The second in a two-part series where we revisit the lesser-known spots mentioned in the book Maximum City and see how they have changed since the book came out more than a decade ago.
(Read the first part of the series here.)
The 'Maximum City' trail continues with Part 2...
Excerpt: ‘…007, a brothel in Kamathipura. Satish knows the menu by heart. “For one hundred fifty rupees you can get a good-looking girl, one that could be a college-going girl. For one hour it costs three hundred, and for the whole night, seven hundred fifty.”…’
It’s around 9 PM and I find myself in a slow-moving cab, looking for Brothel 007 – a British-styled villa brothel. All I know from the information that I have gathered online is that it is located somewhere in Kamathipura, the most famous red-light district in Mumbai. The sight of women and eunuchs standing under dim yellow lights and calling out to potential customers signals the start of the infamous neighbourhood. I take out my DSLR to click some pictures from the comfort of my cab seat. It turns out to be a big mistake. Just 20 seconds into my attempt at stealth photography, a chappal hits me in the face. ‘Photo lega?! (How dare you take a photo?)’ shouts the female pimp who has just hit me with her slippers. She snatches away the lens cap of my camera. Before she can drag me out of the cab, my cab driver saves me from an interesting night by stepping on the accelerator and driving away. Note to self: No photos with the SLR here anymore.
As soon as I get down of the cab at the Manaji Rajuji Street, pimps gather around me. I say no to their offers that range from ‘200 ka maal (‘a prostitute for Rs.200’)’ to ‘mehenga waala 2300 ka maal (‘more expensive prostitutes’)’ and ask them to direct me to Brothel 007. They point me in the direction of the brothel, but not before telling me that it has closed down. I decide to see for myself. On reaching the dilapidated building on Sukhlaji Street, I realise that the brothel has been replaced by a cheap hotel. Just to double check that the hotel isn’t a front, I go up and inquire about the rooms. The owner obliges by showing them to me and confirming the legitimacy of his business.
Brothel 007, Kamathipura
Coming out of the building I find that the pimps are still following me in anticipation of some business. On inquiring about the state of the dhandaa in Kamathipura, they say that its days are numbered. ‘Sab zameen bech rahein hain builder logon ko. (Everyone is selling their piece of land to the builders)’. The area because of its proximity to the most prime locations in the city, is in danger of being swallowed by its surroundings. Real-estate developers are targeting large swathes of the red-light area for their tower projects. These claims made by the pimps are backed by a number of construction projects that I had seen while exploring the area. The pimps are still trying to lure me into saying 'yes' for their goods. But after Congress House, I know how to get rid of them. I ask them if they can get a prostitute to say yes to a couple of photos. This does the trick. They look at me suspiciously before disappearing into the crowd.
What a night. Brothel 007. Check.
Excerpt: ‘…Panchratna, the citadel of the diamond trade...’
Panchratna Housing Co-operative Society, Charni Road
Panchratna, the impressive 25-storey building near Opera House in Girgaon, became synonymous with the diamond trade by housing offices of all the major diamond traders in the city. So much so, that when one of the bombs in the 2011 bombings went off in front of this building, it was taken as an attack against the entire diamond industry. In 2013 it lost the ‘citadel of diamond trade’ bragging rights to the Bharat Diamond Bourse – the biggest of its kind in the world, built over 20 acres of prime business land in BKC.
It’s not just the diamond trade though, that is moving to more expansive pastures from its old confined space in south Mumbai. With relatively cheaper and more modern office spaces available in upcoming business districts in Navi Mumbai, BKC, airoli etc., the clogged office landscape of south Mumbai is finally getting the respite that it has been longing for since the last 3 decades. Coming back to the diamond trade though, there are rumours that it might move again and this time to Surat. That would be a big financial blow to Mumbai if it happens. But I guess that is a topic meant for another article.
Sapphire Dance Bar
Excerpt: ‘…Sapphire has the best girls in the city, good sexy dancers, with good figures and height, fair, with long hair…’
The orchestra in Sapphire, the famous dance (now orchestra) bar in Grant Road, is playing ear-splitting music that makes conversations between me and my two friends an impossibility. Not that we had chosen to go Dance bar hopping for some heart-to-hearts. All three of us wanted to sample what had become of Dance bars post the 2005 ban. Keeping aside our views on the exploitative nature of the business, the three of us enter Sapphire feigning confidence. Once inside the bar though, there is no denying our outsider status. The rest of the patrons are all in their forties and look suitably bored with both their lives and their wives. Some of them are holding fat, red bundles of 20 rupee notes to shower on the three sari-clad girls that are the ‘highlight’ of the night.
Sapphire Dance Bar, Grant Road
Even though the girls might be showing less skin than an average girl in a posh nightclub, the patrons can’t seem to take their eyes off them. The girls themselves can’t look any more disinterested, and they alternate between looking at themselves and their phones. One of them even checks her watch. Twice. I can’t really blame them. Just standing there in the middle of the room with nothing to do (they can’t dance and have to pretend to be a part of the orchestra to circumvent the ban) while a bunch of bored, drunk men try to hold your gaze must get boring pretty fast. There are a few occasional thumkas at a popular number and some smiles on being showered with notes by a waiter on behalf of an impressed customer. But these attempts at livening up the proceedings are few and far between. Meanwhile, a female singer replaces the lip-syncing male singer on the stage. But this is no respite and her high-pitched voice is even more painful to listen to than the previous pre-recorded performance.
Downing our chilled beer, we decide to head to another dance bar in the neighbourhood, called Topaz. Even though it is bigger and has more customers on the night, Topaz has the same entertainment on offer. When we are getting up to leave, a girl breaks into a proper dance for a high-paying customer. The crowd finally has something to root for.
As I wind up this trail, I can’t help but marvel at the pace at which this beast of a city is transforming. Its expansion at the seams is unstoppable and its innards are being bludgeoned into whatever shape the powers-that-be take a fancy to. What’s here today might just be lost for ever tomorrow. This is what makes Suketu Mehta’s magnum opus an absolutely essential book. It’s probably the most thorough document of the time when the city was at its most radical. It's quite possible that by the time the author sets his eyes on the city again, his muse might not look familiar to him at all.
Words and Photography: Avijit Pathak