Never on Sunday
I arrived in Mumbai (Bombay) on a Sunday, and decided to do a bit of tourism. I walked around the old town, seeing the sights (the Gateway of India) and doing some shopping. I had read about a restaurant, called Khyber, that I wanted to try, so I headed over there for a late lunch/early dinner. When I arrived there, it was only 630 pm and the door was locked. A waiter mimed to me that the restaurant opened in an hour. And, so my adventure in understanding cultural context began.
Killing time, I wandered up and down one of the main drags. Shopped out already, I started looking for a beer, but the pickings were slim. Finally, I saw a place with the words "beerbar" on a sign out front, and a couple of bouncers standing out front. Going in, one of the bouncers held me up with a gesture and these words "Ladies Service Bar." Now, in the airports in India, they frequently had ladies-only security lines. So, I asked if men weren't allowed and if this was a ladies-only bar. But the first bouncer's English had been exhausted and he just repeated himself. Finally, the second bouncer broke the impasse by gesturing me inside.
We passed through a good sized simple but empty room with benches and then entered a nicer room at the back. No problem, there were already eight guys sitting around the edges of this smaller room, and a mix of male and female waiters. I quickly order a Kingfisher (one of those delicious double size beers) and settle in.
Next to me is "George," who is the singer for the evening. Great! I'm going to get entertained by the local lounge singer. He has a backup band setting up a keyboard and percussion. The evening was just getting going here. George and I chat while one of the wait staff goes around lighting incense sticks and setting up them on the slightly raised area at the center of the room. George starts singing, and he's good (to my taste). The staff have brought me peanuts and sliced cucumbers with a mild red chili powder dusting. I've really lucked out!
Of course, I haven't really gotten the ladies service angle, because there aren't any women customers. But, there does seem to be a reasonably constant stream of people, mostly women, in and out of doors at the back of the room near where I'm seated. A young woman comes in and bows to a small altar on the wall, and then starts circulating around the room, ending up on the raised area in front of George while he's singing. Gradually, more women filter in and do the same bow on their arrival, with kind of a "we who are about to die salute you" air about them.
By this time, even my thick skull has begun to start grasping the essence of what this enterprise was really about. It made me think this was just like Miss Kitty's saloon in the Gunsmoke TV show of my youth, exactly what kind of establishment was being operated here?
Shortly, all doubts were removed as one of the ladies on the dais walked over, rubbed her thumb and forefinger together in the universal symbol of money, and gestured to the door in the back of the room. I politely declined, finished my beer, and escaped out the front door to the grins of the bouncers. And now, dear reader, you too know what the euphemism "ladies service bar" means in Mumbai!