Posts Tagged ‘bar’

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 The vibrant, dirty, humid air of Mumbai had been replaced by a contradictory sterile interior accented by a few Indian-style paintings and pieces of furniture.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 found myself out dancing last night. Head bopping to Shakira, I looked around the setting. What city were we in? We could have been anywhere. A DJ was at front while the Germany-Uruguay game played behind him. Neon green lights darted across the room, hitting a sleek white bar in the back packed with late night revelers.

I was dancing with new friends, friends of Daniel’s, friends of friends from home, and some people I hadn’t even been properly introduced to yet. It was expat night at the Blue Frog and while we were surrounded by a sea of Indians (dressed very differently on the inside than perhaps many would on the outside) but a little enclave of outsiders had formed in the middle. Here I was, someone who normally hated clubs (even if I love dancing – the two don’t usually get to go together due to the massive crowds in New York clubs) and I was having a great time.  It was my first real night out and I’d been able to wade through it with a little help from the community I now belong to.

While I live in Mumbai and I’m trying to experience it to the fullest, I can’t deny that I live in a second world as well – I’m an expat. The expat community of Mumbai lives in the same city as the native Mumbaikers and the millions of Indians who come from all over the country. Yet they have their own way of flowing through the city while still creating their own space in a crowded metropolis.

Expats are like a venn diagram. Every circle interacts with the Indian circle in its own way – on the street, through their jobs or volunteer work, through slowly learned Hindi – but there’s always going to be a portion of an expat circle that stands alone. And so, they all stick together – giving each other advice, living in the same few locations, and crowding certain bars and restaurants. They establish outposts in the city.

Living in Scotland for four years in college never felt like this – I was part of the University community, I belonged. And I was proud that I tried my hardest to make friends primarily with British people (and not corner myself off into an American clique). That felt important to me then – what was the point of going abroad if you only wanted to hang out with people from home?

In a non-University context and in a culture clearly much more different than that of our neighbors across the pond, I think it’s okay to admit that the situation here is different. Here I’m more of a fish out of water – and while it’s admirable to hope that I can immerse myself into Mumbai and it’s people, it would be naive to think I didn’t need the comfort of the built-in community in front of me.  You can make friends on both sides of the aisle here – but as an expat it would be hard to fight the natural inclination to befriend people who a) understand you but b) also are always happy to have and accept new friends, since theirs are always coming and going.  Young expats here are transient. Most come for months or at most years, so being a new person is part of the natural expat life cycle.

Luckily for me, it’s been hilarious realizing that most of the young expats in Bandra are all connected.  A girl I was put in touch with through an Andover connection happened to be living with one of Daniel’s old friends who was in Mumbai. They invited me out last night with a guy who I’d already been put in touch with through another friend from home. And a friend of Daniel’s from work who is also living here is now temporarily living with a girl who turned out be someone Daniel had known in high school. Just when I thought I didn’t know anyone, everyone I COULD know already knows each other.

It really puts the phrase “It’s a small world”, into a funny context.

The friends issue been one of my larger fears moving here – how can I leave my great life with my great friends to go move somewhere where I don’t know a soul? But it’s the expat openness that makes those fears start to recede, even in these early stages where I’m still pretty much on my own (with Daniel of course).

Listening to American pop music in a bar with my own enclave, even for a night, makes it seem like even when the whole world is in front of me, I’ve got pieces of home standing squarely behind me.

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