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Everyone is always telling me that India is full of contradictions – the modern city of Mumbai can quickly morph into the old hierarchical maddening Bombay.  Nothing displays the contradictions in a more quirky way then the city’s nightlife.   From the outfits to the hierarchy to the cost to the location, it’s a completely different side to the city altogether.

The first thing that struck me was that many of Mumbai’s ‘trendiest’ bars are situated in hotels (I have to put trendy in quotations because it seems like nothing stays trendy for long – places that open here one month can be declared ‘over’ by the next. But of course, how would I ever know?).  Last night, for example, we found ourselves driving into a suburban Hyatt, near the domestic airport. It was corporate on the outside and seemingly the last place you’d find young people gathering to spend their evening.

Our car drove up and was stopped. As is standard at every hotel here, the trunk was opened and mirrors on long poles were placed under the car in order to confirm that we were safe to enter.  A petite woman in a security guard uniform with a bindi on her forehead searched through my purse as I made my way through a metal detector.  Even in our suburban enclaves there’s no escaping the realities that Mumbai has faced in recent years.

We walked into an empty bright lobby. We could have been in any generic Western-styled hotel in any part of the world. The vibrant, dirty, humid air of Mumbai had been replaced by a contradictory sterile interior accented by a few Indian-style paintings and pieces of furniture.

We went downstairs to find a line of thirty people trying to get into the bar.  There was no method to the madness, just various people in all kinds of outfits trying to jostle their way to the front of the pack. We moved to the side but soon found ourselves the center of attention for the bouncers, who were eager to let us pay and come in.

I looked back at the sea of faces that didn’t seem fazed or bothered.  No one but me had apparently noticed (or at least reacted to) the white people who were allowed in first.

This particular bar is called China House, and I’d heard quite varying descriptions before we showed up:

“Oh, that place is really fun if you want to dance.” (White expats who are new to the city)

“It’s a cool bar if you want to go out in Bandra and not have to drive all the way to South Bombay” (Indians who grew up in the US but now live in Bandra)

“I hear that a lot of hookers go there since it’s expensive to get into” (South Bombay Indians who dislike anything in the north)

Yes, these are the multitude of testimonies you’ll hear about almost any bar in Bombay – places come and go so quickly that it’s impossible to ever know what to expect. But since I’m not usually a late night person anyway, my expectations are low. As such, I’ve just been open to trying everything new.

And this certainly was new – not only am I clearly not used to being ushered into bars based on the whiteness of my face, but its also always jarring to experience the difference between “inside and ‘outside” – the difference in what people wear.

It’s bizarre to watch  — While you certainly see a variety of clothing on the street (from saris to kurtas to jeans and t-shirts), there’s nothing like what you’ll see INSIDE a bar. Women come into clubs initially covered up  (a scarf will be strategically wrapped around clothes when outside), but once they come in it’s a free for all.  Designer dresses, mini-skirts and tight-fitting clothing surround you – you could quickly forget you’re in Bombay and wonder whether you had somehow wound up in Miami.  And the men fit the bill as well – guys with gelled back hair wear Armani exchange tops underneath blazers while sipping on their overpriced martinis and glasses of scotch.

I stood and watched throughout the night. The crowd and danced cheered when the DJ played Justin Bieber or Usher while others tried to have conversations over the music. But when we finally left we were spit back out into Mumbai. The rain poured down, all the drivers ran red lights, and a Bollywood tune overtook the pop music still running in my head.

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I stepped off the plane from Kuala Lumpur and took in the heat and the distinct smell of Bombay. It was time to really sink my teeth into the city. I walked briskly towards immigration with my Residential Permit in hand… and like a car in the back of a traffic jam I halted abruptly.

A young Indian man — also barreling his way towards immigration — had run into an elderly man going towards a flight. The crash sound was perceptible and both men fell back, staring at each other, shocked. I waited for the scolding that the younger man seemed to richly deserve. But instead the elderly man helped his fallen foe up by grasping his elbow and patting him on the back, almost hugging. It was a gesture that said “It’s ok. We all make mistakes.” And then, just like that, they parted.

It’s those small moments that make me feel at home in India so instantly again. There’s a brotherhood and mutual understanding among kinsmen. Mumbaikers number in millions and yet for moments they seem like a small community. I walked into customs and proudly held out my residential permit. Where do I live? Here. I am a resident of Mumbai.

Phoebe in the new, empty, apartment

But by the next morning that little fantasy had been dealt a swift blow.

“We’re just going to leave the apartment unlocked and the workers can come in to finish painting. It’s not like we have anything here yet.”

We were leaving our broker and our landlord’s broker to head to lunch. We’d taken ownership of our apartment and the wheels were in motion. There was painting to be completed and odds and ends to be fixed, but in a few hours some workers would come over and finish.

“You can’t leave the apartment unlocked,” our broker said, matter of factly. “The workers can easily steal your stuff.”

Daniel and I blinked at her, still confused. Nothing had been moved in. “All that’s here is the refrigerator.” Daniel replied.

“Right. They’ll steal that.”
“In broad daylight? A fridge?”
“If you leave anything unlocked – your car, your apartment – big things and small things will be taken. The people downstairs wouldn’t care. Don’t leave anything out.”

Our landlord’s broker nodded enthusiastically. The locksmiths working on changing the locks on our door just carried on without a word. What happened to my trusting, forgiving society?

As I stood bewildered, Daniel silently handed over the box to our new lock that the locksmiths were installing. As if the universe was trying to wipe the smug enjoyment off my face from my stolen moment the previous evening, I looked at the box. Among the ‘Features’ listed (such as Patented Lockable Knob and 3 Heavy Duty Bolts) there was this:

Enables Locking of servants and thieves within your house, it said.

I tried to stifle a laugh. Really? Lock your SERVANTS and THIEVES in. Together? What will they be doing there, I wonder. Locked together the thieves and servants of India are plotting to take over our fridge? Once again, there goes my simplistic romantic view. India is, of course, so much more complex than a few days spent here in its shadows.

I went to lunch and was treated to another piece of home and my past. Catherine Tousignant, my Andover English teacher, was visiting Mumbai on what I wanted to call an “Andover Mission”. They’re working on teaching a more global perspective and as such she and a few teachers are here meeting with students and local teachers to try and find pathways of collaboration. It truly made me a little jealous of current students.

But the day was still dedicated to work. When I returned from lunch there were errands to be had. We have an apartment to fill, after all. The servants and thieves need items to be locked in with.

All the curtains waiting to be purchased

So we started with curtains. Haggling and curtain draping, more haggling and fabrics. Daniel discussed and bargained while I tried to not get in the way. I tried to furtively look the salespeople in the eye – are our prices fair? Or are we always just going to have to accept the foreign price.

“For furnishings, make sure to go to the fixed price stores. There aren’t a lot of them, but you’ll need it,” our broker had said nonchalantly. I find it hard to wrap my head around the fact that we’re going to have to keep proving over and over again that just because we’re foreign doesn’t mean we want to get ripped off.

The heat of day and the errands of the day had wiped us out. We came back to the guesthouse (where we’re still staying until we get furniture) to sit down before dinner. I started looking at emails. I looked at the date.

“Oh my goodness, Daniel”, I said after a minute.

“What?”

“It’s our 6 year anniversary today.” We both laughed. We’d talked about it a few days ago in Kuala Lumpur. But somehow the day had just gotten away from us. There’s so much Mumbai absorption that the days and weeks just ran together and took us over. Our old life is hard to keep track of here. And furniture and curtains await.  Oh well. Tomorrow maybe we can keep our heads on straight.

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