Not just anybody can walk through the doors of the Willingdon Sports Club in Mumbai. In fact, membership here has been closed since 1985 making it one of India’s most exclusive hangouts. This is more than a little ironic considering that Willingdon was founded in 1918 as the first club in the city for Europeans and Indians.
My particular invitation to Willingdon was a result of a friend of a friend, who told us to drop by for drinks and dinner one sultry Mumbai evening. I wasn’t originally aware of the club’s prestige and after running a quick search online was stunned. This colleague of my friend was nothing less than the son of one of Mumbai’s bluest of blue bloods. Naturally, I was ecstatic. What an excellent story, I thought, a night at Willingdon exploring the lives of India’s old money.
So imagine my disappointment when instead of finding myself in a room of intricately carved mahogany puffing away at a cigar while discussing India’s most honored national pastime (oppressing the underclasses cricket), I was treated to a run of the mill English-style pub whose patrons were clad in jeans and t-shirts. Having spent the taxi ride over to Willingdon fretting about whether or not they would even let me in without a jacket, I now found myself overdressed. And to make matters worse, even the simplest of cocktails, the old fashion, seemed too much for the Willingdon to handle. OK, maybe my expectations were a tad high; this is India, after all, and you don’t come here for cocktails.
After a few drinks (I switched to beer), my new old-money acquaintance suggested a change of venue. Ah ha, I thought, time to hit Mumbai’s posh club scene. I bit tired territory for a blog, to be truthful, but it was better than nothing. Alas, it seemed that he had something else in mind entirely. He wanted to show us something unique, something Indian: exotic dancers. I turned to my female friend expecting an unqualified rejection of the idea, only to find her enthusiastic about the proposition. She was curious.
Now, I have only been to a strip club once in my life. It was during a bachelor’s party in Las Vegas. I found the whole experience to be rather pointless. Yes, there are nude women, but there are also nude women all over the internet these days, and they don’t cost you a $50 cover charge. Frankly, if I’m going to shell out that kind of money, I want to have a little stimulating banter to go along with it. But, hey, at least in India I can pretend it’s a cultural experience, right?
The first club that we hit didn’t let us in, at least not with a woman in our party. I guess while Willingdon has come kicking and screaming into the modern era (women were allowed full membership in 2007) some places remain exclusively for males in Mumbai. We decided to try our luck at another club just down the street. After a bit of haggling, the doorman let us through.
We were led down a stairwell to a dance floor, the walls completely covered in mirrors. Comfortable mauve couches ringed the room with petite circular tables spaced neatly in front of them. We took a seat opposite the only two other patrons in the establishment as we listened to a young male singer, his hair slick with gel, belting out what I can only imagine was a classic Bollywood love song; the real show, apparently, had yet to begin.
After ordering a ridiculously overpriced Kingfisher beer, the first couple of girls trickled onto the dance floor. Some of them were dressed in traditional saris while others were wearing pants and long shirts. They stood around in the middle of the floor occasionally swaying to the obnoxious singing, but most of them seemed to be more consumed with their cell phones. Eventually, one of the girls walked over to the men across the room. They were older gentlemen in business suits, rather fat, one sporting a finely trimmed mustache. In front of them on their table was a stack of 20 rupee bills. It was a tall stack, maybe five hundred dollars’ worth.
The slender girl, who was wearing western-style pants and a long sleeved shirt, began to dance, but one could hardly say it was sexy. Her movements were cautious, like she was listening to music in a park and was embarrassed of drawing anyone’s attention.
The man with the mustache handed a small portion of his stack of rupees to a young club attendant in a well-tailored suit who proceeded to deftly skim the bills over the girl’s head. His wrist action was incredible. Really, he could have been a dealer at any Vegas casino. Certainly, it was the most entertaining thing I had seen that night.
I watched as the rupees briefly swirled around the girl before falling to the floor. Once the money had been exhausted, she returned to the center of the dance floor, which was rapidly becoming crowded as more women joined us in this most unusual entertainment.
The whole procedure occurred three more times during the course of my beer and always with the same girl. Several of the other women on the floor would eye me occasionally, no doubt expecting that a foreigner would have deep pockets, but they soon lost interest when they realized our little group was not paying out. Unsurprisingly, after we had finished our drinks, we left.
“What the hell just happened?” I asked my female companion who was as stupefied as I was. And boy was I confused. I had seen laundry detergent commercials more arousing than that. So why did I feel so dirty? And why did I feel like these women were being exploited?
As I pondered these questions over a game of Jingo (yes, India’s super rich like Jingo too), my thoughts turned to the intrinsic link between sexuality and the arts. Puritans may try to deny it, but sensuality is beautiful, and what once may be considered pornographic can over time transform into a new form of artistic expression. This has happened with adult entertainment like cabaret and belly dancing, now widely accepted as preforming arts. Even pole dancing has become a popular classroom activity.
What set Mumbai’s club apart is its total lack of artistic value. There was no beauty to admire, no sensuality to engage one’s attention. It was simply a man pouring money (and he didn’t even bother to do it himself) over a woman because he could.
It is often said that sex is about power. I disagree, but I do think that for some, power is the greatest aphrodisiac of all. By taking away sensuality, we are left with only raw power. What I saw in Mumbai was a man’s naked exercise of power over a woman. She was not exploited in the conventional sense – there was no physical or verbal abuse – yet her treatment was morally repugnant, because at the heart of the matter, what I had witnessed wasn’t about sex or gender, but rather the most base of human instincts: the desire to control others.