I’ve just landed in Mumbai India. I’ve flown from Sydney, via Singapore and I’m sure the wheels of our plane must have scuttled the improvised tin roofs of the giant slum that surrounds Mumbai airport on landing. Children stare at the low flying planes with awe and will pause their cricket match and wave at you as you taxi off the runway – that’s how close their tiny concrete and tin homes are to the tarmac – such a clichéd yet authentic welcome to India.
I’ve checked in to the ITC Grand Maratha Hotel. It is one of the best hotels I’ve stayed in across the globe. It’s a large ornate building in colonial style architecture that stands so over exuberant as if deliberately juxtaposed in between the surrounding slums and chaos of uncompleted roads, construction, street vendors and local markets. I’m in Andheri which is north of Mumbai’s centre. It’s not really a tourist area, but that’s slowly changing with the presence of more hotels.
I’m sitting in the lobby waiting to meet a colleague who’s arriving on a separate flight from Manila where he’s been for a business trip. I sit waiting but don’t recognise him. There’s something about the combination of South East Asian countries and some middle-age men that causes them to suddenly re-live their youth. In a desperate attempt to shed some years off, my colleague has put a coloured rinse in his hair and looks like a punched-in-the-face version of Michael Caine as a redhead.
Once I realise it’s him I approach and of course make a comment on his hair which he dismisses as “needed to hide the greys”. It’s his first time to India and I tell him that to experience the real India, we have to leave the serene air-conditioned hotel lobby with its wooden carvings, paintings of colonial India and piano-man softly playing a typical piano bar tune that just seems such an incongruently selected soundtrack for our surroundings.
We walk out of the hotel and the wall of humid, spicy, damp heat hits us like a sudden wall. It’s loud, exotic and colourful. We hit the streets as ‘auto-rickshaws‘ (Indian taxis – like Tuk Tuks in Thailand, called ‘riks’ or ‘auto-riks’) swarm like hungry and desperate bees around the hotels, shouting out the only English they know.
“Hello, Sir, Sir, sightseeing? Shopping?” The rickshaws break so suddenly when they see two tourists walking the street they almost topple over at our feet. They are persistent and they follow us at walking pace – “where you going?” The concept of just ‘walking’ is completely foreign in India and explaining that you’re “going for a walk” will get you a confused and perplexed expression and this is with reason.
There really isn’t a side-walk to speak of and as we walk we navigate fallen live wires, open sewers and holes in pavement large enough to swallow us both. We have only walked 100 metres and already we are in a completely different world to the piano player and the serene lobby that attempts to mask the poverty and chaos that lie at its grand entrance-way.
The “auto rik” drivers are relentless and keep shouting “hello… sightseeing?” so we just begin to completely ignore them. That is until one of them swerves towards us, screeches to a stop and stares at me. He grabs a dirty cloth wrapped around the throttle of his rik and wipes his sweaty brow as if to see better and says “Mr Ben?” My colleague looks at me with an “are you serious?” expression. Here we are – tourists in one of the most populated cities in the world and I’ve found someone who knows me. This driver does indeed know me and took me to the Vile Parle markets on my last visit. They never forget a face in India.
We laugh and chat for a while until he says the same thing to us “Shopping… Sightseeing?” but then he says something completely different, completely left field and completely foreign in a country such as India… “Lady Bar”?
My colleague and I stop and look at each other… Lady bar? India is an incredibly conservative country. It is the complete opposite of countries like Thailand with their girly-bars and sexual liberation. This offer is simply too bizarre to refuse. My colleague is also a somewhat subject matter expert on bars so we have to answer the question… What on earth is a lady bar in Mumbai? This very blog started from avoiding the tourist traps and seeking unusual adventures, so in the true sense of taking the Road Less Travelled; we agree and awkwardly crouch in to his tiny auto rickshaw.
We hold on to the metal side bars with sweaty palms as Salim – our driver – navigates us through the chaos of Mumbai peak hour. He aggressively forces the rik into gaps in the traffic that seem too small even for a pedestrian let alone his rik but he manages to get to the front of the traffic at every stop light. He looks at us in his rear-view mirror and shouts as he tries to have a conversation over the noise of the riks buzzing and rattling combined with the synchronised honking and revving of the Mumbai traffic.
We reach an area that seems less crowded and I start to worry what we’ve done and where we’re going. I’ve watched ‘Banged Up Abroad’ and other horror documentaries on the National Geographic Channel and I imagine myself telling this story to an interviewer with a camera 12 months later once we’re finally released from an Indian prison.
The rik stops and Salim cuts the engine. “OK, we go” he says and points towards a doorway with a bouncer. We walk behind Salim and the bouncer smiles happily at us and opens the door. We are immediately hit with the loud tune of an Indian dance number. Like something from a Bollywood movie with a beautiful female voice singing. We climb the stairs and enter an area with a stage. There is a band playing and 4 women. One singing and three dancing. They are beautiful and dance (fully clothed) in ornate saris. As they dance, the audience throws money at them. I don’t mean this figuratively – I mean literally, and I don’t even mean ‘throw’ so much – they literally make the notes rain down on the dancers. There is a technique where they will hold a large wad of fifty rupee notes in one hand and with the two fingers of the other hand they flick each note in the air in a staccato fashion causing them to rain like confetti on the dancers. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.
I look at my colleague and we exchange expressions of awe. This is such a bizarre intense experience. We sit watching hundreds of notes waft through the air catching the stage lights before reaching the floor and being trodden on by the dancers bare feet decked out in golden toe rings and ankle bracelets as the Indian music vibrates through our bones. We are offered beers and my friend has a cigarette with Salim. Salim sits next to me – a little too close for comfort, but you get used to that in India – he keeps slapping my leg and smiling “good huh?” I buy Salim a beer and we watch the performance. Before long I’m asked to also throw money at the dancers. I pull out some 50 rupee notes and attempt to flick them with grace and beauty to shower the dancers. Instead my hand is too sweaty and sticky and the whole stack of notes flies out of my hands and straight in to the face of one of the dancers.
I turn bright red, but she just smiles. The bouncer then approaches me and I begin to worry we may get ejected for throwing a stack of rupees at the dancer’s head, but he smiles, takes the money and shows me the technique “you do like this…” he says as he flicks, one note at a time causing it to waft through the air. I try again with not a lot more success so I give up and offer the money to the bouncer to throw.
When a song finishes, the money sweeper comes out – again I mean this literally – a smartly dressed small Indian man in a vest and black bow-tie comes out with a giant broom and quickly sweeps up all the fallen Rupee notes before the next song. It all seems too comical to be true. We start to relax and a new song starts. Salim starts to dance in his seat next to me which makes the bodily contact between us even more awkward. Then something very abrupt happens.
The music stops, as if someone pulled out the power cord. The ladies and the band run off the stage. The lights come on. Our beers and cigarettes are then taken away by the staff who exit with haste in to a back room. What the hell was going on. I look at Salim and he just nods and says “it’s OK… Inspection”. I then see two police walking up the stairs and now I’m really thinking banged up abroad – and I’ve just thrown my only bribe money in to a dancers face only to have it swiftly swept up by the bow-tie man… What will we do!?! The police go to a side room. The wall is glass so we can see them speaking to the bouncers. They produce what looks like a notebook, and the bouncer puts money in it. They have a brief conversation and the police leave.
Thankfully the police exit back down the stairs and before the door even slams closed behind them, the dancers come back out, the music starts again, the lights go down, and our beer and cigarettes are placed back on our table exactly where we left them as if nothing had ever happened. It was like ‘Moes Bar’ in the Simpsons when Springfield was under prohibition and Moe, the bar owner, pulls a secret leaver which spins the bar around and turns it instantly in to a pet shop when the police arrive. I stare at my colleague who can’t hear me over the loud Bollywood music so we just exchange glances and laugh awkwardly.
We have another beer before asking Salim to take us home. We stumble out the club laughing at what just happened. We question Salim about the police and the momentary ‘shut-down’ and he just wobbles his head and says “no issues… All the time like this…” My colleague crawls in to the back seat of the rik and Salim looks at me… “Want to drive?”
I have to say that this is maybe my tenth time to India and I’ve always wanted to have a go at driving an auto-rick. I have a Vespa at home and an auto-rik is just a Vespa with a box around it with a back seat. So I climb on to the front bench with Salim who instructs me. We lurch in to motion, I laugh as Salim shouts “slow, slow slow”… I’m driving at not even close to the speed Salim is, but he is cautious, which is good. I beep the horn just like they do in India, and try to follow the traffic for a few miles. My friend leans out and films me driving before we finally pull over and Salim takes back the controls and speeds us back to the hotel where we retire for the night… Exhausted.
Again, this is one of the stories I tell from India that some people don’t believe, or feel that I’ve embellished somehow. Yet the thing you realise is – any story from India doesn’t sound real to someone who hasn’t been – It’s a country so intense, so exaggerated and a such a land of contradictions that I don’t think even I will ever understand it. India doesn’t make sense, don’t try to make sense of it. Embrace it, don’t fight it and go with the thrum of the Indian way of life. Every time I go back I learn something more, and add another experience that enriches and enlightens my understanding of Incredible India.
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