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Posts Tagged ‘dancing’

So a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim stood around talking about Hindus…

That sounds like the start of a joke, but it was just a regular day in our household. On this occasion, Nisha and our driver (who are Muslim and Christian, respectively) were trying to explain to me why I should not participate in Ganesh Visarjan, the end of the Ganpati celebrations where millions of people crowd Mumbai’s beaches to immerse their statues of the god Ganesh into the water.

The Ganpati crowd at Juhu beach

“You will not want to go there ma’am,” our driver said, “It will be all crowds and drunk people.”
Nisha concurred, “People there are crazy, you don’t know what can happen.”

I didn’t want to mention to Nisha that this was what the driver had said to me about going to Muhammad Ali Rd during her holiday of Ramzan.

I spoke to my friend D (who is a Jain Indian raised in America but has a lot of family in Bombay) — she said everyone was telling her not to go as well. “They all think unless we have a rooftop to watch from we shouldn’t go – it’ll be too crazy and dirty.”

This is the funny thing about Bombay – everyone lives in harmony until you start talking about people of a different caste or religion. Then suddenly everyone of the opposing caste or religion is a drunk dirty lout.

I, however, was not going to miss Ganesh Visarjan. It’s one of the most exciting days in Mumbai and I wanted to see it for myself. Six million people take 200,000 statues of the god Ganesh to Mumbai’s various beaches and immerse him in the water – setting him on a journey and supposedly taking the misfortunes of his followers away with him. All week I’d seen the Ganesh statues, large and small, with people dancing throughout the streets. And I wanted to watch as the festival came to its glorious end.

Rolling Ganesh towards the sea

So after a bit of planning we decided to go to Juhu beach – it’s not too far from Bandra and its one of the less crowded areas. When I say less crowded this just means there were probably tens of thousands of people crowding the beach instead of potentially hundreds of thousands. There are 27 immersion spots throughout Mumbai, but the ones in South Bombay are the most crowded. We figured it would be best to stay close to home and out of the massive crowds.

A few friends and I went to a bar on the beach and grabbed a table early. The real festivities start at night so by 3pm when we arrived there were just a smattering of people with their idols. But as the sun got lower more and more and more people began to show up with increasingly large Ganesh statues.

The Ganesh that we followed

Imagine looking out and seeing a sea of people going from the end of the beach all the way up to the water. Everyone is excited, many people are singing, and every so often you start to see a large portion of the crowd begin to move like one, with a big Ganesh in the middle as they all head towards the sea. You can watch the people and the Ganesh until it suddenly sinks and cheers go out. But when you look somewhere else the same thing is happening all over again.

D and I decided we wanted to follow a Ganesh from beginning to end. So we spotted a big one, left our table, and went out to join in. The crowd surrounding it was huge. The Ganesh was taller than any man and everyone was surrounding it, singing, and celebrating. They then lifted our Ganesh onto a cart (slowly but surely) and began to wheel it toward the sea with everyone still singing and celebrating. We ran with it, joining in and letting ourselves get caught up in the moment.

Our Ganesh going out to sea

I was so caught up I didn’t realize I’d gone right into the water up to my thigh. I turned around and saw D had not followed me – Mumbai’s beaches are notoriously dirty. Oil and other unpleasantries mix to create a blackened version of the sea. With the many Ganesh statues the water becomes an even more dangerous place (There are many people here who are understandably against Ganpati because of the horrible implications of thousands of plaster and chemically painted statues being left at the sea floor). I stepped back, ignored my dirty legs and watched as our Ganesh was taken out to sea. And then, in and instant, he was gone. He had gone to the bottom of the ocean and everyone was cheering. We’d been allowed to share in this one group’s moment of their Ganpati and we felt it was ours too (To watch a video of ‘our’ Ganesh and his journey, see below).

The crowd growing as night falls on Juhu beach

We went back to the bar, exhilarated and excited. We stayed awhile longer, watching the crowd swell more and more as time went on. We left after it got dark, but for most real celebrants the night was just beginning. As we drove home, one side of the road was closed as thousands of people were in their own processions with their own Ganesh, making their way towards the sea.

I asked our driver how his night was. “I hadn’t seen the Ganesh immersion since I was a boy. I always avoid it now. But you know, it was really fun to see it.” Yes it truly was.

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My motto in Mumbai is to say yes to anything I’m invited to because you just never know what to expect in this city – and it’s almost always a good story.

So in that vein, last night and today I found myself in two scenarios that anyone who knows me would have thought were highly unlikely: at a packed club dancing to a trance techno DJ (I really don’t know the difference between ‘trance’ and ‘techno’, let’s be honest) and at Mumbai’s Fashion Week.

Both were cases of just saying yes: our broker, with whom we’ve kept in touch, mentioned to me that one of her favorite DJs was going to be in town Saturday night. She said it was going to be a really fun night and we should come. So I said yes. Why not? Separately, I was at a drinks event and I met a guy who runs a non-profit that tries to bring the arts into impoverished schools. His organization was partnering with one of the designers at Fashion Week and he had extra tickets – so he invited me to go. Who knew what on earth this event would be? But I said yes.

So last night I found myself in a room full of elegant high-heeled Mumbaikers sipping their overpriced drinks waiting in breathless anticipation for ‘Dash Berlin’, a Dutch DJ who everyone kept reminding me was “rated as the 14th best DJ in the world.” I kept wondering what a DJ would have to do to make it to 13.

When he came out the crowd went absolutely wild. And this guy was working for it- he jumped around, smiled widely while waving his hands in the air, played ‘air drums’, and intermittently held up an iPad with scrolling words saying things such as “Hello Mumbai” or “Make Some Noise”. One time he just held it up with hearts going by. Each time the crowd roared. (See video below – it’s not something I shot, but it gives you the idea!)


I didn’t know whether to enjoy it or laugh at it. My boring old self had the instant reaction of: why is everyone in this room staring at a guy fiddling with a Mac and some turntables? He’s not playing anything. The guy must be on some kind of drug to have that much energy and some members of the crowd were also channeling the same energy source that allowed them to dance with complete abandon.

Models strutting their stuff at Lakme Fashion Week

I had a similar reaction to the Fashion Week show. Was it really fun? Or taking itself too seriously for my taste?

We walked in and it was certainly larger than I had expected. Mumbai Fashion Week (also known as Lakme Fashion Week) had been advertised around town but I didn’t know how big it was. When we walked in it certainly looked like a fashion show (or at least the photos of fashion shows I had seen). It looked professional and I was standing in line to get in behind Fern Mallis, the head of New York Fashion Week, so I supposed this must have some credibility.

But it was just so funny to me – everyone scrambling and haggling to get the best seat they could (a very Indian spin on the concept of a Fashion Week). A hundred photographers stood at the end waiting. But when the lights went down and the music came on, models strutted out it was certainly a bit thrilling – who doesn’t enjoying getting a glimpse of the fashionable life that seems to exist outside of my world? It looked like a New York fashion show but with slightly less impressive models and some very fancy saris mixed into the more traditional fashion. And there I sat, in my Old Navy skinny jeans and H&M top thinking I was an imposter.

In both the club and the fashion show I had the reaction of: this is fun, but is it me?

But that’s a stupid question here – the whole point of coming to Mumbai was to test those boundaries. It’s to walk through the streets of Dharavi one day and then watch an absurd fashion show the next. It’s to breathe in all the wonders and incongruities Mumbai has to offer.

So at the fashion show I just took it all in. And at the club I just let myself dance. I cheered for Dash Berlin, I closed my eyes and let the strobe lighting and bass music carry me for just a little bit. I’m ok with getting swept up in Mumbai. I’m going to keep saying yes.

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Of all the many things I love about Indians, one thing I particularly adore is their love of celebration. There are so many holidays, so many festivals, so many excuses to dance and party and sing. And with numerous religions and cultures and languages smashed into a city like Mumbai, we certainly see all of them in full swing.

We are now in full force of one of my new favorite festivals- Ganesha Cahturthi, or known more commonly as Ganpati (Don’t know how it’s spelled, but that’s what everyone calls it!).

It’s an 11 day Hindu festival to celebrate the birthday of the Elephant God Ganesh, who is the god of wisdom and prosperity.  It’s sort of reminiscent for me of Christmas in some ways – it’s a birthday celebration where people put up lights EVERYWHERE and everyone is constantly singing. Like Christmas you could not escape the joy of Ganpati – people are swept up in the spirit everywhere.

And that spirit has come out every night since Ganpati started last weekend – people come out into the streets, sing, play instruments, and push statues of Ganesh around on a cart. This will all culminate next Wednesday (the 11th and final day) when people will push their Ganesh statues into the sea for reasons on which I am still unclear. I am determined to find out though, and certainly I will blog about it.

But just to give you a sense: Below is a compilation of celebrations on my 15 minute drive home tonight. There was not a moment where you couldn’t see a crowd gathered around their community’s Ganesh statue. You couldn’t help but be happy. You couldn’t help but want to join in and thank Ganesh for bringing everyone a bit of joy and laughter.

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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 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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