The smell would appear suddenly every two to three weeks, billowing up the stairway from the basement of Jenny’s office building, each time making her think that something had gone terribly wrong and that evacuation of the office was imminent.
“Stench” is a better word than “smell”, Jenny tells me: these were terrible stenches for which Jenny had no frame of reference within an office environment. It wasn’t stagnant urine from improperly-plumbed urinals, as plagued my Gurgaon office’s stairwell; and it wasn’t rot from a refrigerator opened after weeks of forgotten festering lunches. It saturated all four floors of this nondescript four-story building; it crawled underneath her office door and stabbed at her nose while she worked.
But only Jenny seemed bothered. While she coughed and choked, everyone else went about their business.
One day, fed up from mouth breathing, Jenny made some enquiries. While the top four floors of her building were home to one of India’s best-known advertising agencies, the basement housed a distributor of raw and processed meat products. Among their clients, it was rumored, were many of the Subway franchises that had sprung up all around Delhi.
Which meant that the smell was meat-related. Whether it was meat being cooked, strips of flesh curing in the basement heat, or blood being burned off a killing floor, nobody knew; all anybody knew was that it was meat. Which made it all the more surprising that an office of vegetarian Hindus were so complacent about the awful airborne particles polluting their bodies by way of their nasal passages.
One day, on a day I happened to be with her, Jenny investigated. There was no smell this day, but she marched smartly down the stairs anyway, with me following mutely along. We entered into a small office area with a single desk, a solitary phone, and a man in a button-down shirt bent over some papers. Through a door on the right we saw a large room, a half-dozen workers sorting meat into plastic packages, a few red-stained rags on the ground, and a few cardboard boxes that were open to reveal more meat. One man was wiping at some red liquid pooled on the packages.
No refrigerators were in sight.
Jenny walked up to the man sitting at a desk: the one employee in the establishment not wearing meat-stained clothes. Behind us, the workers had noticed us, and had crowded around the doorway to watch.
“Hi!” Jenny said. “How are you! I work upstairs. I heard you sell meat. Do you sell meat?”
The man, who hadn’t seen her come in, looked up sharply. His mouth dropped open. This was a distribution point, obviously; customers were neither expected nor prepared for.
“I heard you sell meat to Subway,” Jenny continued. “Is that true?”
“Yes,” said the man. “No! I mean, can I help you?”
“Do you sell meat?” she paused. “Uh, I’m having a party.”
Behind us, somebody said something in Hindi, and a few guys laughed.
“Yes, chicken and pork products, ma’am. Salami. Pork chops. Sausages.”
“You sell to Subway?”
“I’m afraid I can’t discuss that.”
“Uh… do you deliver?”
“OK! Thank you! I’ll let you know what we decide.”
“But – ” But Jenny was already leaving. I looked at her walking away, looked at the man staring after her, shrugged, and followed her upstairs into her company’s lobby—the owners of which, incidentally, were the one bribing the local authorities not to notice their four-story, fifty-employee violation of the local zoning laws.