Saturday night in Bombay and I hit the streets.
Bombayites (or Mumbaikars depending on your allegiances) huddle around street chaat stalls for curried chickpea stew like Wall Street brokers at the bell. Sari-clad women sit on blankets eyeing out kilos of fruit on rusted iron scales. Barefoot rickshaw drivers fling their black and yellow 3-wheelers into negative space with indifferent aggression.
Rules are suggested; driving etiquette individually sanctioned. Bubbling streams of rickshaws, and scooters and me with a stupid smile on my face all weaving along a chaos that somehow manages to get somewhere. It’s the wild East. It’s color, and flavor, and completely unnecessary horn blaring, and totally charming head bobbing, and the more than occasional lounging cow.
All of this happening in front of stylish high-end bistros and rundown second-hand book vendors. Alongside juice stands squeezing sugarcane stalks through medieval torture devices, while shoe-shined businessmen kick through garbage on the way home from work.
There is no separation of past and present, clean and dirty, hectic and whatever else you thought you were gonna get here.
I start by wandering through Tardeo and Worli, two centrally located residential neighborhoods. As usual my stomach leads the way.
Like a Looney Tunes character, the twin smells of fried and spicy drag me by the nose till I’m standing in front of a roadside stall labeled Manchurian. That’s all the information available so through the sizzling mist of the well-worn wok I just stare at the glaring red chunks and mentally drool a bit.
I’m the only non-Indian for miles. Tourists don’t come to this part of town. Eventually some teenage boys come over to say hi, beaming at me like they want my autograph. They show off their English and quickly win me over.
Next a sweet munchkin-like young lady intervenes. I’m now drawing a crowd. She chirps in a delightfully intonated Indian accent that these are gobi, fried cauliflower balls in a spicy Asian-styled sauce (Indians seem to love their versions of Chinese food, it’s on the menu at many local joints). Onions, peppers and cabbage are tossed in the wok with more hot stuff, and then the already cooked gobi clusters are sashayed back in and it’s all delivered in a little bowl with a toothpick as a fork.
I stand there picking at the deliciously bastardized Chinese dish, the mad Indian street pageant still flowing all around me. And I’m charged 10 rupees (about $0.15 cents), the local’s price.
I always hesitate when I hear such forthright value, expecting to receive the obligatory western screw-over. But in one of those travel revelations that both delivers hope and confirms that things suck — it’s always and only those with the least, with more reason and perhaps even the right to squeeze you based on your origin, that do not do it.
Mouth still exploding with Manchurian I high-five my young fans, nod an extended thank you to the honest chef, and stroll on.
“How the hell did you find this place?” Viraj asks over Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. I’m sitting at the Ghetto Pub’s bar eating popcorn and sipping a Kingfisher beer, pretending to scribble in my journal.
Graffiti on every inch of wall, neon colors and white-lights illuminating murals of Che Guevara and Bob Marley. Backpacker hostel cliché? Definitely. But the middle-aged Indian men in cute bowties roaming around like cranky cocktail waitresses to the sounds of Hootie and the Blowfish does add a certain something.
It seems that I was the new type of explorer, skilled at weeding through the incestuous travel-review jungle. “Best of” listicles and meticulously curated memories now light our way, tourists coalescing around spots well-reviewed by other tourists, all of us looking for something local but not toooo local, over and over until we all Yelp one another to that one Indian Hard Rock Cafe.
But the Ghetto was different. One of Bombay’s rare cool dive-bars, a middle ground between the high-end pretentious and humble dreariness that marks the range of drinking options available in many alcohol-averse cultures.
Viraaj was impressed that I’d found this hidden gem and had the bhajis to just come and hang out. He ordered me another Bragadrum.
A Bragadrum was Viraaj Braganza’s personal creation: 2 parts Old Monk (India’s famous dark rum) and 1 part lemon barley mix (interesting Indian beverage) and it was officially on the menu at the Ghetto and some other local spots. Viraaj was the kind of guy comfortable doing front row death-metal or corporate Mumbai. A Ghetto regular, he was proudly there on the bar’s opening night some 20-odd years ago and became my point man for the evening.
And the night spun on.
A few more ice-cold Bragandrums later and I’m being kissed on the head by a bubbly older gentleman who is not shy about telling me how much he loves me. We’re then joined by Karan, another Bombay rock’n’roll/button-down hybrid, and when the gang decides to make their next Saturday night move I’m invited to come along.
Outside the Ghetto young Indian girls smoke Total cigarettes and plan their approach to the doorman. A shift change is happening. Older regulars pass them in mild disapproval as the younger crowd comes in to party on their years of hard (drinking) work.
While the guys hail down a rickshaw I slide over to a cigarette stand where a man is seated on a stool doing something undeniably exotic. Bright green leaves the color of rainforest lay spread out like a hand of poker, while little dishes of flavor sit wet and waiting. “You don’t know paan?” Viraaj asks after seeing my tipsy wonder. Excited by my virginity he asks if I want spicy or sweet and then orders me a bunch.
Paan is an ancient pallet-cleansing treat. Betel leaves (pretty things that stimulate like caffeine and tobacco) are folded like dumpling origami around chopped areca nut, sticky lime chuna and red katha paste, cardamom and coconut, with options to upgrade to tobacco stuffing and other madness. I took in the epicurean moment like a good tourist, booze-jolly and camera in hand.
Chewing my treats like a baseball slugger the three of us jump into an auto (slang for auto-rickshaw, successor to the pedal-powered originals) and head towards Bandra, Bombay’s cool hipster neighborhood.
Our driver is pretty chill and doesn’t mind when a joint that I fake-toke is passed around. His ride is upholstered with pink flowered wallpaper. We cross over dark ocean waterways with the city’s smoggy skyline glowing the night sky, and for a moment I think of Miami. Wind blows through the non-existent windows of our motorized tricycle, and I’m instructed to stick my head out the side as we cross the bridge that brings us to the northern suburbs from the center of town.
Silver steel suspension wires synapse above my eyes like nightclub strobe lights, rhythmic thud of the bridge’s road dividers bumping a bass-line beneath me, my new friends laughing in the back seat as I let my head hang un-anchored for a moment, and smile.
At Bonobo, on bustling Linking Road in the heart of Bandra, the DJ was playing some legit old-school hiphop. Real stuff, the kind that compels you to the dance floor. That’s where I met Varshá.
There was something in her big smile and floppy short hair, but also in the way she danced: an oscillating, prancing step forward; a fun, perhaps teasing jump back. Yelling over a Notorious B.I.G. remix I risked foreign fetisization and asked if she danced, like formally. She laughed and dismissed it, but then said that she’d studied bharatanatyam, a traditional south Indian dance, for years as a kid.
I was probably projecting, letting the rush of a new land superimpose the exotic where it perhaps didn’t belong. We were after all in a modern spot full of cosmopolitan Indians, so maybe I should just quit the colonial fantasies and let her dance.
But it was there. Her way, despite the western rap beats, was tinged with something singular. Where she was mixing lovely with where she came from.
In this cool rooftop club full of upper-class urbanites, with bearded local hipsters serving Old Fashions, in a city leading a country into the developed world by waves of millions — every step into the modern seemed to mean leaving something old, something Indian, behind.
Oh-so-serious head nods replacing engaged head bobs, Hollywood instead of Bollywood, Starbucks on every corner. All the world over.
Was it my job as a visitor to see these things? To sometimes see it for them? To note that their part of our tapestry, jumbled and chaotic and frustrating, one that understandably pressed you away from the old and towards something new — was still a unique beauty worth preserving. Worth seeing hidden in a dance.
We exchanged numbers and saw each other when I came back through Bombay.
Eventually I exited and made my way home, the cab dropping me a few blocks from my place. From what seemed like the shadows of a dark alley, a teenage boy stepped into the light and offered me a beer. A shop was doing some illicit afterhours selling and the convenience of a beer magically appearing in my hand from a kind smiling face was impossible to resist.
I walked home through the empty streets of Bombay, sipping my beer.
The next day I made my way to Janata Bar & Restaurant, a spot recommended to me by some locals for cheap drinks and decent food. I ordered a large Kingfisher and some masala chicken. Older men sat with the weekend paper and little bottles of whiskey. Younger Bombayites day-drank beers and joked about last night.
Looking up I see that the waiter serving me is the same kid from last night. Ends up I was at the same place and hadn’t realized it. The boy came back to fill my glass and recognized me. Short on English and absent of Hindi, we just bobbed tired smiles to each other and shook hands.