I started going to the beer bars because I was puzzled. I couldn’t figure out why men would want to spend colossal amounts of money there. On a good night a dancer in a Bombay bar can make twice as much as a high-class stripper in a New York bar. The difference is that the dancer in Bombay doesn’t have to sleep with the customers, is forbidden to touch them in the bar, and wears more clothes on her body than the average Bombay secretary does on the broad public street.
Suketu Mehta, Maximum City
It is almost 1am when Iain and I walk into a Bombay bar and awkwardly scan the room for a seat. All we see are benches arranged against the wall, facing in; there is one free, with a small table. In an empty space in the middle of the room, bow-tied waiters weave between three posing women. All eyes are on the women; we sit down and two of them move towards the back of the room, where a band is playing. The music is rhythmic and sensuous: a tabla drum – titter tap, titter tap with an echoing pop – and a singer’s long, low voice.
A woman is standing opposite me, in a blue silk sari. She is one of the dancing girls, but at the moment she isn’t dancing. I feel self conscious, sure that people are wondering why we’re here. There are only fifteen or so customers, and we are so conspicuous it’s awful. I try not to look at the ‘dancing’ woman, as though I have seen women like her in bars like this before. I want her to dance, to continue her performance. I feel we have interrupted the evening’s rhythm – created too much of a start by walking into this place. We are not just the only non-Indians, I am the only woman – at least the only woman who isn’t a performer. There’s a moment of relief: a waiter brings a menu, and I order two glasses of “liquor and soft drink”.
Although she isn’t dancing, or even moving, everyone’s eyes are glued to the woman in the sari, and I realise that the performance never stopped. A man hands a waiter a pile of money; he releases it above the woman’s head. She is standing completely upright, hands lowered in front of her, clasping a bundle of notes almost the width of a brick. I am still trying not to stare. But as I raise my head, she catches my eye; she is looking right at me. The drinks arrive and I look up again; she is still looking in my direction. I tug at my neckline, checking that it hasn’t slipped down too low. Her own neckline – of the choli underneath her sari – is ever so slightly lower than is usual, but it only hints at cleavage, showing off little more than a bony chest. Her sari is tied low on her hips, revealing more bare back than is common. But it is still a sari, still traditional – even conservative. She can’t be called a dancer because she isn’t dancing, and she’s even further from a stripper; she’s not a talking girl or a hostess either. She is ordinary looking; she could be anyone’s wife. She might be pretty, but her expression is sullen and her posture rigid. Is she staring us all down, reminding us of her power?
The men around me are exercising their own kind of power, flinging wads of crisp ten rupee notes at her. As they catch the wind of the fan, they descend haphazardly around her. Two of them float towards me and land on my lap; I brush them off, onto the floor. A thin young man in a grubby brown uniform – a peon – scrambles around on his hands and knees, scooping up the notes. He gives them to a man in a suit, who puts the money into a neat bundle and then places it in the stern woman’s hands. Her head is held high and I see her fingers clasping the money tightly – or is she digging her nails into it?
The other two women are still offstage. One is beautiful; she’s wearing a halter neck in sparkly Indian fabric with a full length skirt; the other has a fresh young face and shiny hair. She is dressed in a salwar kameez – an outfit most often worn by younger, unmarried women. It emphasises her youth, which she cannot hide when she smiles. Neither of the two comes forward to perform.
A new song begins. The singer walks out, past the sullen performer, and a man gives him two ten rupee notes – a tip, I suppose. The young guy next to me holds out about twenty ten rupee notes – for the woman. She comes forward – she is only three feet away from us – and takes it, but he holds it tighter in his hands for a minute, pretending he has changed his mind, or reminding her, perhaps, who really has the power. She remains expressionless, gives the money a tug, and adds it to her growing pile.
“Closing in five minutes,” the waiter says, but just to us. I am relieved. We glug our drinks: Old Monk rum with Thums Up, a fragrant, spicy cola, a distillation of India’s mysterious street smells. The young guy beside me asks where we’re from, in good English. It is just small talk; he wastes no time in getting to the point: “This is not a good place,” he tells us.
“Oh, we have places like this in South Africa,” I lie, trying to seem unfazed.
“This place is wrong,” he persists.
I tell Iain what he is saying, to be polite, and thank him for his concern. Almost every day, I am told that aspects of life in India – of a life that has become my own – are not “suitable” for me. From the non-AC train carriages, to the cheap hotels, to the local eateries – they are all too cheap, too local, perhaps, for my foreign currency and foreign face. This is what makes me smile, and ignore the young man. But the uncomfortable feeling that the place gives me – and his persistence – make me listen carefully to what he says next. “You are not safe here. Do you understand? You are not safe. When you leave here, don’t go anywhere else – don’t go out to another place. Go back to your hotel and stay there. Stay there for a while, then go out somewhere else. But don’t go anywhere directly from here. Do you understand?”
I say yes, and we leave, hurrying along the road – right in the middle, away from the dark corners – as everything I have read in Maximum City, Suketu Mehta’s book about Bombay’s underbelly, races through my head: the whores and abused women, the gangsters and murderers, the extortionists, the torturers, the drug addicts and the hitmen. There is a vast underworld beneath this city, which is more alive than I care to think about. I go back to my nice hotel, to my AC room, and try to sleep.
Suketu Mehta had experiences of livelier Bombay bars than the Neelam, which we came across; bars where the women dance and sing, and the men do too – from their seats. He described the curious scenes that he saw, and tried to work out what makes these men pick up a handful of notes, and throw.
The customers literally blow money away on the dancers: paise udana, send money into flight. They will walk up to the dance floor and stand with a stack of notes over the head of the favoured dancer. The notes, in an expert hand, traverse the distance between customer and dancer on air and fluff out, forming a halo or fan around the girl, enveloping her in the supreme grace of currency, its wealth adding immeasurable to the radiance of her face, exalting her in this most commercial of cities, till the floor is littered with rupee notes and the male attendants scurry around to collect them and deposit them into the dancer’s account.
The more timid admirers will give their money to a waiter, who will shuffle it over the dancer like a deck of cards downward form the palm, a more precisely targeted stream of paper, easier to collect and allot to the particular girl. Other customers like to play games. A dancer named Kajal plays the lottery with one of her customers. He sits at the bar with ten slips of paper, on each of which is written an amount of money. She dances and then picks one of the slips, and the customer gives her that amount; it could be anywhere from a few thousand up to 100,000 rupees. Another man is at a table, singing dreamily along with the songs. There is a pile of tens in front of him, which he holds up in the air two at a time, singing all the while and not even looking at the girls, who dance over, pick them up quickly, and dart away, like goldfish nibbling in quick jerks at pieces of bread you throw into a pool.
“Why are they doing this? What do these men get in return?” I ask Mustafa.
“Five minutes’ attention. Even a garage mechanic can come here and get attention from these girls.” This is one place where the classes meet, where the only thing important is the colour of your money. Because it’s not just the mechanics and the taporis; it’s also the rich traders and merchants of South Bombay, who are surrounded by men during the day and by their fat wives in the evening. This might be the only place in their lives when they can look directly at beautiful young girls, young enough to be their daughters. The moment the customer walks in, he’s the star in his own custom-made Hindi movie song. No matter how old or ugly or fat he is, for the two hours he’s in the bar he’s a movie star, he’s Shahrukh Khan. The customer inhabits the song being sung; he will sing along to the music, throwing back his head, moving his arms, singing to his girl, who has assumed the female role in the duet. Moving her body in the dance motions of the original video, she is lip-synching along with the song. It is an easy deception; the movie songs are all playback anyway. So the customer, in the midst of a hundred other men just like him, can sustain an illusion of individuality.
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