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
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
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
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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