We heard that the dance bars had opened again in Bangalore, so on Friday we decided to go. Under shiny red neon lights spelling out its name, a round security guard with a round face stood guarding a heavy, padded black door, looking expectant. It was only 7 p.m.
"Dance bar," he said to us, cheerfully, standing firmly against the door. Dance bar, we agreed, in English. We want to go in, we told him, in Kannada. "Girls dancing," he offered, still smiling, still against the door. We moved towards him, pushing the door open ourselves. He stood aside willingly enough, smile pasted in place.
We found ourselves in a tiny enclosure, stairs leading off steeply to the left, and a man looking helpless on the right. Ahead of us, another black door. The man waved his arms about a bit ineffectually, and then stood aside as we pushed our way in. The door opened to blasts of thundering music, a starkly empty room, a neglected bar. In the dim lighting we made out a bunch of tall girls dressed in shiny ghaghra cholis hanging out by the bar, all facing the door. We looked at them, they looked at us. The place was empty; the music was deafening. A waiter-type man materialised on my left, looking unsure of what to do now, his notepad and pen hovering in mid-air. Breaking the impasse, I leaned in to him: "The music is very loud". He agreed. "Is there an upstairs?" We could barely hear ourselves shout. He signalled "no" - "as loud". We looked at each other. The girls looked at us. The strobes caught the tiny mirrors on their clothes, making flecks of light dance around the bar in mad circles. We left.
The night seemed still after the music, although it was a Friday and waves of people were spilling out on to the pavements, hovering around juice bars and paan stalls. Feeling we owed him an explanation, we told the security guard outside, "Music was too loud". He heard us - "Music perfect," he said, still smiling.
Two hours later at ten p.m. we went back. All kinds of men were streaming in and out through the doors we had so confidently pushed open. Bald men, tattooed men, men-you -wouldn't-remember-later-that-night, men-in-white-shirts-and-white-pants, men looking uncertain. The security guard was still smiling, but he looked as though he would rather be elsewhere. Maybe at the juice bar next door. We waited for a third friend outside and threw him a question idly: "Is it crowded inside?". He considered it. He agreed. We began to ask some more questions, killing time. His smile began to fade. A man at the juice bar leaned across, cigarette poised in his left hand, plastic juice cup in his right. "Why do you want to go in," he wanted to know. "It's not allowed, it's a dance bar". Don't deny a Bangalorean the right of entry to a place of pleasure: it amounts to a serious rights-violation in a city teeming with apolitical neoliberals. We began to get riled. A bouncer was summoned. A manager was consulted. We pleaded, explained, firmly insisted. Finally the doors opened; the security guard maneuvered us in with his palms sprawled upon our backs.
A bouncer ushered us up the steep staircase respectfully and in through a door that was held ajar. Inside, an eruption of music, strobes, dancing mirrors... and indifference. Ten or so girls, mostly tall, eight of them a size zero, two of them lushly curved, danced indifferently in a room that flashed light, and the images of plunging necklines, off its ceilings. Pillars in the middle were mirror-encased, inviting light and colour on its tall surfaces. Women stood around the main dance floor in sarees and glittering cholis, moving their hips desultorily, swaying their heads, framed by long straightened hair, to the music. They danced slowly, an abstract look on their faces in a sort of half-hearted gesture of seduction as their reflections bounced their sinewy outlines back at them. Occasionally they moved in to the mirrors, performing a gradual, somewhat vague dance of grace addressed to their own images: caressing, hugging, pouting, provoking themselves. These were intensely intimate moments, girls looking enraptured by their slowly swaying bodies.
We picked our way through the mass of dancers to a table that the bouncer was standing by. We joined a circle of men, sedate, sombre, framing the outer circle of the tiny room. We sat next to each other wondering where to look. A manager came up, gave us firm handshakes. We were bona fide, decent, members of the establishment now, Invitees. Menus were handed to us, parallel lines of inspired numbers - Rs. 250 for a lime juice forming the base of the pyramid of spiralling prices.
We ordered and then kicked back. Then we wondered where to look. We looked at the DJ, the scurrying waiters, the bored man next to us, seated alone. We looked upward at the mirrors, we looked at the reflection of the girls. We couldn't bring ourselves to look at the girls. We looked at a table of three who occasionally handed money to a tall girl in blue swaying violently in front of them and then splaying herself across the mirrors. Money was thrown occassionally, dutiful waiters placed wads of ten rupee notes in a pigeonhole system of numbers, each for a girl. A group of men in white shirts and pants walked in energetically and began fluffing up wads of ten rupee notes that fluttered in an arc around the plump girls who moved in front of them for a personal show. Waiters collected it; placed it in the box for number two. The tall girl in chiffon blue asked us not to put our feet on the leather couch. The group of three gave some more money; a man in white pants tried to jive with a dancer before being escorted firmly back to his seat by a vigilant bouncer. By now we had begun looking.
First we looked at our reflections off the ceiling. We looked at the men around us who barely noticed us despite our being the only women there apart from the dancers. We looked at the DJ, at the harried waiters, at the managers, one for each side of the floor. We looked at the reflections of the girls dancing to the mirrors, sometimes catching their eye in the glass. Then, finally, we began looking at the girls.
The music was deafening by now: Hindi, Tamil, English. Kishore Kumar songs, Lady Gaga hits. Our feet were tapping, our bodies were swaying. The girls were barely dancing, but they were swaying, smiling, fixating on their reflections in the mirrors. The girl in front of us was young, she looked like me. Her sky blue chiffon saree was falling off. She wore a faded red thread wound several times around her right wrist. An older girl instructed her on how to drape her saree. The young girl looked bored sometimes, impatient at others, barely curious about the men, or the music, or us. We were staring by now, wondering why a certain set of eyebrows made such a fiery arc; why a blue chiffon saree so persistently snaked down a fragile shoulder; how the group seemed to move loosely but surely to face all sides of the bar.
Soon we had our favourites. We watched them, they - sometimes - watched us back. We gave some money, in tens, in a five hundred rupee note, walking up to the girl to hand it over. They watched us patiently, sometimes moving gradually in or view to dance for us, but never explicitly. Men's eyes darted looks at us, increasingly inquisitive and persistent as the night wore on and our beer began emptying. The man on my right began moving in as our beer finished and our bill arrived. "They won't give me my bill," he said conspiratorially. The girl I paid was fighting a losing battle with her saree pallu. She looked dejected and bored, chewing gum vacuously. The girl my friend had paid had begun dancing for her. Mirror light flashed, the alcohol had made us numb and expectant, but we decided to leave.
Outside it was a cool monsoon night. The security guard looked pleased when he saw us emerge and put his hand on my shoulder as I walked past. He asked for a tip. "Next time," we told him, "when we come tomorrow night". People turned to look at us as we walked toward the auto stand, the music from the dance bar fading in our heads, a strange sort of exhilaration and contentment charging through our bodies. Out in the open, despite its sparse streets and nightly profusion of staring men, the city seemed safe and secure now, inviting us into its darkness.