I would hear this often from my parents and teachers who worried about my careless ways.

These were the years 1977-1995 in Bhopal, an industrial township of hundreds of engineers, doctors, artisans, accountants, workers, from all parts of the country. The children were self-motivated achievers excelling in academics, sports and performing arts and accomplishing the lofty expectations of their middle class parents.

I was a different child.

Despite taking up Math and Sciences at the behest of my parents to target engineering entrance exams, I held more allegiance to my first love for Language and Literature. Needless to say, I could barely sail through my engineering exams. Tired of academic pressures at the tender age of seventeen, I wished to escape into a completely unknown world of work and skills. I urged my parents to allow me to appear in other (read modest) college entrance exams.

As the great Rumi says – ‘What you seek is seeking you!’

December 1997, first round of campus interviews at Institute of Hotel Management, Lucknow

And sure enough, my eyes fell on the National Council of Hotel Management and Catering Technology (NCHMCT) entrance exams facilitating admissions into hotel management diploma courses. I was selected for IHM Lucknow, much to the displeasure of my parents who were unaware of the utility of such skill-based trainings and that too offering a mere Diploma or a Certificate. It was hard to convince an erudite Bengali family. I assured them that I would pursue the customary Degree through distance education and I did keep my word later on.

I boarded the train for Lucknow. Like a homesick adolescent girl fighting back her tears while waving goodbye to the parents whom she had failed so miserably.

The incredible ordinary hotel housekeeper

‘So what do you do at the hotel? Cook or clean?’

This was the feedback I got every time on sharing the news of joining The Oberoi Centre of Learning and Development after completing the hotel management course. No one in my immediate family or friends had the faintest idea that the institution was one of the finest places to begin a career in Hospitality. Schoolmates from my hometown still doubted if ‘Housekeeping’ was a serious profession. They were concerned for my safety. They truly sympathized with me for not being able to make it in engineering, medicine, banking, strategy consulting or law.

And then, there was magic!

Well. Not really. I wish this were a fairy tale.

June 1999, the customary OCLD HKET batch photograph

I started sharing experiences of my work with everyone back home through letters, STD phone calls and extensive talks during the vacation visits. I shared with them how the industry inspired me to handle emotions better; how I prepared budgets and duty rosters, wrote standard operating procedures, designed training calendars, placed orders on emails, and operated the intranet and internet while creating presentations. The world of hotels was new for everyone and they would gobble up those behind-the-scene stories related to VIP guests, floor renovations and staff appraisals. They also witnessed my transfers and promotions. I would share my professional highs and lows with them over the phone.

Just when life was moving on the best track, I lost my mother in a tragic road accident. Consequently, my father needed constant care and attention. All this coincided with the time when I was about to have my first baby.

I also came face to face with the challenges that new (often lactating) mothers confronted during night shifts, double duties and a fixed maternity leave quota.

After the long deliberation, I quit hotels.

What stayed with me, however, was the spirit of a hotelier who felt deeply indebted to her hotel background. Hotels had been a rich source of learning opportunities, fantastic experiences and even my life partner.

I craved to express my gratitude for the industry in whichever little ways I possibly could.

The incredible ordinary hotelier-turned-author

And so I decided to write…

To highlight the daily trials of modest hotel workers in India.

To lay bare the struggles of white-collared, blue-collared and non-collared staff, in order to break the stereotypes about hotel professionals.

To reach out to the famous travel writers and presenters who could feature the lives of hotel professionals ardently working to create and keep a world of glamour, even in the contrasting reality of our country.

To help certain parts of the society come out of a feudal mindset and show respect towards service-oriented work, such as hospitality.

To separate ‘services’ from ‘servitude’.

To shatter the outrageous sense of entitlement in a few domestic travellers who seemed to believe that they owned the hotel staff as bonded labourers for the period of their stay.

To alter the deep set bias against Hospitality and uphold it as a respectful career choice among the parents and youth, especially in Tier II and Tier III cities in India.

I toiled away at the writing desk and completed the book manuscript, then titled as ‘The Corridor Chronicles’.

But it was tough to sell the story of a humble hotel housekeeper to the literary agents and commissioning editors. It was an entirely new book concept. After facing a series of rejections for more than a year, the work was finally picked up by one of the leading book publishers in India.

But, I shall always remain grateful for the constructive feedback that few editors provided despite rejecting the manuscript. It helped in shaping up the book tremendously.

March 2018, book-reading of Her Master Key at a café

Her Master Key: A Hotel Housekeeper’s Stories from Inn-dia (Rupa Publications)

Today, the book stands tall on the bookshelves in the august company of written accounts of well-regarded journalists, ex-armymen, entrepreneurs, politicians, scientists, travellers, media professionals and social workers.

The Rupa and Aleph bookshelf of recent releases, 2017-18

The industry has welcomed the book with open arms with comments from Chef Ranveer Brar and Mr. Rattan Keswani (Deputy Managing Director Lemon Tree Hotels and Former President Trident Hotels at Oberoi Hotels & Resorts) among countless messages pouring in from hoteliers, both known and unknown to me.

The book has also begun to garner the well-deserved public attention for the humble hotel staff working behind-the-scenes through wide media and digital coverage on Hindustan Times HT City, The Telegraph, IANS, Yahoo! Lifestyle, Business Standard, Manorama Online, The Statesman, EeYuva – ETV digital portal, DC Books (Kairali and Mango Imprints) and blogposts of top travel and book bloggers.

All reviews speak one voice. They shall never be able to ignore the hotel workers. Not without a little display of gratitude for the hard work that goes into making their stay comfortable.

My story is incredible ordinary but I firmly believe that the story of every hotelier is INCREDIBLE!


Shruti Johri
Author @ Rupa
Instructional Designer
Researcher, Columnist & Blogger
#TOI WriteIndia Top-10 Winner

Dr. Laxmi Todiwan
Dr. Laxmi Todiwan
Founder Indian Women in Hospitality. She is a Professor, Corporate Trainer, Motivational Speaker and a Blogger. A multiple award winning hospitality professional with a career spanning over two decades; people engagement, training and development are close to her heart. She writes for hospitality journals, online platforms and columns in the local newspapers. Married to a Master Mariner she loves to write on the maritime industry as well as the lives and relationships of the fraternity. She expresses her thoughts on her blog and website,

Leave a Reply