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Published: Verve Magazine, Musings, January 2007
Illustration by Farzana Cooper

Sitanshi Talati-Parikh meditates on Mumbai, a city where sex, drugs and alcohol race through the party circuit, Indian traditional values are discussed over sheesha and bhang and the hippest people are those that find a perfect balance between the raciness of the culture and the values that are harped on at home

Musings01

Hip, trendy and captivating. When the season to entertain is here, the tourists and diaspora start floating in with the cool Queen’s Necklace breezes, looking starry-eyed and thirsty. Coconut water or lassi isn’t their cup of tea; the quenchers are fresh sugarcane martinis and melon caipirinhas. They move to a beat that is ultimately Mumbai – trippy techno, remixed goldies and American hip-hop. Their cuisine of choice isn’t kebabs and bukharas, but French fusion and Thai curry. The melting pot of cultures that they want to experience isn’t Punjabi, Gujarati, Muslim and Christian, but a svelte girl in a miniskirt, getting ‘hammered’ on a vodka-with-wings, grooving to hip-hop and making eyes at a wannabe American frat-boy. Where sex, drugs and alcohol race through the party circuit, Indian traditional values are discussed over sheesha and bhang and the hippest people are those that find a perfect balance between the raciness of the culture and values that are harped on at home.

They flock in hordes, flooding every fashionable place in sight from Colaba to Juhu, experiencing the way of life that is Mumbai. The Gateway of India is just a landmark for the Taj Tower or Privé, the lounge bar and Elephanta, Ajanta and Ellora are mystical card patterns sold at traffic signals. From breakfast at popular bistro, Basilico, late lunches at Indigo Deli, percussion and cocktails at Henry Tham, wine at Intercontinental’s dome, sushi at Shiru, sheesha at Souk and dinner at India Jones, these tourists are here for the nouveau luxury and sophistication that is creeping into the bumpy roads that still continue to get dug up every few months, whilst fabulous new buildings and sparkling malls pop up at every intersection. The chauffer-driven Mercs and Beamers, bearing Armani and Zara, chandelier earrings, platinum credit cards and stiletto heels, accompany them to all the hot spots, where the conversation is no longer about what is going wrong, but what is going right.

As my friends start holding their designer exhibitions in happening nightspots like Red Light, instead of staid shops, homes and galleries and art is displayed and discussed over wine and hors d’oeuvres at Saltwater Grill and at evening shows at Dusk, before a nightcap at Olive, one begins to wonder whether the city’s nightlife is pervading our everyday existence. Ryan Tham, restaurant owner, believes that it is the constant need to do and try something different. I wonder: are we really so different, or are we aping a culture that we have brought home with us, after our sojourns abroad? Is this who we want to be and is this an organic social change, or one that is racing headfirst towards collision with an intrinsic culture that is no longer in line with what is considered ‘in’?

Sunday brunches are the new buzz in a city that apparently has no limits – it is no longer chic to throw a party into the wee hours of the night – rather, it is delicately suggested to drop by for a Sunday brunch at one of the happening lounges – Vie, Squeeze, Taxi, Ra. As the sophisticates stroll in by 2 p.m., the welcome drink is a shooter – tequila, kamikaze, and slammer. Inside, the liquor and rhythm are readily flowing, replicating a night-time soirée. The only noticeable difference between the partying a few hours prior and the afternoon lies in the designer pair of sunglasses that must accompany every man and woman, to be considered fittingly attired for the occasion. To be seen without one of those, is a faux pas of the biggest sort! It is mid-afternoon, after all, and what better way to hide the previous night’s hangover than with a pair of gargantuan Versace or Gucci shades that cover most of the painstakingly made-up faces? Fabulous summer dresses, skinny heels and matching totes are perfect for the occasion, where conversation gets tiresome and the music gets louder until the invitees inevitably get completely inebriated by early evening. The ‘lunch’ is of course served by 4 p.m. and eaten in most part by 6 p.m. As I wondered why these invasive, but inordinately jolly, gatherings sliced straight through my routine massage on my only free day of the week, I was perkily asked by one very tipsy girl, what better day to party than that of the Sabbath? Besides, the best way to get rid of Saturday night’s hangover is to simply roll out of bed and drink some more! The future of cosmopolitan India suddenly looked painfully bright through the skylight.

This is the much-touted ‘McDonaldisation’ of Indian culture. Our Art of Living has found a new form of materialistic meditation, where money flows like a brook, as easily in as out. I am not surprised to find friends under 30 with complaints of high blood pressure, premature balding, cholesterol and heart trouble. Stress amongst the youth is as common as a Louis Vuitton at a party and as high as the sensex. In the race to become a Manhattan, we are quickly becoming mad hatters. Life is on speed dial and a party’s calling.

For those aching for a different scene, Goa is the ultimate weekend spot right around the corner. From ramshackle beach shacks to exquisite luxury resorts, they zoom in by the hordes. Bathing, tanning and getting ‘stoned’, Goa is their escape from the reality of their lives. They’re quietly raving but not ranting; the youth has given up complaints in lieu of escapist complacence. From Manchester to Mumbai, people ironically swoop in to hide in this ecstasy-driven pleasure haven. King’s beer, Goan curry, Domino’s pizza served on the beach, entrancing music, bohemian culture and a pace of life that refuses to speak of stress or worry, ease the harried nerves and form a balm to the acid of each day.

From the palaces of the North, to the spas of the South, India has now begun selling a lifestyle that is contemporary and current, instead of the history and glory of the past. Whether this lifestyle is appropriate is no longer the question but the worldly Mumbaikar has arrived, with luxury, sophistication and ideas galore. The icing on the cake is his endless desire to party, every night, every day and on any occasion. As the visitors flicker in by the dozens, they feel more at home, away from home, where the metropolis buzzes with excitement every minute, laced with an intoxicating flavour that is truly, Indian cosmopolitan.

My American-born-desi friend looked scornful and shocked when my husband and I announced our decision to leave the Bushy ‘country of dreams’, to take the rickety and bumpy ride home. The same person, while visiting us recently, was culture-shocked by the life that was now Mumbai. After 12 event-packed days, he left, hung over, a few kilos heavier and determinedly clutching the business card of a real-estate agent in Mumbai.

From the Scandinavian girls in small-town Italy, who speak not of the Taj Mahal (monument), but of plush Indian resorts with fabulous swimming pools and massages, to the Argentinean couple touring China, who talk of the cultural differences and expensive lifestyles in cosmopolitan India, foreigners are no longer bewildered and querulous of this poor, once-rich country. They are now in awe of this rich, poor country that is climbing the lifestyle ladder faster than they can build rungs to the top. What is it that amazes them? The ability of this Asian peace-haven to break the Lakshman rekha of tradition and dance on the bar-top of fire? Or is curiosity to see how this yogic nation can successfully climb out of the quagmire that has been sold to them by a country that failed miserably in doing the same? And can we, the brainiacs of the globe, manage to come a full circle and find material peace with the fire that burns in our souls?

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