Notable Noise

In the past couple of nights, I've made my way to a few different nightclubs, both downtown and in the suburbs. One place – Toto's Garage – was a smoky rockers' bar, packed with loud conversations and louder music, while another – The Ghetto – was a more congenial (but equally loud) neighborhood bar. There was Olive, filled with the rich and beautiful people dancing to superhip music in superhip surroundings; there was Seijo and the Soul Dish, also filled with rich and beautiful people dancing to superhip music in superhip surroundings. I saw Bed, which was (appropriately enough) furnished with beds that allowed the patrons to stretch out and truly relax while enjoying their $5 beers.

In case you're wondering how all these fabulous nightspots opened up in Orlando without you hearing about it, don't be concerned. I'm not in Orlando. I'm in Bombay.

As casual readers of my byline probably know, Bombay is my favorite city in the entire world, and although folks may know that, they tend to not understand it. When I told friends and co-workers I was headed here to work on a project that focused on night life in India, the response was usually one of quizzical congratulations tempered with a mild concern for my well-being (if not my sanity). "Good luck," they'd say, as if I were headed off to the jungle to research the mating rituals of pygmies.

Yet here I am, shacked up in a hotel room with a gorgeous view of Marine Drive and the Arabian Sea, with a 42-inch plasma TV on my wall, Hansgrohe fixtures in my marble-walled bathroom, Bose FM/CD alarm clock on my nightstand and a personal fax machine next to my broadband-connected desk. Funny, it doesn't feel too much like the jungle, and this trip doesn't feel at all like the anthropological study that some people assumed it must be. Sure, that wrenching poverty is, in an odd way, what makes it possible for me to afford a room like the one I'm staying in, and I'm nowhere near callous enough to act like it's somehow OK for there to be people shitting in the streets because they have no other place to go.

But I also understand that Bombay is a massive, teeming city, filled with slums and celebrities. In addition to the vast numbers of rural poor that have moved here and taken up residence on the streets, there are doctors and lawyers and authors and artists and musicians who are filled with creative energy and a desire to continually tap into Bombay's vibrant energy. Plus, there's also a booming middle class that's financing most of it. (As one person told me, "The guy who, five years ago, was making 800 a month is still making 800 a month; but the guy who was making 8000 a month is now making 80,000 or 800,000.") Sadly, though, Western visitors tend to not pick up on that energy, focusing only on the massive amounts of poverty, corruption and filth.

Imagine if you lived in a great city, with tons of great things to do, but nobody ever noticed them. If, say, whenever you were any other place in the world and you mentioned your city's name, people automatically assumed the worst stereotypes about it, based solely on the information that tourists brought back?

Wait. We do live in a city like that. And while I certainly don't mean to compare the slums of Bombay with Walt Disney World, how many of us can't relate to the frustration of being right in the middle of a number of fantastic things, yet the rest of the universe fixates only on that one thing that's most unrepresentative of our lives? Well, hip Mumbaikars do exactly what I wish more hip Orlandoans would do: keep creating more and more fantastic things, in the (perhaps futile) hope that one day those fantastic things will be what visitors remember when they crack open their scrapbooks.


All around Bombay, I keep seeing these billboards asking "Who Will Be the Indian Idol?" I at first thought it was advertising for a Bollywood version of American Idol, because that would be oh-so-Bombay. Of course, that show already happened (and, of course, it was called Indian Idol), so it wasn't a pop-singer contest. No, these billboards – sponsored by a newspaper and often sporting a huge picture of Ganesh – are for a very different kind of contest, pitting various Ganesh pandals around the city against one another. Whichever pandal is deemed to be the best by text-message voters will win.

Let me back up. Right now, Bombay is in the middle of Ganesh Chaturthi, a 10-day festival celebrating Ganesh. All around the city are hundreds (if not thousands) of pandals, minitemples with likenesses of Ganesh and various other religious figures, at which the faithful can come and worship. This description, sadly, makes it sound as dry and dull as possible, but the truth is that these pandals (almost all of which are sponsored by banks, newspapers and other large corporations) are brightly lit explosions of color and sound, with large lines and amazing likenesses of the elephant god. Add to this the nonstop music and dancing in the streets, fireworks and a general sense of insane fun and it makes the drive-through Easter pageant over at Central Baptist (not to mention the fuss over Nativity scenes in public places) seem lame.

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