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Dark Side

Mumbai's night watchmen

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The hockey-stick wielding policeman is only the latest in a long row of 'moralists' who have tried to take the shimmer out of the city's bars and clubs. The city bounces back each time, but things are never quite the same.

Vsant Dhoble has managed to shut Voodoo's. Given that the Assistant Commissioner of Police, Social Service Branch has been raiding some of the most high profile, expensive and wellconnected bars and lounges across Mumbai, the fact that he got a small, rather seedy bar in Colaba closed may not seem so surprising.

Yet this never happened in all the city's past cycles of repression and resurgence of nightlife. Other places came and went, for reasons economic, legal and political, but Voodoo's just kept going. It had been around since the '60s, no one was quite sure when, and it had changed names in that time, from Slipped Disc to Voodoo's, and had acquired its share of legends like the one about Led Zeppelin playing there, and the other about Alyque Padamsee discovering Jesus there - meaning, the singer to play him in his famous production of Jesus Christ Superstar.

More recently Voodoo's had picked up the reputation of being India's only gay bar, though that was really only on Saturday nights, and fairly recently too, after the gay boys and drag queens were kicked out of their earlier hangout of Gokul's, nearby. Voodoo's absorbed them without a fuss and though in recent years many other gay parties have started being held regularly around the city, they were all periodic and peripatetic, depending on which club was willing to host them, but Voodoo's was still there every Saturday night.

The rest of the week it was a general bar with a mix of shippies, backpackers, out of towners, college students nervously looking for thrills, and the various unclassifiable locals to be found in the touristcum-old money ghetto that is Colaba. Voodoo's was sleazy, but it had a certain style that set it apart from other drinking joints. And, of course, there were the girls who, admittedly, were the reason why quite a few of the men were there, but they too had a certain style and seemed to be more self-reliant operators than one would find on the streets outside.

Voodoo's, in fact, was exactly the sort of dive you would find in port cities around the world. Port cities have sailors and travellers with certain needs and habits, and who bring things from the outside world. Some of these things are good, like new foods and music, some are bad, like germs and drugs, but all of which combine to give the port city a shimmering, uncertain status, not quite mainland, not quite foreign, that makes them both alluring and alarming. India has other ports of course, but Bombay was pre-eminent and so too was its reputation.

It was this quality that best-selling American writer Louis Bromfield evoked in his novel Night in Bombay, first published in 1940. This was his second Indian novel, after The Rains Came (1937) which was made into a film that was nominated for six Oscars (and won for Best Special Effects - beating The Wizard of Oz). Bromfield was rather obviously trying for another cinema-worthy novel, since most of the characters are Europeans, and Bombay seems to have been selected as location because it offered both exotic India along with pleasures more familiar to his readers.

Bromfield delivers this melange from the first page as his protagonist, Bill Wainwright, an American businessman, waits to disembark in Bombay and is hit by unmistakeable smell of India "compounded odours of spice and wood smoke, of jasmine and marigold and dust and copra and cow-dung smoke. " But he has been here before so this also evokes memories "of parties, of drinking, of easy seductions, of extraordinary nights beneath a sky of blue velvet in which stars glittered like diamonds, of rides in gharries down from some garden suspended on the side of Malabar Hill, to the Hotel Taj Mahal. "

This glamour doesn't last. The Taj may be where foreigners and Indian princes hang out, but it's also described as "having the air of a vast and dreary county jail". The Westerners drink too much, gamble, fall sick, one commits suicide and a sinister European Baroness turns out to be a 'procuress' who's in Bombay "to buy and ship Indian girls to Alexandria". The police arrive with orders of externment and deportation, and everyone departs, leaving the city behind under the heat of the summer sun.

Bromfield's package of parties, prostitution and police was fictional, but it captured one narrative of the city that was to be repeated at regular intervals after Independence. New elements enter, like Prohibition which Morarji Desai imposed on the city and which lead to both a booming bootleg business and the hypocrisies of the permit system which does nothing to stop drinking, but simply turns every drinker into a licensed alcoholic who needs "foreign and country liquor for the maintenance of my health". The real purpose of the permit remains to give the Excise department a nice source of money that is both official money (the permit fees) and unofficial (the bribes people pay to get one). It also gives the police an easy way to charge anyone at a party where liquor is being served since few people actually have permits (though the current problems are pushing people to get them).

The narrators would also change. The city would continue to be used as a setting by foreign writers in novels like Hugh Atkinson's The Pink and the Brown, HRF Keating's Inspector Ghote detective stories, Clive James's oddly compelling The Silver Castle, John Irving's incoherent A Son of the Circus, and the luridly painted 'non-fiction' work like Bombay After Dark by Allen V Ross, the pen name of Harry Roskolenko who wrote about his liaisons with the city's women.

But the real inheritors of the decadent, dangerous Bombay theme were tabloids like Blitz and Current. Captain FD Colabavalla who wrote for Blitz also wrote Bombay by Night which employed the always useful tactic of purporting to be horrified by the sexual habits of the city, and then describing in detail what he was horrified by. This might be India's commercial capital, he wrote, but "the history of commerce is often written on the bedsprings".

Benedict Costa from the Illustrated Weekly wrote Bombay The Twilight Zone which expanded focus to cover everything from beggar rackets to brothels to the 'Aunty bars' where people evaded prohibition by drinking in the home of the ladies who brewed the moonshine, one of who, he reported, had hung up a garlanded picture of Morarji Desai for making her rich. "Bombay's floodgates of sex, sin and sadism are open all 24 hours, " he wrote.

Occasionally a voice breaks through that suggests the stultifying dullness that was probably as likely a reality. One visiting adman wrote that strict permit rules meant that one couldn't enjoy the city's magnificent sunsets with a relaxing drink because "for anything alcoholic you had to go inside a little box of a bar, and each time you had a drink a man solemnly stamped your permit...It was rather like trying to have a party in a post-office. " Today's nightlife is at least better than that, with even the head of the Excise department admitting that the permit system is absurd, even though he must enforce it.

Even if that were to change, it looks like the periodic bursts of police posturing would continue, given how ACP Dhoble has been digging out increasingly obscure laws to justify his raids - the latest is one that decrees that bars can't be overcrowded, but sets the maximum numbers allowed per square foot so low that almost every bar would have to go out of business or jack up rates till only the really rich could afford it.

These raids are too useful to be given up. They help the police deflect attention from the real problems (like the narcotics that are becoming so commonplace in the city). They generate revenue, both formal and informal (a friend who organises parties tells me that bar owners are now tracking Dhoble's movements, which suggests that someone in his team is getting paid). And they please politicians like Maharashtra's Deputy CM RR Patil, who has never hidden his loathing of the city.

The city's nightlife cycles of resurgence and repression will continue. This time what's new is the almost cartoonishly menacing figure of Dhoble and his hockey-stick. It would be hard to imagine a more sinister figure with his tough, leathery look and his dubious past, which includes a conviction for a custodial death (which, yes, involved a hockey stick). This conviction was overturned by the High Court, and the Supreme Court sustained that decision, but mostly on procedural grounds since the family of the deceased had made several errors in the filing of the case.

Now it's this dubious figure who has been put in charge of policing the city's nightlife, at least until he overreaches himself, which might well be soon. But it will never come back to quite where it was before. The last turn of this cycle saw the end of the dance bars, and while attempts have been made to recreate them, they have never really come back. This time the victim may be Voodoo's, with the managers busted for allowing the girls to operate in there. There is some irony in a bar best known for its gay nights being shut because of girls, but it will be another story to add to the up and down story of Mumbai's nightlife.

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