The Midnight Bangalore

Officially, the city of Bangalore shuts at 11.30 PM. No restaurants, pubs or other establishments are allowed to be open post this deadline.

Cops patrol the roads, forcing stragglers to move on, restaurants to shut and of course, earning their commission from those who want to stay open a little longer.

The small problem with this, though, is that Bangalore is a 24-city. We are the capital (or used to be) of outsourced markets, so there are tons of call centers and BPOs running around the clock. Which means that at least 40 percent of the population is awake at night. And another 40 percent perhaps wrap up work only by 10 PM and barely have time to unwind.

Given the direction the government is headed in, they do not care much about things like ‘unwinding’.

But in India, like many other countries, there is a little space between what the government orders and what actually happens. If you are one of those who are lucky enough to stay awake and out past the Cindrella hour, you see this city morph into something that was not believable in the early 90s.

Though the city does boast of being one of the most expensive ones in India and states that much of its population earns 6 figures incomes, it sadly forgets the population that caters to keeping up this infrastructure. Every person cannot afford a cup of tea at The Leela or one of its equivalents.

The most prominent fixture of these hours is the chaiwalla. They are available at particular street corners, known to every cab driver in the city and many others. He is generally on a cycle with two bags hanging on each side – each holding a vessel/flash containing tea and coffee. He also carries cigarettes and in certain cases, other substances.

The cops know the necessity of these people. They sip the same chai too after all. But they also take a cut of the profits, the ‘fee’ to allow these guys to serve one of the necessities in the city.

Then there are the food carts, a lot more rarer than the tea cycles but equally important. The one that I was familiar with was just near the flyover on the old Airport Road. I could often smell the fresh omelette or some such dish as we drove past him, finishing a long day of work. Cops often shooed him away but how long could they keep him away. Every person who knows where to look finds these places.

The alternative – you need to know the restaurants that stay open past the deadline. I used to be surprised how the cops never came here… there would be a line of cars and enough people for one to think it was the latest club. But I guess hefty fees keep them away. After all, people do need to eat after a heavy clubbing night.

These restaurants even offer car service… you stop near the restaurant and one of the waiters take your order and money and return a few minutes later with your order, all neatly packed in containers. Finding a spot to eat is your problem (more so, since the cops do not appreciate you lounging around in these times of terror).

Shivajinagar food street – the one place that stays open regardless of the season or the political climate. Perhaps it is driven by sheer need of people but there’s always decent food available here. It isn’t pretty to look at and many might be put off by the dingy surroundings but the food is as good as any restaurant in the city.

Some fuel pumps stay open as do remote medical stores. Try getting an aspirin or a pain killer in the city post 10 PM and you’ll learn to stock up on medicines.

Surprisingly, the city does not have a 24-hour tow service or a service that’ll help people with flat tyres. But if you are lucky and a little bold, any passing cab would help you – if you have the nerve to stick your thumb out.

The government is apparently making all efforts to make the city safe. There are road blocks where you are ruthlessly questioned about your papers and asked “why is a girl like you out so late”. Cops are not aware of women working late in the night, I guess, least not beyond a particular set of women. But these blocks and patrols are so marked that you know where is a safe spot and how often cops come around.

Cops do not make me feel particularly safe, especially after some harassing incidents in recent times. But the concept of ‘we try to make Bangalore safe’ continues to be a joke.

The severe lack of after-hours infrastructure drives the city towards creating its own structure.

Public transport still continues to be a joke. No buses post-11.30 PM. Autorickshaws charge an arm and foot to ferry you, and you learn to pray seated in those three-wheeled death traps.

But the roads remain empty, some traffic lights working and most of them blinking amber. You see white cabs zoom past you, reminding you that there are other awake souls like you. Dogs rule the roads, chasing your car or bike like you invaded their territory. You enjoy the empty roads, the peace and hope you are not stopped by a cop to answer ridiculous questions about ‘your purpose on the road’.

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A Saturday

So there was a plan to watch Alice in Wonderland, made after months and months of waiting and checking movie listings frantically every Friday to see if the movie has been released. And finally, when we had given up hopes, the movie came out here… and yay! there were tickets too.

We chose a theater where there would be caramel popcorn, wide comfortable seats that would burn a hole in our pockets and managed to turn up there in time. well, most of us did. The movie, I believe, is one that should be watched when tripping over some serious juice. That would be completely awesome.

So movie wrapped up, we headed for much needed meat… in a place that was celebrating the world cup by naming some drinks like “corner kick”. Which was what we ordered… because I liked the concept of a corner kick. and that fact that it had tequila. I had a tequila thing going… and ordered tequila chicken too, which turned out to be incredibly spicy and non-tequila like but good. The Corner Kick though wasn’t that effective. For one, it was imbalanced by “pernod” which I’m told is a liqueur. They came in cute martini glasses and in an attempt to make the saunf-like taste better, we squeezed all the lime into it. And then abandoned the drink.

Of course, after the meal, I figured we might as well finish that drink as we were paying for it and all that yummy chicken could balance the effect of one little glass of tequila downed in a go. Followed by a lot of water. And some pepsi.

And it seemed like it did. For a few minutes. So we climbed up to the games arcade… and the explosion of noise and colours hit us, along with the really cool Corner Kick. I can’t remember the last time I was in a games arcade, or played basketball, won tickets, goofily looked at the winners counter to wonder what I could possibly get for the tickets we had. I wish all games there had tickets. And the dancing machine was anything but in Korean! Korean for heaven’s sake! Oh I miss TimeZone!

Having worked off the alcohol sufficiently, we headed to Blossoms – the singular most awesome bookstore – and I used my excuse of having packed away all my books to buy more books.

And then for that rare girls-clubbing-night out. And actual club hopping. Well, sort of. The first party we went to was a little lame. The music was perhaps just hotting up, there were way too many white people dressed in saris. Yep, saris. It was bollywood night – which I generally love – but for the white people, for some reason it meant dressing up in 9 yards of cloth that even we find hard to dance in after years of experience.

The drinks were watered down and way too expensive, as we figured after one hit of rum. Not to mention the incredulous stares the bartender gave us when we asked for Old Monk. Come on! Who doesn’t have Old Monk? Oh yes! Snooty restaurants and bars. So my friends insisted we head to a cheaper place to get hammered – not that it takes us much – and I wistfully looked at some people smoking sandwiches there. And figured yes, we should get hammered outside. Except, loo break.

Why is this relevant? Read on.

So I waited in line… and yes, there was already a line and the party had barely begun. Have you been to a ladies room at a club? It is a mysterious area. Women, who perhaps hate each other outside, are sharing lipstick… brushing their hair, wiping their armpits, redoing the make up and there is also the occasional crying and quick-consulting sessions about do-or-not. Oh the drama! But I’m digressing.

So I waited in line… the first stall door opened and two girls walked out. Yep. Two. I figured I could hold out another couple of minutes and stepped back. The next door opened and well, one girl walked out. Whew. Except… wait… the toilet seat was raised. I don’t know… maybe the girl was just throwing up. Or… had to raise the seat for some other reason.

But I figured that was my exit cue.

And so we hit club 2. Well, pub. Which was curiously empty. And got us the required tequila in like a minute. And also kicked us out ten minutes later because my friends started to dance and well, they had a no-dancing policy. And two hot women dancing could probably be a risky situation with a potential riot.

And then club 3… by which time we were sufficiently buzzed. The music was hot. More friends were there… and so we danced the night away… i realised I had not worn my dancing shoes… and looked a little stupid dancing with my eyes closed but that was the only way I could block out the stupid guy standing around us, pretending to dance with us.

I wish I could say the night ended there. The cab I had called did not turn up – apparently, despite having a booking they can cancel my cab at anytime if they have a shortage. EasyCabs aren’t so easy to get apparently, even if you make a booking 4 hours before. So I slipped away and hailed an auto. I was buzzed but sane enough. And I love the feeling of the cool breeze on my face after hours of dancing.

Except, when I was almost home, some college kids doing stunts ran into my auto. Two of them escaped and the other one wasn’t fast enough. So the driver got out of the auto and started hassling the kid for money for “damages”. I cautiously peered out… there was no particular damage. And my feeble request of “can we please go” was ignored.

Let’s think of the situation rationally – 1 AM. In front of a fuel station, possibly filled with guys. Stopped in the  middle of the road with really harsh lights. In an auto. Wearing shoes I could probably run in but wouldn’t bet my life on it. Luckily wearing black, and a black thick sweater at that. Verdict – Fuck!

So I called my friend and realised there was really no point… by the time anyone would get here, it would be a disaster area. Luckily, the auto guy managed to get some money out of the college kid – who looked like he would cry any minute. I wanted to get out and defend him… you know, he was such a kid and all. But he didn’t look like a nice kid, just a very upset one.

The driver made loud proclamations of how he wouldn’t have let anything happen to me “even over his dead body” when I complained about stopping like that.

Of course, it was only when I was almost home I noticed that the kid was still following us. And only the presence of two cops near my house that made him take the other road, which eventually led back to my house.

I cursed my luck. The one day I decide not to take my car, or take a lift from a friend because I was having too good a time to ruin it by waiting for someone, shit happens. I really wished the government had better public transport during night too. Moral judgement shouldn’t come in the way of such basic things.

But hey! I was home, safe warm and dry.

The Day That Was

I am beginning to believe that I am jinxed. In some little manner.

Saturday was supposed to be finally the much-craved fun-filled day. I debated whether it should be casual, dressy or a slouchy t-shirt day and figured it would be blue jeans, white shirt and white pumps (you will get to know why this is important). So just as I was about to leave home, I got a call from a friend.

I’ve been planning to do a photography course for a while and finally managed to call the guy who runs the course and enrolled. I was to meet him on sunday or monday and pay up for the course. I’d been trying his cell ever since we spoke but it was switched off.

Now the friend calls and asks “What the hell is happening with Hellmuth Conz?” and I was explaining that I’d not been able to get in touch with the guy, so maybe I shouldn’t have told people I’m taking a photography course already. “No no! All these things about him being a German pimp?” she said.

Turns out the guy was buster yesterday for running a prostitution ring somewhere in the city! Of course, there was only one tiny article about it on some website called Express Buzz and I would’ve dismissed completely if his phone had not been off since the day the article said he was arrested. Happy Coincidence? I know not!

He is over 60 years old and has been living in this city for over a decade. He has also been conducting photography classes in various top colleges and is a really great photographer. Would he really need to run a prostitution ring? I do not know. Couldn’t the cops have been ineffective for a few weeks more, if they hadn’t been able to catch him for nearly 10 years? WTF!!!

On the other hand, I’d not yet paid up for the course. I’m sure if that is compensation enough because I was really looking forward to this course. I like his style of photography 😦 And yeah, it is funny in a weird way.

So with that news playing in my mind, and wondering who else had referred to him as “german pimp” a while ago, I headed out to drown my miseries in some bad wine with friends. Considering I would be drinking, I figured I’d take an auto and get a friend to drop me back home or take a cab back.

Except within two minutes of hailing an auto, the guy starts taking a different route. “You are supposed to go left” I said.

“Yes I know. Two minutes. I want to get gas.”

I hate it when they do that. Don’t they have time to ever get fuel in the city, all the while they are fricking lounging around on street corners? They always choose to get fuel when I’m in it and I’m running late. So I left him to go do what he wants and hailed another auto. Of course, for once, I had to walk nearly ten minutes.

Twenty minutes later we are stuck in the middle of a horrible traffic jam near the city. The traffic was less than crawling and the auto guy started blaming me for it.

“We should’ve taken the other route,” he said. I stared at him, wondering who it was who said “this way will be faster and less traffic”.

I figured I would walk – in white, heeled shoes – till a spot where the traffic cleared up a bit and hail another rickshaw from there. So I plugged in my music, wrapped my stole around me as tight as possible and started walking. 7 PM on this road, women walking (in groups or otherwise) is absolutely not advisable. Actually I don’t think women ever walk around in this area… it is filled with car shops – tyres, seats, audio equipment; furniture stores etc… all those places where you get good, cheap deals with warranties (which separates it from the grey market, which is further down the road). But no woman walks there…

Finally, after nearly having been run over by a bus who figured vehicles and people would vanish into thin air if he just revved in a two-inch space, I walked into a road where there was no traffic. But there was nothing else either. This is the seedier section of the road with mechanic shops. A bit of a slum, it is quite dirty, dingy and you see no women here. Well, there are maybe one or two but they are walking, covered in a veil, with their men. There are a few mosques there and most of the businesses there are owned by Muslims.

I never realised till then how unsafe Bangalore has gotten. There were men staring at me as I walked past. There were low whistles, which I ignored. The one good thing about being on a street like that was the autos would pull up to you, ignoring all the men waiting before you. Except, they could also smell my desperation to get out of there, the way a dog scents fear. And none of them spoke kannada, hindi or english. They spoke Tamil. Of all the languages in this state, they spoke tamil. And they wanted outrageous prices to take me 4 kms down the road. One quoted 150 bucks, the next was 80 and the other was double the fare. As desperate as I was, I wasn’t ready to be hosed.

But the frustration made me turn and snarl at two guys who were walking behind me, singing weird songs, whistling and pretending to hail autos as well. Maybe it was fear or sympathy, they hailed an auto for me, who agreed to take me the 4 short kms if i paid him 10 bucks extra. I figured I’d pretty much used up my luck, cursed, swore and got in.

Except, the traffic started up again in the next road. Even my favorite song couldn’t keep the frustration down. So out I went again and walked the next 3 kms in my pretty white shoes. At least this was a better part of town…

My friends were already there. Noon Wines – a slightly shady place which serves only beer and wine. The beer is a little watered down and the wine is cheap and heavily adulterated with rum, the big screen plays only cricket or some sport. There is no audible music, it is too dark to discern what is on your plate exactly and the waiters are fast and bored. Just the kind of place to unwind after a bad day.

Soon we decided to head to a nice club – Ice – one of my favorite party spots in town. Had been a long while since I went there and i was with a new bunch of people and quite eager to show off the place.

Except, when I get there, I was told the guest list entry time had expired. But I could still enter cuz hey! I was a regular but my friends had to pay 2 grand to enter. Half of them were okay with it and the other half a little skeptical. And I was wondering, why on earth were we paying as two couples?

And then I see a number of white guys entering the place without paying shit. Which absolutely pissed me off. We have been having this same discussion on Jacek’s blog – how the white people in India get the VIP treatment simply because they are white.

Now I knew that Ice sometimes did this. Infact, a lot of clubs in Bangalore do this. It is their way of advertisement apparently. The way it works, as a friend explained to me, if they let white people enter and party, more Indians will want to enter that club because they think it is cool, a popular place to be and would want to be seen partying with the white people. So the Indians pay the money and the white people party for free. I am not sure what disgusts me more – the assumption behind the marketing strategy or the fact that it nearly works. Or that we have such a horrible opinion about our own countrymen. Didn’t the period of white dominance end?

So me and a friend were horribly pissed – me, more than anything else and I refused to enter the club. I would not pay to enter a place where I have been nearly every other weekend when I have to pay simply because I was a little late to gain entry on the guest list and because hey! I am an Indian in INDIA!

We wound our way up – after more negotiations with auto guys, a broken auto and a bit of walking later – to F&B, which I realised used to be Madeira till a year ago. The city sure changes fast. The decor hadn’t changed, nor had the huge football screen playing Arsenal match. The last time I was there, it was Chelsea vs someone. There were a few foreigners there as well but I’d managed to get most of my temper back in control… mainly due to the fact that i was with some new people and punching someone out wasn’t an option.

We danced to weird house music, tried to make conversation with a bunch of people who didn’t really get us and were wondering where exactly I fit in. You see, I can swim in different waters… I am a Kannadiga, with a lot of exposure to our culture as well as others. So i speak really good kannada, fairly decent hindi, a bit of telugu and I think mostly in English. I have a slight accent, which was American at one point and now it is sort of nothing at all but still ‘anglicized’ as people like to call it. And the group of people I met were very ‘guys’ and very ‘local’.

Not to generalize, but they would be the sort who are software engineers from traditional families, they travel to the US and Europe for work and get a bit of culture, which they might not understand, like or appreciate but they feel the travel adds a bit of exoticness to them and is a good point for their marriage resume. They would not be able to discuss about Italian history and the craziness of it all but they will definitely tell you about the tour they took and what they thought of the colosseum. They would not do much off the beaten path and their un-adventureness is the most beautiful and the most irritating part about them. Their travels have given them enough confidence to talk to strange people suddenly thrust on them but they like to hang out in their group, in the occasional club where they never venture out of the comfort zone of the whole group of buddies, they get married to beautiful women in accordance to their families and they are steady, dependable men.

I am being a little cruel but more or less, that is how it works. The ‘modern yet traditional India’ which sometimes pisses me off with their hypocrisy.

But these were nice guys, sweet and quite willing to talk… even if not dance, which neither parties wanted anyway. But I was the paradox… the south Indian female who wasn’t traditional, yet not quite out there to just classify me as ‘ultra modern’ – a term used to classify the people whose ideas are a little too progressive, eccentric and beyond their understanding and on the border of gossip.

Oh i’ve no complaints with them. They are the sweetest bunch of people I have met in a long while and quite willing to accept everything. My friends though were a little bemused.

And so we had the end-of-night chai, sitting on the sidewalk when i realised it was the first time in too long to count when I was out on a saturday night with friends without cars, without my own car, the saturday night clubbing ritual where you end up in a buffet restaurant, the slow winding down of the day and such. There were no cabs available and so there was yet another overpriced auto and a headache brewing at the back of my head for the first time ever in the form of a hangover (does it count as a hangover if the headache starts even before you go to bed?)

But it was definitely the most eventful – mostly interesting, and not bad, eventful – day in a long while.

Here’s to March, hot summer days and turning 25.

Song of the day: The Long Walk Home – Bruce Springsteen