Jan 27, 1999
There is a lesson in the politics at ladies’ bars — it’s more about money than sex.
When, a few months ago in Mumbai, I met a friend I hadn’t seen in many years, and he suggested that we go out for the evening, I agreed readily. I soon discovered that his idea of an evening out was to park in what is called a ‘ladies’ bar’. I had heard of these watering holes with dancing girls, which have recently proliferated all over Mumbai, but had never thought of visiting any.
Anyway, there I was, unsuspectingly following my friend up a staircase and through a door into the ear-splitting din of the latest Hindi hits playing at a decibel unimagined by the human ear. On a ramp running through the centre of the room danced about 25 young women — many quite good-looking — though the ramp had space for only about 12. Men sat on chairs lined along the walls, guzzling rum when they remembered to close their drooling mouths.
My friend (who on the way had collected two colleagues) was clearly a valued customer; we were led, with smiles, to an inner room, with lots of dancing space and many sofas. The waiters, well-built, hirsute Marathas, welcomed us with double-handed handshakes, and retired to the corners, expressionlessly watching our every move.
The rum was pure varnish — and very expensive — but they charged even more for the soft drinks. The girls came in and began dancing. Some were clearly the favourites of the three men. Also the other way round; they shook their legs more vigorously than the others. After I had decided that the liquor was truly undrinkable, and I could not leave till my companions wanted to (and they looked in no hurry), I sat back to watch the people around me. It was all more about money than sex.
The first thing my companions did after settling down was to change their hundred rupee notes into tens. Every few minutes they would hand over a few notes to the girls, who would tuck them into their waistbands and keep dancing. My companions were generous men; in half an hour, they had given away at least Rs 500. A few of the girls boldly extended their hands for the money, others waited for it to come to them. But there was a third category who made the maximum moolah out of my friends. They asked for the money, in a laughing yet aggressive way, sometimes pulling at the notes clutched in a fist. It was a jokey confrontation between equals, neither party having any respect for the other. It was a straightforward transaction: slut and wastrel.
All the girls, of course, wanted to be Hindi film stars. The walls were covered with mirrors, and every once in a while, they would stop trying to keep their lascivious grins in place and dance to their reflections. Their expressions would turn serious as they watched their own movements, checking against their memories of how Juhi Chawla or Kajol moved in the films to these songs. Once satisfied that their chests were heaving properly, their minds would return to the present festivities, winking at the audience, biding time till they hit the big money in Bollywood.
Over three hours, we went through a ritual which, I supposed, was enacted at least twice a week between my friend and the girls. After about an hour, the preliminaries over, enough rum down the hatch, the men moved on: dance with the girls. The girls started calling the men over, but they had to wait before any shed his inhibitions enough. Finally, one got up, and began dancing with great energy with a girl. Halfway through the song, the second was emboldened, but he danced alone, eyes shut, mouthing the words of the song, a sideshow. My friend lounged on the sofa, smiling indulgently. The girls came to him, pulling him up. He resisted, smilingly, for an exactly calculated amount of time. When his friends were tiring, and what seemed like the last song was halfway through, he relented. He danced with the girl who seemed to be his favourite, and just as the song was ending, showered a fistful of notes on to her head. The waiters scurried around, picking up the notes around their dancing feet, and handed them to her.
My friend had acted the way a leader was supposed to: getting in last, dancing little, and giving away his money in a grand gesture. Throughout, he had watched indulgently, while the other two had been blowing kisses at the girls, calling them over to whisper into their ears. This was a man among men. All three worked in the same company, and he was the seniormost. The one dancing alone, moving his lips, was the most junior.
The third man — the first dancer — now discovered he had run out of money to give away. Unfazed, he asked one girl — his favourite — for the wad of notes stuck in her waistband. With the money he had already given away, he gave it all away again to her. Clearly, the act of giving money away — the girl coming to him again and again to snatch the money from his fist — held, by itself, some fascination. I don’t know if he also thought of the possibility that some of the money he had taken from this girl, he could give now to some other. Of course, he did not do so, and the girl knew from experience that he would not.
By this time, the juniormost executive, though very happy, was beginning to also look very ill. It was time to leave. I gave the girl who had danced the most tirelessly for these three hours a hundred bucks. We left. It was midnight. The girls would dance for another three hours.