An archive of ideas and dissonant thoughts.
A writer's workshop in Kolkata turns into an unexpected cultural experience, a surreal journey into an unknown milieu that is defined by its clandestine coyness and absurd demographic distribution.
Kolkata is not a city I claim to know much about, or particularly understand. In the limited time I’ve spent there, I often felt as though I had stepped into a time warp, where colonial architecture, trams, ambassador taxis, leisurely hours and a languid pace of life give the impression of what I imagine India to have been in the 70s or 80s, with mobile phones somehow transposed on to the scene. But on a writing workshop there about two years ago, a casual stroll turned into an adventure I’m unlikely to forget in a hurry.
This workshop was made up of about fifteen participants, a motley crew of aspiring wordsmiths from across the country (and beyond) with their own takes on everything from Chekhov to Molly Keane to the ‘beauty of banality’. As enriching and occasionally memorable as it was, one of the highlights of the fortnight took place outside the confines of the conference rooms the British Council had arranged for mornings and afternoons. Often, we’d have certain tasks or writing assignments to complete for the following day, which we would discuss and work on in smaller groups somewhere close to the city center.
On one such occasion, five or six of us had been sitting at a café until nearly 8 in the evening. A couple of people said they had to return to their hotels or hostels to finish, while the rest of us decided we wanted to explore the city a little bit, have a drink or two to fulfil as many writerly cliches as possible, and then head home. Having already been there a few days, we had checked off many of the popular food recommendations and tourist hotspots near Park Street and the surrounding areas. We wanted to find something authentic, a small, shady bar with character, whatever that may be.
After much consideration and research on patchy 3G, we settled on the inevitable option of just walking around and seeing what we could find. After a futile journey of several minutes where we saw nothing but jeweller’s shops and fast food outlets, we found ourselves at the crossing of AJC Bose Road, a chaotic quasi-highway near which one of our companions’ hotels was located. We crossed over to the other side and, with the temptation of his room only a few meters away, he decided to leave us to our search. Most of us were beginning to tire, so we decided to walk towards the Metro and abandon the quest if nothing came up.
Fortunately, just a few steps ahead, we noticed a board for a bar called ‘Mehfil’, advertising its happy hours in the gaudy font of permit rooms around the country. The sign itself was non-descript, sandwiched between some stores and old buildings with a small lane leading inside. But the promise of cheap liquor was good enough for us, and three of the girls went ahead into the galli while two of us said we would follow after finishing our cigarettes. A few minutes later, we entered the dingy lane, which ended in a sudden dead end with a large door to the right. Outside the door, the other three were still waiting, faced with a security guard who seemed bewildered.
Upon seeing me, he seemed slightly less surprised but still massively confused. I enquired about whether we could get a drink inside, and the guard said ‘ek minute’ and disappeared, while we wondered what secrets he was hiding. A minute later, the manager emerged at the door and sized us up, then suggested that the ladies may not want to come to ‘this kind of bar’. This only served to heighten our curiosity, and we insisted we just wanted to get one drink. He paused, clearly baffled by the dynamics of this group of four women writers and me. Then, hesitantly, he opened the door and as we entered, everything clicked into place. This was not a shady pub or a permit room, but a dance bar of some sort.
Inside was a single, long rectangular room, dimly lit. On either side there were small, American diner style booths, but with seating on only one side of the table. Most of these booths were occupied by middle-aged businessman types, and one by a couple of young biker boys. At the front end of the room was a slightly elevated stage, with a DJ in the back and four or five women standing around near one corner of the platform. We were ushered by the chhotu working there to the only available booth, right and front, near the stage. The five of us struggled to squeeze into the limited space, with two of the girls opting for stools and the rest of the patrons clearly wondering what we were doing there.
To my overprivileged, underexposed Bombay mind, dance bars were supposedly a desi variation of an American strip club or straight out of a Bollywood gangster movie. I expected raunchy hip shaking, aggressive music, money being tossed around and other such stereotypical debauchery. Instead, the situation here was differently absurd and almost charming. For one, all of the girls on stage were more modestly dressed than most women at a Bombay nightclub. Some wore jeans and regular tops, not particularly low cut or revealing in any way. Others were in saris, but not so much Raveena Tandon as woman going home on the local after a day at work. Fortunately, the minimal lighting and loud music meant we were quickly ignored as we ordered large drinks, peanuts and chakli.
Next, the music. There was no ‘Kaala Chashma’ or ‘Chittiya Kalaiya’ – the patrons here seemed to reflect the Bengali appreciation of high culture, with old, slow ballads of the Rafi and Burman variety. What’s more, there was a live singer who looked like Bappi Lahiri circa 1985, with long blonde coloured hair, gold chains and a floral shirt with all of his top buttons undone. As each song played, this singer, undoubtedly the star of this show, would take the mic and croon along with the recording in something resembling a baritone. Meanwhile, one of the girls would slowly walk to the center of the stage, pose as though in a fashion show, flutter her eyelashes theatrically, toss her hair and slowly walk around the stage, occasionally biting her lip or pointing suggestively at one of the men to murmurs of appreciation. At the end of each of these ballads, which felt more melancholic than energetic, the men would clap as though they were at the opera. Then, the chhotu would go around the tables collecting ten and twenty rupee notes which he would flick at the girl in melodramatic fashion as the DJ played sound effects in between songs.
The entire situation felt surreal to us, as we veered between bemusement and analysis in hushed tones. At one point, one of my friends tried taking a picture and was swiftly reprimanded by the manager. We stayed for a few songs, finishing our drinks and chalking the experience down as one for the ages. Throughout that period, the spectacle remained more or less the same, with the women flirting at a distance and coyly smiling while old music played, the men occasionally cheering and the singer and DJ doing their thing with increasing vitality. Half an hour or so later, we emerged with so much to discuss, about performance and exploitation and class differences we never thought about.
Was the entire performance reflective of some sort of tender innocence, or was it a front for something more sexual or illegal in nature? Was it just scratching the nostalgic itch of forgotten or imagined romances for so many of these men? Did they simply have so little female interaction or access that this was the highlight of their day? Whatever the answers, the entire scenario felt like a throwback to a simpler time, before twerking and item numbers and Tinder, reinforcing the image I had of Kolkata as a time warp we had unwittingly stepped into, and perhaps even become quite fond of.