The road to mature adulthood is booby-trapped with a lot of questions. Almost 24 now, I’ve managed to sidestep most of the dangerous question-traps, such as ‘What am I doing with my life? What is my purpose?’ etc., but there are some that have found their mark. For example, I wonder if I will ever find that One True Love, who will stand by my side forever, leaving only to go fetch me more beer.
However, there are some questions I’m glad to have found answers to, such as ‘Will I be able to finish the large pizza by myself?’, ‘What happens if I move my finger a little to the left?’, and of course, the most pertinent and pressing question of them all, ‘What does the inside of a dance bar look like?’
Yes, that’s right. The deed is done. After years, yes, years, of being constrained by lack of money, will and testicular fortitude, I, Ashish Shakya, straight A student in school, erstwhile Hope and Pride Of The Family, have finally been to a dance bar. While doing so, I looked thirty seven different kinds of stupid, but that’s something I’ll discuss a little later.
Now I understand if this dance-bar revelation makes you think of me as some sleazeball who can’t have a normal relationship with women because he keeps flicking money at their faces. However, that’s definitely not the case, for I have many female friends and as far as I can remember, I haven’t paid them a dime. Moreover, I respect women to the point of having made a supreme, gut-wrenching sacrifice for some of them – I’ve gone shoe-shopping. The defence rests, Your Honour.
Another major sacrifice one can make for a woman is to travel to Andheri to meet her. The way I see it, in relationships where the girlfriend stays at Andheri, a trip there is insurance against future misdemeanours, imaginary or otherwise. In other words, suppose you travel to Andheri once to see your girlfriend, and then cheat on her with, say, a transvestite midget, she cannot be mad at you. This isn’t a formal law yet but I’m told the Supreme Court will work on it once it is done pardoning terrorists.
So yes, dance bars. For years, I’ve been fascinated by the subculture, and I don’t see how anyone can not be. After all, these are getaways from the real world, where the only thing louder than the music are the colours – pinks, yellows, neon – that shimmer and shine, as if to defy the darkness outside. These are palaces, no less, where money buys you queens, and where mere contact with the upholstery can give you herpes.
My imagination was fueled further by Suketu Mehta’s account of Monalisa, a famous bar dancer, in his book ‘Maximum City’. I imagined striding into those shady portals armed with journalistic resolve, just like Mehta had done, and effortlessly picking out a muse named after a fat Italian of indeterminate gender.
Unfortunately, things did not quite go that way.
Let’s start from the beginning. My first attempt at entering a dance bar was about three months ago. A cocktail of extreme boredom and curiosity finally overpowered the wimp within, and my friends and I decided to hit the bar. We reached the area soon enough, directed on the phone by a friend who had made the pilgrimage once before. It’s not like we’d be lost without directions though – the bar sits on a busy main road, bang opposite a famous supermarket (thus adding new meaning to the phrase ‘bang opposite a famous supermarket’.)
This was it.
Money, balls and body hair – we had what it took to get inside. Nothing was going to stop us now.
We could see nervous laughter on each other’s faces. We walked.
We could see ourselves entering the forbidden world of molls and gangsters. We walked.
We could see…some girls leaving in rickshaws?? We walked, now a bit confused.
“Arre sahib…bar band ho gaya hai. Time ho gaya na 9.30…” said a watchman, hurrying up to us. What do you mean the bar’s shut, we ask him. No women inside?
“Nahin sir, ladies service nahin milega. Gents service chalu hai,” he replied helpfully. (You won’t get ladies service. Gents service is available though.)
‘Gents service’. The phrase naturally conjured up images of men in shiny sarees, dancing to ‘Saat Samundar Paar’ with hair peeping out from where cleavage should be. I still get nightmares about it.
But what he meant was that the Cinderellas had left the building, thanks to evil stepbitch R.R Patil’s 9:30 p.m deadline, and now it was just like a regular bar inside.
Of course, we had no idea that the rule was being enforced so strictly all over. The evening wasn’t a total loss though, for the watchman turned out to be quite the orator. Seeing that we were newbies, he let flow earthy wisdom gleaned from 19 years of experience as a dance-bar watchman. The essence of the Wise Watchman’s lengthy discourse is as follows:
1. Bar dancers are not dancers, not anymore than Bruce Willis is a ballerina. They are all whores. They will do it with anyone, including you. Yes, you.
2. The bar we were standing outside was a ‘decent bar’. Scum like “rickshawalle aur bhajiwaale” did not come there. They went to another bar in Vashi, owned by the same ‘decent bar’ owner.
3. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT, attempt to pick up any women in and around the bar premises, including a short path leading up to the entrance. Giving them a lift in your car parked 5 metres away is ok though, because this is a ‘decent bar’.
4. If you misbehave inside the bar, the bouncers will rip you a new hole, stuff it with masala papad and charge you 250 bucks for it. Which brings us to the next point…
5. Dance bars are expensive. 250 bucks for beer, 100 for water, 170 for a soft drink. “Aur yeh toh kuch nahin hai sahab…log lakh lakh uda ke jaate hain. Yeh aisi jagah hai sahab, jahaan aadmi sirf deta hai…leke kuch nahin jaata,” added the Wise Watchman, following it up with an Alok Nath-type sigh.
(This is nothing. People blow up hundreds of thousands of rupees in here. This is a place where a man only gives, and takes back nothing.)
He further implored us to not get addicted to the shindig, seeing as how we looked like “young students from decent families”. And yet, in the very next breath, he asked us to drop by in the evening sometime, “just to see what it’s like”. We told him we’d be there. Heck, if a guy outside the bar could be so entertaining, the bar itself was a seedy film begging to be watched.
Which brings us to December.
Boredom caught up with us again, and this time we knew where we had to go. I headed over to my friend Anant’s house to pick him up. As I was waiting downstairs, all pumped up and ready to enter the Bootysphere, I saw something that absolutely skewered all hopes of a great evening.
It was Anant. Wearing shorts.
Now I don’t have a problem with guys wearing shorts, even if they boast of a body hair cover that little children occasionally get lost in. But Anant is the guy who was once stopped from entering a theatre showing ‘The Mummy’, because he didn’t look old enough to watch the A-rated comic adventure. And now, on our first trip to a place populated by tough, swarthy men – the kind who had probably knifed a few people and then used the same knife to scratch their balls – my friend had decided to turn up looking like a schoolboy. We told him that if he was turned away, he would be on his own. Just this once, we would have to break the (quite literal) ‘Bros before hos’ rule.
However, we made it past the watchman without a hitch. Off the main path, through an entrance on the right, up a flight of stairs and there it was – the door. Standing there, I realised what Columbus must have felt when, after months of scurvy and sailor sweat, he finally came upon the first Hooters. The doorman smiled at us, shook our hands and swung open the door.
Have you ever had one of those dreams where you’re naked in a ridiculously inappropriate place, like a wedding, and can feel a thousand eyes upon you, not just because you’re naked but also because you happen to be the groom? That’s what it felt like when I walked in and saw about 20 bar girls staring at me while mentally undressing my wallet. Not used to being objectified by ladies of the night, I turned towards my friends who, judging from their line-of-sight, had developed a sudden interest in the floor tile pattern.
At this instant, for some strange reason, the strains of Dostana’s ‘Maa da ladla bigad gaya‘ started playing in my head. Of course, it was drowned out by the eardrum-raping music that filled the bar in an attempt to either titillate the men or impact the earth’s rotation, I’m not sure which. This complete initial assault on our senses took about two seconds, after which we were shown to our table by about six hundred staff members, each of whom smiled and insisted on shaking hands. It was time to get down to business, and we would have done so if only we knew how.
Now at this point I should mention that the term ‘dance bar’ is a misnomer. The government has banned the women from dancing, so these places really should be called ‘Stand-around-and-occasionally-pout-at-the-customer Bar’, because that’s what they do in there. Not that I have anything against pouts – in fact, I would do terrible things just to have Scarlet Johansson pout in my general direction. But instead, I found myself being eyed by a hefty middle-aged woman and it made my penis want to curl up and die.
Thankfully there were prettier specimens around, and we did what young, virile men do when given the opportunity to order women like items off a menu. That’s right – we looked down at our glasses, then back at each other’s faces, then back and forth, glasses to face, face to glasses, clueless and embarrassed, like Tibetan monks at a bondage convention.
Meanwhile, the other customers continued with their routine, immune to novice afflictions like embarrassment. We watched as the man seated behind us got about a hundred rupees exchanged for a stack of tenners. He then passed a couple of notes to a waiter, pointed out a dancer and hey presto – she started a striptease on his table! Ok no, not really. What happened was, she came up to the guy, spoke to him for about 20 seconds and swished away back to her spot at the centre of the room, maybe to practice her pouting. There was NO touching involved, and the man seemed quite pleased with himself for having made a 20-second conversation with (gasp!) a woman.
By now, the traitors that I call friends had decided that they were quite content with staring at their beer, and were blushing a deep shade of red that probably matched their frilly panties. It was up to me to restore the manhood of the table. I had to take the next step. So naturally, I went to the loo.
With the pee break over, I had exhausted all possible means of procrastination. So I approached a bouncer, and yelled over the din into his ear, “Yahaan kya system hai?” (What’s the system here?)
He looked at me as if I’d just asked how his third nipple was doing.
“Dance bar system hai (It’s a dance bar system),” he replied, slowly. Maybe the in-house music had killed all his brain cells.
I hollered again, asking him about the rates and what was and was not allowed.
Big Moose was more helpful this time. “Paisa tumhaare upar hai, kitna bhi dene ka. Ladki ko direct paisa nahin dene ka. Waiter ko dene ka. Ladki aayegi, baat karegi, baithegi nahin tumhaare saath, khaali baat karegi,” he said.
(Pay whatever you want. Do not pay the girl directly. The waiter will pass on the money. The girl will only talk to you, she will not sit next to you.)
I walked back to the table, confident in the knowledge that come what may, I would end up leaving the bar looking like a douchebag. As the Grammy-nominated track, ‘Teri kurti saxy lagti hai/ Kurti saxy‘ blared in the background, I explained to everyone the novel concept of paying a woman to talk to you. We agreed that it was a dumb and loser-like thing to do, and then forked out two hundred bucks to be exchanged for tenners.
After a few minutes of shyly casting glances at women who, technically, were supposed to be blatantly ogled at, Anant picked out one of the slightly better ones. We passed on about 20 bucks to a waiter and pointed to her. “The white one”, we said, as if she were a shade in a paint catalogue. The waiter gave her the money and she turned her heavily-lined eyes towards us.
“Call her here,” hissed my friends.
“What the fuck are we gonna say to her?” I hissed back.
“We’re not going to talk. You talk. You wanted to do this. Now call her.”
All this while, the girl was staring at us from across the room, giving us the same look prom queens give nerds in teen movies. I looked in her direction, beckoning her with the classic raised-eyebrows-and-head-tilt gesture. At least I *think* I beckoned her. What she saw was a guy shyly raising his head, like a newlywed Indian bride from the 50s, doing something weird with his eyebrows and turning away again, all in a matter of milliseconds. Thankfully, she got the hint and started walking towards the table.
This was it – my first conversation with a being that until now had been almost mythical. As she leaned over, her tresses lingering over her face, now dangerously close to mine, the journalist within woke up (And no, that is not a sexual metaphor). I had to say something deep and engaging, something that would make her stay a while and eventually lead to insights about women living on the dark fringes of society. I took a deep breath, letting her perfume fill my senses, and said, “What is your name?”
Yes, I’m quite the Don Juan.
Her response to the tepid question was better. She put a hand to her ear and shrieked, “Kya??” (WHAT??)
My use of English had sent my friends into a tizzy. Ignoring them, I repeated the question in Hindi, “Aap ka naam kya hai?”. “Sanjana,” came the dour reply. She was clearly uninterested and wanted to go back to normal customers who did not scare her with words like ‘aap’.
I tried again.
“Aap kab se yahaan pe kaam kar rahi ho?” (How long have you been working here?)
“Ek saal“, she mumbled. (One year.)
After a moment’s silence, she turned and walked back. By now, my friends had multiple hernias from holding in their laughter. I had paid to be snubbed by a bar dancer. It felt strange, almost dirty, and stupid. There was only one thing left to say, so I said it.
“Let’s call another one!”
In my defence, I understood the game better now, so I wanted to play it again. My friends were perfectly fine with the idea, as long as I did all the talking (Have I used the word ‘traitors’ already?)
The next dancer was much prettier. She was petite, with full, maroon lips, straightened hair and a glittering sari that promised to fall off any second, if it weren’t for the shiny clip on her shoulder. When I first saw her, she was flirting with a man who looked like he was a member of the 1980s Bollywood Junior Artistes Association. I wondered if he was a regular high-roller who would stab me with a fork for looking at his girl. The ten rupees he was handing over though put the high-roller notion to rest.
I went through the whole routine again – call the waiter, point out girl, hand over money, tip the waiter extra for handing over money, signal for the girl to come over using the ‘shy-indian-bride-head-tilt-raised-eyebrow’ method, and try to think of something clever to say.
This one had a little trouble comprehending the signal. She couldn’t figure out if I was calling her over or practising Kathakali. A few twitchy eyebrows later, she mouthed the words ‘Aaoon kya’? (Should I come over?). I nodded meekly. So much for second attempts.
Determined to not look like a fool again, I opened my mouth, only to say ‘Aap ka naam kya hai‘? (What is your name?)
“Shama”, she replied. Yeah right. And my name is Studmeister Steelcock.
“So…Shama”, I ventured, “aap ke paas yahaan khade hone ke alawa aur koi bhi talents hain?“
(So Shama, do you have any other talents besides standing around?)
“Nahin,” she giggled shyly, her Maharashtrian accent coming to the fore, “mere ko aur kuch nahin aata.”
(No, I don’t know anything else.)
Her giggles were well-timed, rehearsed like part of a Bollywood script. She walked back, throwing us the occasional glance, as if to say that her milkshake did bring all the boys to the yard, but it wasn’t her fault that the boys were cheap virgins. It was a great act; one that brought out the ‘Shama’ in a girl whose real name was probably Savitri Bajirao Thorwade. It was the same with Sullen Sanjana, and every other woman in the bar. And yet, despite the pretences, the appeal of such places is obvious. It gives many men, brought up within the confines of a regressive social structure, a taste of lust, power and yes, even love, that evades them in the real world. Or simply put, dance bars help ugly people get laid.
I wish I could tell you more – about the prize dancer with a heart of gold, about her fat stockbroker client whose wife smells of onions and about the leper pimp who has the singing voice of an angel. But there was no time to explore all that. We’d had enough of being rejected by bar dancers and were itching to get back to the real world, where we could be rejected by regular women. We called for the bill and as we hurried out, I could feel the women still staring at us, quietly laughing at our problem of ‘premature evacuation.’