Off from the U.S. after a whiskey shot with Ma. Stopover in London with friend Grace—pizza in Hyde Park. Into Bombay at 11 am on June 10. Greeted by a light rain. Waded in my flip flops through muddy puddles past the large parking garage being constructed to find an autorickshaw for a decent fare to my friend Lavesh’s flat in Vikhroli. After napping and getting reacquainted with Lavesh’s family, I left Vikhroli around 11 pm, headed for friends’ bike shop in “town” (old Bombay).
On the train headed towards VT (Victoria Terminus), I was hanging out the door with three guys—when I asked where they were headed, one answered, “fucking”, and another excitedly chimed in that tomorrow they would go to the water park. So I asked if they were meeting their girlfriends and hoping to score. They responded no, that they were going to Grant Road, Mumbai’s red light district. Before thinking too much, I asked if I could accompany them. In DC this past Spring I worked on a human trafficking report for India for an organization called The Protection Project. I thought that I should see the result of the sex trafficking I had read about. I didn’t explain this to these guys—aged between 23 and 25—but let them know I was not interested in “fucking”, just in seeing the area. After initial reluctance, they agreed that I could tag along.
As we entered the area, and pimps started pulling our arms trying to get us to visit ‘their beautiful, young girls’, the leader of this threesome remarked to me that I had bindaas for coming with them. “Bindaas”, originating from the Gujarati “bindas” (without servitude), came into the Hindi lexicon as a Mumbaiya Hindi slang word and means something akin to the English phrase “has balls” or the Yiddish ‘chutzpah.’
I tried to keep a brave face and live up to this compliment, though inside I was beginning to shake as more and more women and girls emerged from the shadows, faces caked with make-up, tiredness, fear, even defiance in some of their eyes. We ascended the stairways of an old, crumbling building, and walked its narrow passageways, off of which each room was filled with four or five girls. They wore everything from sarees to halter tops. Many older women, the matrons of the brothel, grabbed my hands and arms trying to tug me in to their spaces. Those rooms led to others where customers were ‘served’.
The guys I was with entered one of these rooms and seven girls lined up in front of us. They kept their eyes lowered, none meeting my gaze. In one corner, a small tv blared a song from an old Hindi movie. The three guys walked up and down the line of girls, and glanced at the backsides of some of them. After a minute of this ‘browsing’, they each selected a woman, and after negotiating the price from 900 rupees to 700 (for all three of them) they disappeared into the inner rooms. The other women disappeared to a different room, though one came and sat next to me, asking why I also did not want to have fun. “Am I not beautiful?”, she asked me. I responded in Hindi, “Yes, you are very beautiful, but I will not go inside with you.” She feigned being hurt by my refusal, and left.
I walked the other floors of this brothel, and in one particularly shadowy passageway a pimp with hash in his eyes and pan on his breath cornered me. He promised to take me to a different building to ‘fuck the youngest girls, all virgins’. I wanted to see the red light district, but I didn’t think I was ready to see what he wanted to show me. I pushed past him and got the hell out of there.
Took a taxi over to Dhongri and met up with Lavesh and his buddies. We watched Lavesh trace out the tattoo he would work on for the rest of the night. Shortly after 1 am, Raj (raspy voice, slight frame, one arm fully tattooed, light beard), said we would go take a ride on his 1970s, midnight Blue Enfield—the large size normally only given to Indian police and army officers which Raj had bought at auction. He kick-started the bike, and the Enfield started with its characteristic low grumble, and we sped off into the night.
First we rode by the Gateway of India, what one author described as the “grandest exit way in history” (it was completed in 1924, and the last British troops left through the Gateway only 24 years later in 1948). Across the street, the Taj Hotel, attacked by terrorists in 2008 when I was living in Bombay, now has a tall white fence with spikes on the top guarding the entry way. We cruised along Marine Drive (fulfilling one of my dreams to ride this most famous of Mumbai streets on an Enfield). Raj, to illustrate a point he made to me earlier that many of his countrymen mindlessly follow each other like monkeys, accelerated past a group of four other bikers. Twenty seconds later, he ground to an angled halt with back tire doing a controlled slide outward (kya style hai!) as the four other bikers rushed past us in an effort to match our earlier speed. Just down the road, a man lifted child beggars into the back of a truck, their work done for the day. On either side of us, young couples sat talking to each other.
Sitting on the sea wall, Raj and I discussed the stories from the Mahabharata and more contemporary issues such as the corruption in Indian politics. Every five minutes, massage wallahs approached us, asking if we would like head and neck massages. Raj then shared his personal frustrations—a street fighter and competitive runner when he was young, he trained as a chef in London and bounced around between kitchens of the top hotels in Mumbai. But five years ago, his father passed away, and he had to take a government job in the railway ministry in order to support his family.
We jumped on the bike again, and, after clearing a police checkpoint (new initiative to crackdown on drunk driving)—Raj flashed his government employee ID and we went quickly through—we passed Chowpatty Beach where three years earlier I had smooched an Indian journalist in a monsoon downpour.
We climbed up the hill towards Nariman Point past the Hanging Gardens, and I stood on the back pegs of the bike to look out over the “necklace” formed by the lights along Marine Drive. Raj recounted his bike accident here two years earlier, when he was racing a car on New Years Eve. The car’s driver, pissed that he was losing the race, bumped the back of Raj’s bike, sending him down the hill and knocking him unconscious. As light rain began trickling down, we rode through Breach Candy, past the US consulate and Mukesh Ambani’s new 27-storey house complete with three helipads.
At the Worli sea face, we again got off the bike just as the rain thickened to a downpour and the sea churned up. Raj and I stood facing the sea, arms and chest to the sky, opening ourselves to the water coming at us from the sea and sky. I felt as if God was cleansing me from the red light district I had walked through three hours before. I twirled around, to stay warm, spin some of the water off me, and to express my jubilation for the moment.