When I first moved to Mumbai, I stayed with a very nice couple in their very nice apartment on the fourth floor of a very nice building in a neighborhood called Parel. Leaving the building security gate (a common feature of these odd, self-contained vertical suburbs), I would walk onto a slender construction-bruised road lined by concrete slum redevelopment buildings, stalls selling street snacks to local college kids, and a bristle of ugly (i.e. fancy) new high rises like mine that had begun to transform this bastion of old working class Bombay into a residential extension of Lower Parel, the swanky business district just west across the train tracks. Just beside my gate, I would pass a heavy door marked with a swastika of marigolds and a limp fringe of betel leaf garlands that probably would have swayed prettily in the breeze were breezes ever to reach this dusty corner of the island city. Over the door, a large sign read: ‘Permit Room & Family Restaurant.’
Until I started stopping in regularly for dinners of sweetcorn soup and chicken liver tikka washed down with stunningly cheap double shots of almost, but not quite, undrinkable local gin, I had no idea that a Permit Room was just a bar, much less that nearly everyone there (myself included) was flouting the law.
Scattered liberally across the length and breadth of greater Mumbai, Permit Rooms range from dim and dingy to places like this one: bright, but without any pretensions to décor. Food and 60ml bottles of booze come cheap. Rum is Old Monk; whiskey is one of half a dozen local brands mixed with an over-zealous pour of water; vodka is Smirnoff or something called White Mischief (seriously) and gin is Blue Riband, a depressing drink by any standard, and particularly in the city that gives it’s name to Bombay Sapphire. The clientele is predominantly middle class and almost exclusively male.
Though Permit Rooms first turned up sometime in the 1970s, Rafique Baghdadi, a former journalist and historian, says that bars first to came to Bombay in the business hotels of the mid-nineteenth century, followed shortly by the cheaper places frequented by soldiers in neighbourhoods like Dhobi Talao. By the 30s, bars had sprung up alongside cinema halls, and by the time the British made their exit from India, they were practically everywhere.
Bars are in the city’s blood, and yet the Urbs Prima in Indus remains, peculiarly, a prohibition town, still operating under laws such as the Bombay Prohibition Act of 1949 and the Bombay Police Act of 1952. Some particular gems from these tired bits of legislation:
– A 1,000-square-foot space is considered legally overcrowded with 166 people inside, this in a city that averages about 80,000 people per square mile, or 348 people in every 1,000 square feet.
– Venues that want to play music must have one of four distinct types of license: a Phonographic Performance License (recorded music only, no dancing), an Orchestra License (live bands allowed, still no dancing), a DJ License (still, inconceivably, no dancing) or a Discotheque License (dancing allowed, but not for more than ten couples at a time, and no alcohol on the dance floor).
– Anyone wishing to drink must carry a personal liquor permit demonstrating a medical need to consume alcohol (hence the ‘Permit’ bit).
For the most part, these laws go unenforced. I don’t know anyone who carries a liquor permit. I have never seen bar staff thin out the crowd on the dance floor nor prevent anyone from carrying a drink virtually anywhere (most of them offer to-go cups when they have to shut down at 1:30am, a closing-time ordinance first introduced in 2003). Much like the vacant shells of textile mills strewn about this part of the city, these laws are untouched relics from a bygone era, basically useless but far too difficult to dismantle.
Bombay still represents India’s best attempt at socio-cultural modernity, and nightlife has long represented the most compelling public argument for that identity. But unfortunately, as the capital of a sprawling rural state, modern Mumbai only has so much control over itself. The problem, as Baghdadi put it to me over beers at the Press Club, bang in the centre of the city’s historic heart, is that ‘Bombay is an urban town, but the people who take decisions for Bombay are not urban people.’
By the evening of Sunday 20 May 2012, everyone had heard about Assistant Commissioner of Police Vasant Dhoble’s raid on a sundown party at the Oakwood Premier Hotel in the posh seaside neighborhood of Juhu. At that party, Dhoble seized a purported 110 grams of cocaine, arrested 92 people and subjected 46 of them to drug testing. Of those tested, 44 came up positive, which, considering the way people party in these parts of Bombay and the well-known corruption of the criminal justice system here, seemed both totally plausible and totally dubious.
The police waited outside the hotel to photograph the partygoers (Mr. Dhoble and the local media preferred to use the word ‘revellers’), a scare tactic that, along with the hockey stick he rattled in people’s faces, would become one of Dhoble’s signature ploys. Most of the images, save those of TV actors and cricketers, focused on lines of leggy girls in heels covering their faces with stylish clutches, or clutching their faces (less stylish, more dramatic) with prettily manicured hands. In several of these images, you can see the girls filing past a stern and toadish woman officer dressed drably in her khaki and navy sari, the eternally unbecoming uniform of Mumbai’s more modest lady cops.
Armed with his paunch, moustache and smug grimace – as essential to Mumbai police livery as bell-bottomed khakis – Vasant Dhoble began storming the gates of bars and restaurants across the city. He started with supposed gambling rings and prostitution rackets in the city’s poorer outskirts. In April 2012 he made a limited splash by striking a popular juice stall that had stayed open too late in a well-off suburb adjacent to Juhu, where he would make his big hit a month later.
In a marvelously colourful interview with Rolling Stone India, Dhoble repeatedly harped on the number of girls he had ‘rescued’ (several hundred, evidently) from spas, beauty parlors, bars, restaurants and, of course, the evil ravages of hookah bars, where, he said ‘young girls are taken […] and get addicted to hookah. Hookah is expensive so then their pocket money doesn’t suffice and so they try to get money by way of theft or by getting ready to get molested.’ Meet ACP Dhoble: noble protector of feminine virtue (wacky syntax notwithstanding).
By June, Dhoble was the first Indian police officer to become a trending topic on Twitter. The same month, he arrested eleven women on charges of prostitution because, dressed in heels and skirts, they had entered a restaurant without paying the cover charge. A couple weeks later, his team raided the home of a 55 year-old woman and her aging parents in a quiet, upscale residential area to confiscate her collection of liqueurs. She had been using the them to make artisanal chocolates – a dangerous pastime, indeed.
Throughout this period, Dhoble also redoubled his efforts against the restaurants, bars and clubs frequented by Bombay’s affluent and upwardly mobile young people, usually citing technicalities that had not been enforced in years (and notably not confiscating any illegal drugs). People started calling him the Taliban cop. They pointed winkingly to the name of his department – Social Services, or SS. Someone produced a bunch of Dhoble masks that people would crack out as party gags; he became our favorite bogeyman.
Far more frightening than the arrests, though, was Dhoble’s use of real laws to push the regressive class and gender politics of a rural state government positioned awkwardly in the heart of India’s greatest metropolis. Bombay remains practically the only place in India where women can comfortably wear short skirts and tank tops and feel reasonably safe taking a rickshaw home at any time of night (for various socio-cultural reasons, this sort of thing is also possible in parts of the remote northeast and in some parts of Goa). And yet partying, the raids told us, is a mark of western decadence, alcohol consumption among women a sure sign of depravity.
A reporter for the left-leaning weekly Open quoted one of Dhoble’s subordinates blaming the spread of AIDS in Mumbai on nightclubs, where “ ‘women get drunk, everyone does drugs.’” In the same story, Dhoble himself described the concerns of the city’s youth as “Rich people’s woes.”
In his Rolling Stone interview, Dhoble even unwittingly used the language of the Occupy movement to denounce his enemies: “ ‘One percent of the population? Not even one percent. […] Maybe around 1,500-odd people want to roam the streets past midnight,’ ” he said. That number represents something closer to 0.1 percent of Mumbai’s population, but no matter.
He followed that (first, I like to imagine, with a rueful sigh, though the transcript for the interview indicates no such thing) with his single greatest preoccupation: ‘And have you seen the girls coming out of these discos after midnight?’
In September 2012, Mr. Dhoble’s war on fun came to a satisfactory conclusion: the powers that be transferred him to a different district and limited his jurisdiction. The chief minister of Maharashtra, Prithviraj Chavan, then vowed to resuscitate the city’s nightlife, proclaiming that in Bombay “people will get the feeling that they have come to a foreign city.” A year after that, in September 2013, the grandson of the notorious Bal Thakeray (the recently deceased founder of the right-wing Shiv Sena party that has, to a large extent, been responsible for Bombay’s drift to the right) began pushing for new laws to allow 24x7 business establishments in the city.
Thakeray’s surprisingly forward-thinking stance came just a month or so after two apparently significant steps toward liberalizing the laws governing the city’s nightlife. In July, city administrators commissioned consultancy firm Accenture to re-evaluate outmoded licensing laws, and around the same time the High Court declared illegal a 2005 state ban on Dance Bars, once as essential to Bombay nightlife as Permit Rooms, though state-level politicians have thus far managed to stymie any attempts actually to reopen.
Indeed, state politicians have vowed to keep the Dance Bars closed no matter what, claiming that they degrade the city’s moral fibre. Before the 2005 ban, men from across the city would flock to the best Dance Bars to shower the bar girls with money as they swayed to Bollywood hits in provocatively cut saris. According to the state government, the bars attracted mobsters and encouraged prostitution; in reality the law shut them down on a technicality: most of the Dance Bars held orchestra licenses, which don’t allow for – you guessed it – dancing.
Though Mumbai has changed substantially in the last eight years, it’s remarkable how little the strategies for imposing provincial morality have. During the height of Dhoble’s reign, one poster in the Facebook group SUPPORT MR. VASANT DHOBLE wrote: ‘We aren't against the Western Culture or nyethng. We just against those perv acts that take place publicly n wch r against our Indian culture.’ (sic, many times over).
First, compare this stance to Chavan’s: Mumbai will have its nightlife, but it will remain an essentially foreign, Western affectation; Mumbai will become a foreign city, not a more progressive Indian one. Then look at the most important word of all – ‘publicly.’ After the ban on Dance Bars, many of the roughly 75,000 women once employed as bar girls turned to prostitution. Still, they no longer earned money from their sexuality in a legally sanctioned, public setting.
And that is the essential feature of these ‘perv acts’. They were never really about drinking or crowds or class or dancing – all these have ample precedent in India. The conflation of sex and wealth and foreignness was a distraction. Bar girls, after all, come out of the venerable tradition of Nautch Girls and hardly represent bourgeois decadence. The ‘perversion’ was really much simpler. It was women not just exercising, but actually demonstrating (again: publicly), ownership over their bodies. Sweety, for instance, once among the best paid of all dance bar girls, commanded thousands of dollars for a single performance. Unlike many of the other girls, forced into lives of sexual slavery after the bars closed, Sweety transitioned neatly from the dance bar to domesticity and a career as a makeup artist in Bollywood. Sweety also happens to be a man.
Just a few months after Dhoble’s transfer, the notorious Delhi gang rape of December 2012 brought all of this conversation about alcohol and gender and nightlife and public space to a crisis. Protestors from across the country came out to demand stricter punishment for rapists, while politicians across parties and geographies and even genders blamed interactions between men and women, western clothing and make-up (one politician compared ‘some women wearing lipstick and powder’ to ‘terrorists […] in Jammu and Kashmir’) and, of course, alcohol and nightlife for the sharp rise in reported rapes across India.
One prominent politician in the state of Andhra Pradesh even said, ‘Just because India achieved freedom at midnight does not mean women can venture out after dark.’ For women, in other words, acting independently amounted to a violation of the social contract that kept them safe.
Men, I need hardly say, aren’t exactly held to the same standard. In an interview with the Mumbai Mirror (basically a daily tabloid and, to my mind, absolutely essential reading), Sweety pointed out that among the reasons for closing the dance bars was the fact that they ‘[made] men do terrible things like rob money off their family or friends.” Short skirts and lipstick make men rapists; gyrating bodies make men deadbeats. “Then again,” Sweety added, “men should have enough brains to control themselves.” Clearly most politicians don’t seem to think so.
Hence: permissions. Permissions exist, at least in part, to propagate elaborate systems of protection. In theory, at least, permissions keep us from drinking and over-crowding and lavishing insane sums of money on dance girls. They protect traditional family structures and gender roles from supposed Western influence, protect us from each others’ libidos and all our baser instincts.
The big problem with this as a political or legal or rhetorical strategy – hell, as a strategy of any kind – is that it assumes danger as the status quo. When you act without asking permission, it suggests, then whatever happens to you must be, at least in part, your own fault; you have neglected the legal system put in place to guarantee your safety. A woman who drinks or dresses racily or stays out late – whether she’s a dance bar girl or a young professional – has made herself and her family publicly vulnerable. That is the ultimate ‘perv act’ against Indian culture.
And maybe this is why the culture of permissions jars so badly in Bombay. The assumption of danger completely undercuts the proud collective belief that this is India’s safe city, a place where women can move freely and where men won’t lose control at the slightest flash of leg. Surely that accounts for part of the youthful rage against Dhoble: we were the good kids in class, and we were being punished anyway.
Then in August 2013, real danger bubbled to the surface in Lower Parel, just across the Central Line railway tracks from my first Mumbai apartment. A 23-year-old photo intern working for an English magazine had gone with a male colleague on assignment to the abandoned Shakti Mills compound. A group of five men attacked, tied up her colleague, and took turns raping her. This took place at 6pm, broad daylight, in central Mumbai. After their capture in the days following the rape, the five suspects admitted to previous sexual assaults in the same area, one on a ragpicker, another on a sex worker. Neither of the previous women (both clearly poor) reported the crimes; the suspects claimed they never expected their latest target to reverse that trend.
At no point in India’s history have women been empowered to speak out about rape; even now, that empowerment remains limited to women from certain socioeconomic strata and to certain kinds of sexual assault. A recent study by Daniel Drache, a professor of political science at York University in Toronto, found that reporting of sexual assault has increased 30 percent in the year since the Delhi gang-rape, a hopeful sign of changing times, yet I wonder how those statistics would break down in terms of class and location. Do women in rural India report sexual assault by their husbands or fathers or brothers any more often today than they did a year ago? I doubt it.
The recent sexual harassment scandal at the prominent left-wing publication Tehelka, in which a young journalist has accused her Editor-in-Chief, Tarun Tejpal, of misconduct, has finally drawn attention to the more insidious – and far more common – forms of sexual assault that continue to plague India. That she also accused her Managing Editor Shoma Chaudhury, long one of the preeminent feminist voices in India, of attempting to suppress her police complaint, suggests a cynicism even in the Indian left about what kinds of sexual harrassment women and the public will passively accept. (Tejpal has admitted to misconduct, but Chaudhury firmly denies the accusations against her).
It seemed at first hideously ironic that the mill where the Mumbai gang-rape took place should be named Shakti, a Sanskrit word referring to the divine feminine life force. The girl’s response to her violation – that “rape is the not the end of life” and that she would return to work as soon as possible – has transformed that irony into a kind of poetry. In reporting the crime and refusing to express shame at the horror she has faced, the girl (whose identity remains secret) has proved that she doesn’t need rescuing or permission to continue living her life on her own terms. Of course, she comes from an educated – or “good” – family, unlike dance bar girls or the previous victims of her assailants, one of whom came forward after the conviction of the five rapists. Change has to begin somewhere.
Certainly other women in Bombay seem to have taken the message to heart. Though everyone in Mumbai was, at least to some extent, shocked by what happened at Shakti Mills, the women who had always gone out and drunk and gone home when they chose didn’t stop for a moment, just as bars returned to their previous patterns the moment Dhoble disappeared. Permit Rooms still serve without asking for permits. Crowds of people still crush onto dance floors. Some bars close their doors and allow music to continue well past closing. Now when the cops turn up, it’s to collect a bribe and keep ignoring you just a little bit longer. There are no hockey sticks anywhere in sight; lots of young men and women go out every night to enjoy the hedonistic pleasures of their supposedly ‘foreign city.'
And all this works because India has one more rhetorical trick up its sleeve: in the standard Indian parlance, you don’t ask for or request permission. You take it.
Born and raised on the east coast of the United States, Michael Snyder is now a freelance writer based primarily in Mumbai, India. His work has appeared in publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Caravan, Indian Quarterly, Open and the Indian editions of GQ and Condé Nast Traveller. He also serves as a Contributing Editor for Architectural Digest India.
Cover image licensed under Creative Commons.