Some nightclub owners in India still offer rich tributes to the Raj, in the form of expat nights, for example
Burly Bouncer: Sorry, no stag entry
Us: We’re joining our friends
BB: No stags
Us: But they’re already here
BB: Call them down… hello sir (he says, turning to a White gentleman), how many of you, three?
Firang Barger-in: Yup… place on the second level?
Us: But he’s a bloody stag!
BB: (nods to FB) He’s a regular
Us: This is fucking discrimination
BB: It’s expat night
Us: Who the hell do you think you are?
As we slip away smouldering with anger and muttering the unprintable (even by Open standards), and pour ourselves more than our usual quantity of alcohol at a pub that’s inclusive in the patronage it seeks, we clink glasses and heads together: surely, we can’t let this pass, can we?
Naah. That such assaults on Indian dignity are commonplace is no excuse to shrug and look away. So, what are these ‘expat nights’ that our fancy neighbourhood nightclubs have started hosting? It is what pubs are marketing as Thursdays after their failed attempt to dub these the ‘new weekend’. But no matter how you choose to look at it, through the clarity of sober principles or the ddouble vvision of a bbooze bbinge, what it really is, is obvious. A somewhat delayed tribute to the Raj.
Whoever said there’s no free lunch has clearly never lived as an expat in India. There are free lunches and free dinners and free appetisers and free finger food and booze at half the price for the asking. And our new lepricons, our merry expats, are only too glad for the hospitality. As Aamir Khan goes on television to extol the virtues of rolling out the red carpet for foreign tourists in India, our pubs seem to have taken the slogan ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ to an altogether new level.
Sample this: the Delhi nightclub Urban Pind runs an expat night that makes its rules more than a little obvious to everybody. Visitors take only seconds to discover that the colour of your skin is the primary criterion for being allowed entry. And that’s just the start. The privileged only have to have the bartender note their pigmentation status to get a discount on a glass of lager, or whatever else your poison de etre might be.
For a couple of years, Urban Pind kept its expat nights hushed up. But caution has been swept away by the brazen success of the phenomenon, it seems. Word of mouth is strong among expats. Foreign passport holders get unlimited booze for 550 bucks flat, plus of course a stag entry (against the rules otherwise). If you have a foreign passport but look Indian, though, too bad—the deal’s off. There have been at least two instances of British passport holders of Indian origin being turned away because they didn’t look the part. And then, there are the zones you must know about. The nightclub has an open-air level for the exclusive use of expat patrons.
Doesn’t anybody complain? People did. A fuss was created, and rightfully too. But all that came of it was a repackaging. Kashif Farooq, the club’s co-owner, admits there has been some controversy, and that it forced the nightclub to rebrand ‘Expat Nights’ as ‘Expat and Media nights’. Not much has changed, however, even if Farooq insists that they allow media stags on Thursdays. Even couples continue to be turned away on the pretext that the place is full. So, what’s with the selectivity? “People don’t understand, they say it’s discrimination if we don’t allow them inside,” says Farooq, justifying the club’s policies, “But the fact is that even though we say it’s full, we keep entry for 30-40 people at my discretion. A lot of these expats who come are my friends or regulars, and I can’t be expected to turn them away, can I? Even cinema halls keep seats empty.”
The second argument is downright Neanderthal. The basic premise here is that Indian men don’t know how to behave with foreign women, and are under the mistaken assumption that they are easy, a mistake that mixes with alcohol to make them say and do disastrously impolite things.
Farooq offers an apology of an analogy to make this point. “If you leave honey out in the open, you will attract all sorts of insects,” he says, “However, if you preserve it, it will be pure.”
Duh? Is this how policy is framed around here? Is this generalisation of Indian men any less offensive than what they’re accused of? Yet, Farooq persists with his perceptions. “They (foreigners) know how to approach women,” he insists, “These days a lot of people from neighbouring towns who have come into new money head to the cities to party and they don’t know how to behave themselves.”
Urban Pind might be home to the longest-running expat nights in Delhi (Farooq puffs his chest to claim credit for pioneering this concept), but it isn’t the sole success. Pure by Kuki, a recently re-opened nightclub in the capital, had its own version of it until recently. And they even had a touch of sexism to top it up. On Thursdays, white women were offered drinks on the house (to lure desi guys apparently). But though the club claims to give away free drinks to anyone female, its resident DJ Rummy concedes that they “avoid passing along free drinks to Indian women”. And though all men have to pay Rs 990 to gain entry regardless of their melanin content, admission is once again subject to the discretion of a bouncer who just happens to like a firang guy’s shirt a little better than yours.
The club’s promoter, Jaydeep Ghosh, confesses that if you are in a group of more than two single guys, don’t count on getting in. The key word here is ‘profile’. “We let them (single desi guys) in only if the profile is good,” Ghosh says.
Loosely translated, this means if your dad’s malt buddy is not the local commissioner, and the bouncer swears he saw you at a highway dhaba, you can kiss your astral-chart-given chances goodbye.
The thing about Delhi’s discriminatory ideas is that they tend to spread far and wide across the country. Clubs even as far off as Hyderabad and Bangalore now use official or unofficial expat nights to raise their ‘patron profile’, as some manager must be patting himself on the back for (or drafting a case study to present at some B-school).
Henry Thams, for example, is an upmarket place in Mumbai that used to offer a special 15 per cent discount to expats and complimentary starters (before it shut down; it’s now moving to a new address). Blue Frog, a new hotspot in the city, is also known to look you up and down with quite the complexion-trained eye before deciding what sort of tab you need to pick up. Vie Lounge also persists with its expat nights.
Tourist spots like Manali and Goa, of course, have always been havens for discriminatory practices. It’s almost as if fair-skinned tourists have an entirely separate deal going for them in these places, be it the sort of places they gain entry to, the facilities on offer, or the charges they have to pay. It’s seen even in little matters of customer service; you can count on your pizza arriving hours after the next table’s at Johnson’s Cafe in Manali, getting kicked out of a Whites-only cafe in Pushkar, or having a door slammed in your face at a lovely seaside resort in Goa.
Returning to Delhi, there’s a nightclub called Manre that is also famous for its expat nights. What’s special about it is that it bears that common Indian affliction—denial. Its owner, Ramola Bachchan insists that they can’t be accused of discrimination because the pub’s special ‘drink all-you-can’ Thursday packages are open to everyone. It’s just that it’s booked days in advance, and reservations are not easy to come by. Bachchan says she sees little business sense in the concept anyway. “I don’t think it has a market, and I don’t think it’s fair (special discounts for expats),” she observes, “It’s better to have a regular night and special offers.”
If that’s so, then why have expat nights at all? “They are essentially just for pulling in the crowds,” she says.
In saying so, Bachchan manages to place a finger on what the game is. Somewhere deep down, nightclub owners nurse the delusion that expat nights bump up their patron profile. It sort of adds an extra imaginary star to their signboard, which might create a fancier aura to help keep prices high. Deny it as they might, some of this has to do with what psycho-analysts call post colonial trauma, a hangover that Indians never seem to get over.
What these club owners fail to realise is that the well-exposed Indian yuppie is not so easy to fool. True, there are the platinum card carrying expats around, but as Amelia, an intern with a real-estate firm, points out, “Many of these expats who stay in Delhi are students, backpack travellers, some of them even ‘white trash’. So this logic that they will be able to make more money if they hold an expat night doesn’t hold true so much.”
In fact, the very fact that Aura, the posh lounge bar at the Claridges hotel in Delhi, started and then quickly had to disband its expat evening stands testimony to the failure of this concept at the top-end. Those looking for genuinely sophisticated patronage do not sully themselves through such crassness. According to DJ Rummy, it started off as an innocent hook, a way to attract people on low turnout nights. But it’s a lousy hook if it puts people off.
Yet, undeterred by this, new liquor lounges continue to hang out flags of the world on their doors to signify a ‘global’ approach that doesn’t succeed in fooling the well turned out, the real city slickers who would rather not associate themselves with such nonsense. And in time to come, perhaps even the rest will learn to exorcise the ghosts that should have been exorcised more than 62 years ago, back when India declared itself independent. And that’s a sobering thought, even if you ddisagree.
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