November 16, 2012 8:07 pm

India’s party people

In pubs, clubs and karaoke bars, young Indians are enjoying their freedom. But they also face a backlash from police – and worried parents
A young woman dancing at Loveshack, a trendy rooftop bar in Bangalore©Poulomi Basu

A young woman dancing at Loveshack, a trendy rooftop bar in Bangalore

It’s Halloween at Love Shack, a spacious rooftop bar in Bangalore, the epicentre of India’s information technology and call centre industries. The venue, evocative of a beach shack, is filled with students, software engineers, management consultants and other upwardly mobile youth – the boys still clad in office-casual and the girls decked out in form-fitting tops and minidresses, with teased hair and bright lipstick. Most patrons are knocking back drinks – women get two free – as Martin DSouza, a 27-year-old karaoke jockey, or KJ, spins the tunes.

Karaoke is popular in Bangalore, and customers vie for the microphone while the cheering crowd dances around the singers. Among the revellers is Priyanka Blah, 26, a free-spirited singer and artist manager with upswept hair, a gold hoop through her nostril and a tight, spaghetti-strapped top. Blah, who grew up in the northeastern town of Shillong, came to Bangalore as a student at just 16, and has lived here ever since. She has performed with her now-defunct electronica duo, Tempo Tantrick, and other singers, and writes about music, designs clothes and promotes musicians.

All the while, she has resisted pressure from her parents – staid civil servants who spent their careers at the State Bank of India – to meet men from her family’s social circle for marriage or, failing that, to settle down with one of her series of long-term boyfriends. “There is a dichotomy in terms of the freedom we have and what we are expected to do with it,” she says. “The liberation of Indian women has meant we can take up jobs, and be seen doing things men do, but at the same time, there are problems pursuing that.”

When DSouza calls her for a turn at the microphone, Blah belts out the song “Hella Good” by No Doubt in a deep, velvety voice, as the crowd goes wild. “When I was a kid, I used to practise Grammy speeches in front of the mirror,” she says afterwards. I turn to a trio who are dancing frenetically – two young women and a man from the southern state of Kerala – and ask them that quintessential Indian question: “Do your parents know you are here?”

“No!” the women shriek in mock horror, one throwing her hands to her face and giggling nervously. I look at the young man. “My parents know,” he says, “and they are cool with it. But it’s a little different. I’m a guy.” And then they dance away. The mood in the bar is still sky-high at 11pm, when DSouza, dressed in a smart dark suit with carefully coiffed hair, announces the impending nightly closure. By 11.15pm, the singing is over. “Thanks for coming,” he tells the crowd. “Drive safely! Buckle up!”

But with rain pouring down many refuse to leave, dancing on despite Bangalore’s strictly enforced 11.30pm bar shutdown time. Soon the police turn up to ensure the club is closed. The music stops. Bouncers shoo the guests away. The revellers gradually filter out into the fierce storm. The party is over, and it’s not even midnight.

In the early days of India’s information technology boom, Bangalore bars, clubs and discos were open until the early morning, catering to young people getting off work at all hours. These days, police are actively enforcing a previously ignored 1967 law that requires bars to shut down by 11.30pm – it also prohibits dancing in venues that serve alcohol.

Ostensibly, these strictures help an overstretched police force maintain law and order. They have also curtailed a boom in seedy “dance bars”, where women were paid to dance for an almost exclusively male clientele – often a front for prostitution. But controls on upmarket pubs such as Love Shack – and others of its ilk, which cater to young men and women with money in their pockets – also have strong public support.

Many older, middle-class Indians feel that clubs where young people mix, lubricated by alcohol, are a threat to Indian culture and to their own children. At one bar, I watched a very drunk 22-year-old IT company intern, from a conservative north Indian family, nearly fall off her bar-stool while sharing a bowl-sized Long Island Iced Tea with a male colleague, who pawed her hopefully. She confided she had recently split up with a boyfriend. Now, she says, she goes out in the evening “with anyone who treats me.”

Men on the lower rungs of the economic ladder – where cash is tight and tradition strong – often view upmarket bars, and the scenes that play out inside, with both disapproval and envious resentment. “There is a certain section of society that has moved ahead in life, and others have not,” says V. Sibi, a 32-year-old former techie who is now co-owner of Toit Brew Pub, a new microbrewery. “It’s economic and lifestyle disparities that are causing resentment.” Such sentiments are fuelling a backlash against bars across India.

Mumbai, the financial capital, was rocked this year by Vasant Dhoble, a hockey-stick-wielding senior police officer, who raided bars, pubs and restaurants, often with TV crews in tow. He was transferred to the suburbs in September after two women – arrested while dining in a restaurant and publicly accused of being prostitutes – sued the police for defamation, but his moral crusade was popular among many.

Priyanka Blah, 26, singer and artist manager©Poulomi Basu

Priyanka Blah, 26, singer and artist manager

In Pune, in the state of Maharashtra – a hub of education and modern businesses – police raided a lounge bar in September, ostensibly for serving alcohol without a licence. But rather than shutting down the party and punishing the organisers, the police held the whole crowd overnight, and then forced them all to give blood samples for alcohol tests. Women caught up in the raid also complained of being manhandled by the cops.

Meanwhile, the small central city of Raipur, with its population of one million, was put under a 10pm curfew in August after a mixed crowd of youngsters in their twenties and thirties were discovered drinking and dancing at a pool party in an upmarket hotel. Raipur’s mayor said the event was “in bad taste”, while the local media published photos of the female guests – wearing shorts, sleeveless tops and minidresses – calling them “semi-nude”.

Bangalore hasn’t seen such dramatic incidents lately, but cops strictly enforce the 11.30 shutdown rules every night. While they have eased their efforts to prevent bar patrons from spontaneously dancing, the prohibition still looms. Authorities are now issuing “disco licences”, but in this city of 8.4 million people – with 63 per cent under the age of 25 – just three standalone bars have obtained them.

“Bangalore is a global, cosmopolitan city, and you are killing people’s freedom,” says DSouza, himself the son of a high-ranking state police officer. “It’s a very conservative approach. People look at us partying and, as a society, they think the youth is getting spoilt.”

. . .

Traditionally in India, young people’s sexuality was tightly controlled by their families. Marriages were mostly arranged – at a young age – by family elders, and spouses chosen from the same caste or religious community. Pre-marital sex was rare and, if discovered, could trigger a family crisis. “In India, young people did not take major decisions about their life partner on their own,” says Dheeraj Sinha, the chief strategy officer in India for Grey, the advertising agency. “That decision was taken by elders. Free intermingling of the sexes was a despised thing.”

Divya Ajitsaria, 24, works in advertising©Poulomi Basu

Divya Ajitsaria, 24, works in advertising

But economic liberalisation is radically rewriting the script. New job opportunities are driving a mass migration of young Indians from small towns to big cities – or from one big city to another. This is giving many of them unprecedented chances to socialise – and have intimate relationships – with partners outside their family’s social sphere.

“The sexual revolution in India is pretty palpable, and it goes right down the economic and social strata,” says Sinha. “So much has changed, and the nature of the workplace has changed.”

For most economic migrants, pressure to marry a “suitable spouse” doesn’t disappear, but is easier to resist at a distance – at least for a while. “If you have that independence of being in another city, it makes a huge difference,” says Palash Krishna Mehrotra, 37, the unmarried author of The Butterfly Generation, a book about the social changes brought by the economic boom. “It puts a bit of a gap between you and your parents. Your mother is not going to turn up on your doorstep every morning saying ‘this is the girl you should marry.’”

Young Indians living in their family homes – still the vast majority – also have new opportunities to mingle with the opposite sex in modern-style workplaces, while mobile phones and the internet help to bypass physical restrictions. Bars and clubs provide a new infrastructure for romantic dramas.

Signs of change are everywhere. Romances by Mills & Boon, the publisher known for its chaste heroines, domineering men, sexual repression and happy endings, now face competition from homegrown chick-lit authors such as Swati Kaushal, who writes about independent female protagonists juggling the weight of cultural expectations with their own desires.

Such conduct doesn’t just appear in fiction. Sales of upmarket condom brands have quadrupled, to 1.2 billion per year, in four years. Sales of morning-after pills also increased by 26 per cent last year, despite a 2010 ban on advertising them on TV. The emergency contraceptive market, now worth $71m a year, is expected to reach $171m by 2016, according to Euromonitor, the research group. It’s not just big cities where the pills are selling briskly, but also smaller provincial towns.

For all their new-found sexual experimentation, most young Indians are not totally rebellious. Most still expect to marry and have children. But nearly all would like their parents to accept their decisions, including their choice of spouse – a total reversal of India’s traditional filial obedience.

A taxi queue at Toit Brew Pub©Poulomi Basu

A taxi queue at Toit Brew Pub. Bars must close by 11.30pm

“Shimla Superintendent of Police Niki Marwah did not usually like to discuss her sex life. As a matter of principle. And discretion. And the fact that she did not currently have one”, begins Kaushal’s latest novel Drop Dead, a murder mystery with a Modesty Blaise-style cover. Other characters aren’t experiencing the same dry spell. “God knows she’d dated men who were hotter, who were great in cars and greater in bed,” the narrator writes about one character, a young, pretty book editor caught up in the investigation. “But none of them had ever made her want to just throw them down on the carpet ... ”

The blockbuster Bollywood movie Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (“The Brave-hearted Will Take the Bride”), which came out in 1995, still reflects the zeitgeist. It tells the story of Simran, a middle-class girl from a traditional, London-based Indian family, who falls in love with Raj while travelling in Europe. Simran’s father has promised her in marriage to his close friend’s son in India, and she pleads with her sweetheart to elope. But Raj refuses, saying he will only marry her with her father’s consent, which is eventually obtained. The feel-good narrative has been repeated in numerous films since. “If you look at Indian film, the best of youth cinema shows the parents finally coming around to the wishes of the younger generation,” says Grey’s Dheeraj Sinha.

But unlike in the Bollywood movies, India’s new-found sexual freedom is not necessarily delivering happiness for all, or even most, of its participants.

. . .

Vimochana is a Bangalore institution, a decades-old feminist collective dedicated to combating violence against women and other women’s issues. A long-time activist with the group, D. Shakun sits on a sexual harassment grievance committee for a major software company. Recently, a devastated company employee in her early twenties approached Shakun for help.

The girl had dated an older colleague from a different department. After a few weeks, they went for an out-of-town holiday, now a common courtship ritual for young Indian professionals. On the trip, the couple visited a Hindu temple and garlanded each other – a significant gesture, as garlanding is an integral part of Hindu wedding ceremonies – and, afterwards, the two moved in together. Then the man visited his home state, to tell his parents about the developments. He returned to Bangalore married to another girl, chosen by his parents from his own caste. His previous partner was, says Shakun, “totally broken”.

“These girls come to an atmosphere of total freedom, after total repression, and they go wild,” Shakun says. “But they become so vulnerable to anyone who comes along. It’s like a dream world. When the crisis hits, they don’t see it coming.”

It’s not only men, though, who do the heart-breaking. DSouza, the KJ, says he has many female friends who expect to have an arranged marriage, but who also want to have fun, and experiment, as much as possible before that.

Dr Naveen Rao, plastic surgeon specialising in hymenoplasty©Poulomi Basu

Dr Naveen Rao, plastic surgeon specialising in hymenoplasty

Ali Khwaja, a prominent counsellor in Bangalore, says he has seen both men and women whose relationships have collapsed when a partner succumbs to pressure to marry a person of their parents’ choosing. He sees young Indians today in turmoil, caught between the values of a traditional, family-oriented society and a more urbanised, modern economy. “We are neither traditionally Indian, nor are we completely western,” Khwaja says. “It’s causing a lot of troubles. If you scratch the surface of a modern man or girl, there is still a strong sense of tradition.”

That sense of tradition isn’t just dutiful obedience to parents. Anil Srivatsa is the 45-year-old creator and host of Between the Sheets, a call-in talk show on sex that ran on a national radio network until 2009 and is now broadcast on internet radio. He says many young Indian men – steeped in a world view that heaps scorn on women who have sex outside of marriage – are themselves ambivalent about girlfriends with whom they are intimate. “Guys want somebody to be exclusive,” Srivatsa says. “They think, ‘If she’s gone this far, she’s not going to be a good wife for me. She’s okay for a girlfriend.’ But for a wife, they still want a virgin.”

The clinical white office of Dr Naveen Rao, a sober, spectacle-wearing plastic surgeon in Bangalore’s sleek, private Apollo Hospital, is where some young Indian couples end up, as they prepare to bid farewell to each other and move on to new relationships – including arranged marriages.

Rao is one of many Bangalore doctors performing hymenoplasty – the surgical restoration of women’s hymens. For Rs35,000-Rs50,000 (£400-£570), the 45-minute procedure creates the illusion that a woman has no prior sexual experience. “Despite the changes in society, whoever is marrying, the majority of them still want women to have pain and bleeding at the time of first intercourse,” Rao says. He used to perform between five and seven hymenoplasties every month, though the number has dropped slightly as the economy slowed. Nearly 90 per cent of his patients were young unmarried women, working in IT or in call centres. Mostly, couples parting ways come to the clinic together and the man pays for the surgery. “We are not restoring virginity – everything is in their mind,” Rao says. “But they feel guilty. They feel they are cheating their parents, and they fear that whoever they marry will be able to detect their past. They get great psychological relief the moment they undergo this procedure.”

For those without deep pockets, India offers other options. Bangalore is plastered with billboards for a product called 18 Again, which describes itself as a “female rejuvenation gel” and claims to tighten the vagina. “Here’s the answer to questions you fear most,” the ads proclaim.

C Manjula, chairperson of Karnataka state women’s commission©Poulomi Basu

C Manjula, chairperson of Karnataka state women’s commission

C. Manjula, the sari-wearing chairperson of the Karnataka state women’s commission, has a different answer. A former student activist and lawyer, Manjula says India’s youth must divert their energies from bars and worldly pleasures to social service and “nation-building”. “Exposure to alcohol or any drugs is bad for both girls and boys before they complete their graduation or get a job,” she says. “After 30, that is their choice.”

Manjula also wants the government to institute sex education, with lessons in biology and morality. “Up until graduation and achieving career success, the youth must follow brahmacharya [self-imposed celibacy],” she says. Intimate relations should wait for the couple to “enter the matrimonial home”.

Priyanka Blah, and her college friend Divya Ajitsaria, 24, who works in advertising in Bangalore, embody some of the paradoxes of today’s young Indians. Ajitsaria, a fresh-faced young woman from a conservative Calcutta family, has had boyfriends, but is also meeting men identified by her parents, who want her married soon to someone from their own community. Clad in a modest black turtleneck sweater, with a little make-up, she says, “I’ve had boyfriends, but no one serious enough to take back home.”

The process of trying to find a spouse through an arranged marriage has been taxing, though, given the pressure to make a quick decision after meeting a prospective groom. Though Ajitsaria still does not rule out finding a husband this way, she is soon going abroad to study – and buy time. “I’m only stressed [about marriage] because my family is stressed, but the background I’m from, it’s all about the family,” she says. “I like to have fun, but my values are very traditional.”

Blah is under less family pressure, having rejected her first marriage proposal at 21. Her parents still urge her to meet potential grooms from their social circle, but she refuses while seeing other people. She does, however, worry sometimes about her future in a country still hostile to single women. “People keep warning me that no matter how liberal or progressive the man you are with is, a large part of his decision comes from his family,” she says. “I know it happens. People are very seriously committed in a relationship, and one fine day he announces he is engaged to marry someone else.”

. . .

It’s comedy night at BFlat in Bangalore’s trendy Indiranagar neighbourhood. Stand-up is gaining momentum as young Indians – less encumbered by postcolonial baggage than their parents’ generation – are increasingly willing to laugh at themselves and their society. This evening, five young men riff on topics ranging from new India’s hucksterism, IT industry and MBA craze to deep-rooted traditions such as dowry – where a girl’s family gives large sums of money to the family of a prospective groom to clinch the wedding deal.

Sundeep Rao, a muscled 27-year-old in a black t-shirt who quit a job as an IT copywriter to focus on comedy, is the host. “Parents in India are crazy for sending their kids to the UK for studies,” he begins. “I studied at university in Wales, in Swansea. The Welsh are the only people who can make an Indian accent sound posh.” Then he moves on.

“I think prostitution should be legalised in India, and not just female prostitution but male prostitution,” he declares. “After all, men have always been paid for sex anyway – it’s called dowry.”

Next up is Ahmed Shariff, a south Indian Muslim, who spent part of his childhood in Saudi Arabia. “Drinking is banned, dancing is banned, dating is banned – it’s kind of like Bangalore, with bigger cars,” he jokes to rousing applause.

The comics finally wrap up before 11pm, and a few minutes later the bar is empty. As we move through Bangalore’s eerily deserted streets, I ask my taxi driver if there is any place still open in town. “You can go to the software parks, ma’am,” he says. “They are always open – 24 hours a day.”

Amy Kazmin is the FT’s south Asia correspondent.

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