Friday, 31 October 2008

A night out in Mumbai, local-style

India 6: Mumbai "Beer Bars" and Extreme Culture Shock

As you may have already gathered, after a week in Ahmedabad we still hadn't been able to do the work we set out to do, so we were told to fly to Mumbai and do some installations there. Mumbai is a different world from Ahmedabad - a global metropolis - but that's for another post. This post is about a strange experience we had on the Friday night after we arrived. My Indian colleague Lakshmi and his friend Puru took us out "on the town" in Mumbai to show us how Indian guys enjoy themselves. The first stop was a place called "L.P. Restaurant Bar" in Andheri.

However when we got upstairs we found something that wasn't quite what we expected. We were ushered into a small room about the size of a pub function room. On a raised stage in the corner, an Indian band played and sang something that sounded like a blend of karaoke, Bhangra beats and europop. Disco lights flashed around the room. We were shown to our seats on upholstered benches which lined the walls of the room. In front of us was an oval glass table with ornate gold-painted metal carvings for legs, of Adonis and Aphrodite like figures. At various locations around the room stood about ten waiters dressed in beige Noel-Coward lounge suits. Every single one of them had a bushy black Saddam Hussein moustache. It looked like they were as much bouncers as waiters. In the centre of the room stood two or three beautiful Indian women dressed in delicate silk sarees with gold embroidery. The clothes were clearly chosen to make them look beautiful, and they were made up to match. Further back from the centre of the room, and less in the limelight stood less well dressed Indian women or equally well dressed but less attractive women. It was these women that served us two beers as well as some complimentary some cucumber pieces and peanuts. Indian men sit at tables around the outside of the room drinking beer or Red Bulls (the non-alcoholics' preferred choice). One customer smoked away on a cigarette, underneath a big "NO SMOKING" sign on the wall. The waiter brought him an ashtray.

Steve and I were completely baffled. We weren't quite sure where we were. It had the seedy feel of a strip club but at the same time nothing inappropriate was happening and but for the women it could easily have been pub karaoke night. The women just stood there. Not dancing, not even swaying to the music. Occasionally a man would flash some notes at one of the girls, she would wander over, take the notes and put them in a big metal box by the band. Every now and then one of the girls would be relieved, and another girl would come and stand in her place.

The more we sat, the more bemused we were. We felt a sense of anticipation. Surely one of the women would do something. But no, that was it. Our Indian colleagues seemed to be enjoying themselves though.

Eventually we left, wondering if we dreamt the whole thing. This was the most surreal experience I have encountered in recent memory.

Apparently this is what is known as a "beer bar" as opposed to a "dance bar". The women used to dance (still fully clothed) while the men mentally undressed them.
A law was recently passed to outlaw women dancing in bars for men's entertainment. So now the dance bar seen has apparently gone undergound. And the bars that want to stay legal, hire beautiful women to just stand there. Because that's still legal. So there you have it.. The Mumbai Beer Bar. An evening I will not forget!