Hydera-Bad Boys

Finally the day had come for my trip to the bright lights, big city to ring in 2007: Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh, India’s largest southern state. I had been in the provincial town of Warangal, a half-day’s drive from Hyderabad, for three weeks now, volunteering for MARI, a local grassroots organization that worked on everything from education and health to agriculture and microfinance.

I met the group’s founder a few years back at a conference in Africa, and we had been corresponding ever since, him conspiring to bring me over to document MARI’s projects. Finally the trip came together; he pulled the funds together for a plane ticket to bring me over during my winter break. At last, the blue-eyed Visakhi -- the Indian handle Murali gave me back in Africa, named for a harvest festival that falls on my birthday – would reach the fabled land of call centers and chapatis.

I recruited two old travel buddies and fellow graduate students, a photographer and techie, to come along and help out. I would do the writing, Lupe would take photos and Derek would film the projects: the three media musketeers. I arrived a few weeks in advance to maximize my stay, while Lupe and Derek would arrive on New Year’s Eve after spending Christmas with Derek’s recently widowed father.

While the work was quite interesting and my colleagues quite gracious, Warangal was no hotspot for nightlife or tourism. I had already been to the town’s one attraction, an ancient fort, and paid my respects to its bustling temple. Other big outings included taking a motor-rickshaw to town to shop for pomegranates, milk sweets and souvenir saris.

MARI’s founder graciously offered me his hideaway, a modest studio on the third floor of the building the organization occupied, complete with 24-hour cable TV and complimentary mosquitoes. Given the lack of entertainment in Warangal, I spent most of my evenings studying Indian culture through the boob tube, watching Bollywood soaps, how-to yoga shows, and the Cartoon Channel in Hindi (Scooby-Doo was never so hilarious). My favorite show featured this competition à la “American Idol,” but with pre-teen lip-synching dance prodigies whose mothers would tell their family’s sob stories on stage to help break a potential tie and clinch their darlings all-expenses-paid scholarships.

The staple of my social life came to be suppertime caveman mimes with Satith, an effeminate, baby-faced errand boy who politely called me Madam but had the habit of entering before knocking, which made getting dressed a daredevil event, and Aima, a sprightly albeit aged Muslim widow who did all the cooking, cleaning and clowning in the complex. Aima and Satith spoke ten words of English put together, which is more than I spoke Telugu, the native language of Andhra Pradesh.

“More, Madam!?” Satith would ask, translating for Aima, who was disturbed that I had not mounded my stainless steel plate with more of the rice and many-splendored curries she served up for every meal.

“Ruchiga undi! Very delicious!” I would tactfully reply in Telugu, all the while shielding my plate from Aima’s overloaded serving spoon.

Every morning Satith brought me up the Deccan Chronicle, the state’s English daily, where I could read about the PM’s latest economic policy, the protest du jour (Indians did not take things lying down) and last night’s cricket scores. Admittedly I skipped through most of the real news to get to the beauty and society pages, where I would read pieces like “how to glow like a bride using turmeric” and read about the latest projects, fashions, and antics of the Tollywood stars (T-wood being the Telugu equivalent of Bollywood). The starlettes were often referred to as PYTs (a throwback to Michael Jackson’s “pretty young thing,” for anyone born after 1984), as in “the PYTs go for the bling…” The Deccan’s reporters would interview these local celebs about their secret weight loss strategies and sure-fire hangover cures.

Reading this local equivalent of People, I felt the way I do when craning my neck to see a car wreck: you know it’s sick but you can’t help but to look. Most of my colleagues in Warangal didn’t drink, smoke or even know what bling meant, let alone sport it. Hard-working didn’t begin to describe them: not only did they endure an official six-day work week, many would come in on Sunday or work ‘til the wee hours to finish up a project. They lived to better the plight of the poor. It was inspirational to witness their resolve, and I was proud to be documenting the bountiful fruits of their labor. There was no need for hyperbole – the results MARI’s projects had achieved, especially given often-slim resources, already appeared larger than life.

But all work and no play made Vishaki a very dull girl. As much as I loved to escape to the countryside, I was a city gal at heart, used to having 100 choices of dining, dancing and cultural events every night in DC, SF and other places I’d lived. As much as I had come to like the super-sweet chai, I missed my Merlot. Like my Indian colleagues, I wanted to do good in the world, but sometimes I just wanted to go out and be bad too.

As the year’s end approached, the Deccan was full of alluring ads for New Year’s parties. Hotels and nightclubs promised lavish buffets, family-friendly entertainment, and laser & light shows; turntable artists with names like DJ Yogi and Arris Da Kat would mix up mega-wattage of Banghra and house. Many of these NYE blowouts started at 2500 rupees – roughly $60 a pop. It was a shocking contrast. I had spent my recent days with farmers who barely made that much in three months, and had grown accustomed to paying dimes and quarters for my snacks and trinkets. Other bashes advertised a more reasonable cover, however, and I started clipping ads for some of these second-tier spots. Here I imagined we could have a big night out but not feel out of place in my thrift-store chic or guilty about spending the equivalent of a farmer’s seasonal profits on a single ticket.


Santosh was appointed our chauffeur for the holiday weekend, being the best-versed in English, and a damn aggressive driver, which would come in handy in traffic-clogged Hyderabad. We arrived with plenty of time to pick Lupe and Derek up from the airport, relatively fresh considering their 24-hour journey and being 10 hours off their internal clock.

“We’ll be ready to party all night after a nap and some strong chai,” Lupe cheerfully exclaimed, as we reminisced about past New Year’s spent together everywhere from San Francisco to Conakry, Guinea. Arriving from the Big Apple, Lupe and Derek were nonplussed by Hyderabad, whereas coming from sleepy Warangal, I was in shell-shocked by chaotic cobras of traffic, the mile-long malls and hi-tech stores whose chrome and glass reflected the sweltering midday sun at all angles. This is where the other half of a percent of India shopped.

Evening was fast approaching and we still hadn’t decided where to go. Google-holic Derek was on some Hyderabad website scoping out party spots, but I vetoed most as either being at fairground type places on the outskirts of town, which could take over an hour to reach, or the overpriced galas that I thought would probably be too stilted and a waste of good rupees. Lupe backed me up, so the bicker was partly show – of course the girls would get their way. Finally we settled on nearby Secunderabad for a wild night at “Blockbuster,” a new pub in the Taj Tristar hotel, which promised an explosion of dancing and drink specials at the low price of 750 rupees a head. Beating the Internet-meister at his own game, I pulled up a local review of the place which proclaimed Blockbuster as “one of the happening pubs in the Secunderabad area... Frequented by IT professionals and young adults. The prices are moderate and the service prompt.” As a bonus, Santosh told us it would take a mere 15 minutes to reach – a Hyderabadi minute, that.

We arrived rather early, and decided to stroll the streets before settling in at Blockbuster for the night. The streets of Secunderabad were lively with couples strolling in their 06-07 best, children in tow, clutching rainbow bouquets of balloons. Women had sprinkled rangoli, intricate but ephemeral designs made of a colored rice powder on their courtyard stoops, as picture-prayers for the new year. The churches, mosques and temples were lit up with red, yellow and green lights, the secular “Western” new year’s a uniting holiday as the three religions each had their own calendars.

The neighborhood was a contrast of street vendors selling samosas and fried Chinese noodles and gleaming mini-malls with overpriced saris organized in a dozen different departments according to their style and quality. Bars were in short supply, however, and so we headed back to the Taj hotel bar, to have some beers and roti. There weren’t but a handful of Indian gentlemen in the bar, although little by little more drizzled in. We were all in good spirits, slurping down tall heady Kingfishers and giggling about the “tomato chutney” Lupe had requested, as the waiter brought back ketchup and mango pickles. We all toasted our respective successes in ’06, the joy of another shared NYE, and made half-hearted resolutions for ’07.

Derek, a non-drinker and non-dancer, wheedled us about going by a church with pretty lights we had passed on the ride over.

“Come on, party pooper, we’re going to do NYE Hyderabadi style,” I taunted him. “Nobody goes to church to ring in the new year!”

Lupe and I led the way to Blockbuster next door, the techno music pounding the pavement out front. The bouncer waved us to the front of the line and agreed to let us in for a peek before we paid. Inside, the pub was shoulder to shoulder with men partying like it was 1989, gauging from their cheesy dance moves, and it was smoky as a burning building. Not a single woman was to be seen, though I was bothered more by the teargas smoke than the gender ratio. We exchanged looks and headed straight for the door.

Out in the street, we contemplated our options. On our earlier stroll, we had spied a nearby fancy hotel with doormen in elaborate military-esque headdresses and pretty little pools of floating candles and flowers. We figured the place would be more family-friendly, as we saw ladies in their sparkling pink and gold saris draped in linen-backed chairs in the lobby.

We entered the hotel’s mini-nightclub for free – getting door prizes of red Kingfisher baseball caps to boot. Like Blockbuster, the place was packed to the gills with juiced-up young lads, although there were about five ladies out of the 50, all of whom were with dates they stuck very close to for obvious reasons. Not only was I the only single woman there, I was the only one wearing a miniskirt – there was nary an exposed calf or knee in the house. What happened to all the slinkily clad PYTs I’d read about?

Lupe and I ordered vodka gimlets and tried to inconspicuously watch the action from the sidelines, but in no time found ourselves jostled, pushed, pulled and pressed by these jolly fellows pogoing like speed freaks on the dance floor. One after another grabbed our hands and swung them about, gabbing about whatever US connections they had in Houston or Cleveland though we could only hear one word in three over the deafening music, a fun mix ranging from Bollywood hits to Hindi dancehall to Euro-techno. Occasionally the DJ would bust out a token Whitesnake or Bryan Adams song, wanting to make us feel at home.

Steve Martin would have concurred: These Hyderabadis were some wiiiiiild and craaazy guys. They each tried to force us on the dance floor, snapping pictures of our stunned mugs with their cell phones. I thought I even felt one grab my butt cheek, but there was so much happening I couldn’t be sure. Even Derek was propositioned and pursued by the ever-aggressive boys.

The fervor intensified as midnight beckoned. The bartender soused the bar with spirits and set it on fire as the crowd went wild. Back on the dance floor, I felt another ass brush. Did I just feel what I think I felt? Oh yes, because I just felt it again. That was it – no more benefit of the doubt. The next one to have his way with me would see what American chicks were made of.

Dancing with a rather quiet gentleman, I close my eyes to sway with the music and felt him graze my breast. My eyes flew open as I balled up my fist to give him a right hook to the jaw. He kept dancing timidly, as if this were all part of the American courting game.

I cornered Lupe for a pow-wow, to learn the busty chica too had been fondled; her courtesans also ignored the pinches she returned every time they copped a feel. Forget the stereotype of the docile, head-bobbing Indian IT geek – we had seen these guys for the hungry, ferocious, women-eating Bengal tigers they were.

Before long, the clock struck midnight, and I kissed my friends under security’s watchful eye, as the establishment had apparently been alerted to our problem. We danced a few more tunes before heading back to the jeep to wake Santosh, slipping a new 500-rupee note in his pocket. The air was cracking and popping with firecrackers. We arrived home to the screech of wheelies – minors, some three to a bike, drag racing on Harleys at the end of our sleepy little alley.

The best and worst things in life are generally unplanned, my cookie-fortune for the new year to my old friends. All in all, it was a pretty good night, and certainly a memorable one. But personally I was ready to return to sleepy Warangal, get back to work and, like Paris Hilton, live the simple life.

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