Ladies of the Night by Queenie Sukhadia

            “Top z Restaurant and Dance Bar,” the blue winking LED bulbs declared. Suman stood outside the black glass doorway, looking up at the sign, wondering when Mohanbhai would fix the bulbs in the “a” so it could once again display its royal name, “Topaz”. She had brought it to his attention last week. He had laughed at her, his red betel-stained lips curling to reveal yellow teeth.

             When Suman had come in to work at Topaz, she had had a soft spot for Mohanbhai. He was middle-aged and balding, but he knew how to flatter the girls. Hehad earned a place in Suman’s heart, when on her second day at work, he had come up behind her as she brushed her hair, had tucked the errant flyaways behind her ears and said, “Those hard bristles aren’t for hair as delicate and feminine as yours, Sumanji. Leave those for the other girls” and had proceeded to place a gold bejeweled comb in her hands, the red and pink gems glowing with translucent promise. Nisha, applying her makeup on the stool to Suman’s right had looked her up and down, and Tina, who had just walked in after her performance, had slammed the door to the changing room tomake her displeasure known. Suman had pursed her lips to stop herself from flashing a wide smile. The disappointment came a month later, when the gold from the comb started to flake to reveal a dirty white handle under and there was a loud plastic clatter from the supposed ‘gems’ when the comb slipped from her hand and fell to the floor. Nisha and Tina had both paused their animated post-performance conversation to giggle. Suman had been annoyed with Mohanbhai for a few days after, and refused to smile at his compliments for the next three nights. What was important was the fact that he singled her out, she had later rationalized, when she was tired of ignoring his compliments.

             An annoyed honk from an old man on a motorbike startled her. She stepped onto the pavement.

             Years had wizened Suman up. She now felt happy when Mohanbhai gave her a new pair of high-heeled shoes for an “ultrasexy performance” or a new lace-trimmed top, though she knew they were not Gucci or Dolce and Gabbana as the labels promised, but picked up from the nearby Fashion Street. She felt flattered nevertheless because over the five years, she had learned that these gifts were his way of making sure she didn’t leave Topaz for next-door Barsaat Bar or Delite Galaxy. They were his way of fighting for her. She never let him know that the reason she stayed was not because of the attention he bathed her in, but because he was not like Chutku at Barsaat or Ramesh at Delite Galaxy who took an eighty percent cut from the dancers’ tips. Mohanbhai took only sixty, and so Suman stuck around.

             Though Suman wished Mohanbhai gave her more lavish gifts, she could not resent him for long. After all, he was the one who walked around the bar with his two bouncers, making sure none of the men were touching the girls. Particularly those obnoxious young gangster boys. Who did they think there were, dancing closer andcloser to the stage till sometimes they were on it. Doing small-time hash deals and making short extortion calls on behalf of the local dada made them think they could get anything they wanted. Mohanbhai was the one who intervened in such situations, tapping the boys lightly on their shoulders and pointing at the sign on the wall that said, “Lookbut no touch” in red LED letters. Most complied and backed off. They didn’t want to be banned from the bar.

             Suman looked at the small, pinched face of the gold Titan on her wrist. She wason in thirty minutes, and she had yet to change and do her makeup.

             Lifting her salwar, she jumped across a large puddle to make her way to the back entrance of the bar. Kamathipura was aglow with activity at this hour. Dance bars lining the street cast red and blue arcs of light onto the footpath and where there were shadows between bars and under the banyan trees that bowed over the street, one was sure to find the girls, smiling at passing men, calling out “Ay handsome, looking for some fun tonight?” or “I’m an open girl, chammiya, I’ll make you very happy”. Some of them were dressed in long Indian skirts, their breasts spilling out of their low-cut blouses, bangles jangling at their wrists and fake silver nose-rings glinting in the pale yellow light of the streetlamps. First Night of Marriage experience. The other girls were dressed in mini- skirts, backless blouses and knee-high boots. Western experience. Everyone at Kamathipura knew that the latter were more expensive because they watched those dirty films Ramu sold at his stall at the corner of the street, and were willing to try out outlandish Western positions.

             Suman pushed open the backdoor that opened into the changing room. She never talked to those girls that stood outside. She definitely had more izzat, more dignity than them, though when people living in and around the area quickened their pace when they sighted any of the bar dancers, or tightened their grip on their children’s wrists, she knew that she was collapsed into the same category of loose women to be wary of. But now, some girls from the bar had become like that, such as Mandakini and Lucy who were standing before the mirror-lined walls, gliding red lipstick onto their lips and darkening their cheeks to a deep scarlet with their blush, craning their necks and bending their knees before their mirrors to see themselves in the patches that were still reflective.

             Suman preferred the way it had been five years ago, when she had just joined –  the bars were the bridges between cinema and the world outside on the streets. The dancers dressed like Bollywood heroines and the men could watch them dance and shower them with money, often even slip garlands of hundred and thousand rupee notes around their necks. The girls would sometimes flirt back - bat their eyelashes, lock eyes with the men. When the men’s testosterone started surging and they needed some skin on skin, they would leave the bar and drive home one of the girls from outside. But now, when business at the bar was sluggish, some of the bar girls became the “meet me after the shift” kind, going home with the men to double and triple their earnings. Suman raised her eyes to the peeling hospital-green ceiling paint and thanked God – her business had never taken such a hit so as to force her to resort to such cheap tactics.

             Suman grabbed the blue chiffon sari and backless blouse Mohanbhai had laid out on her stool and rushed to the section of the changing room hidden by a pink and yellow paisley-print curtain. After two years of working at Topaz, she was still not ready to change at her station, like the other girls did. The girls thought she was shy, but only Suman knew about the slush-brown birthmark on her waist, large and ugly, somewhat in the shape of the map of Mumbai, and she wanted to keep it like that.

             When Suman emerged from behind the curtain, she stood before her mirror, and daubed on some powder. Her complexion was unblemished. The Fair and Lovely cream her mother forced her to slather on every day had done away with the light golden tan she had acquired by playing hopscotch outside in the sun as a child. She was proud of her hair too, thick and black as onyx. Each curl was her baby – she had grown it out with the utmost care, lovingly massaging Parachute coconut oil into it every weekend. Suman picked up the plum lipstick from the counter before her and swiped it onto her lips. Once Mohanbhai had said they looked like Anjalina Jolee’s, but she had no idea who that was, so she had just smiled like it was a compliment. Apsara, she mouthed to her reflection, fairy princess.

             Today was a Friday night. Business would be good. She knew there would be those usual stragglers after her performance was over, their egos inflated by their swanky cars, the thick wad of notes in their wallet, or sometimes, their alcohol-laced mind. They would hover around her like a swarm of buzzing bees, offering to take her to the latest Shah Rukh Khan movie at Imax, or shoving gifts into her arms – skimpy lingerie, expensive makeup, and kitchen appliances. Suman would smile coyly, tousle their hair or lean in so they could smell the perfume mixed with her sweat, and say in a singsong voice, “No, not today. My mother will scold me if she sees I have taken a lover.” That would keep them hopeful, would keep them coming back and spending money on her.

             The door separating the changing room from the stage swung open and six girls trooped out. The lazy drawl of exotic Arabic words wafted out to Suman. ‘Lovely’ had started playing. It was her cue to enter. She climbed the three steps and stepped through the door of the changing room onto the stage, sashaying to the front center. The five other girls followed her. A few men in the bar started whistling, while others clapped. One man shouted out, “Apsara, meri jaan!”, Apsara, my life. Suman enjoyed the attention. She imitated the moves she had seen Deepika Padukone flawlessly execute on her television screen back home - graceful chest pumps with only a hint of vulgar, a sprinkling of belly dancing, and some feminized pelvic thrusts. Three men went down on their knees at her feet and flicked off hundred-rupee notes with their right index finger from wads they held in the palms of their left hands. Suman spread her arms and moved her belly from side to side, enjoying the feel of the notes fluttering around her, settling in her hair and sticking to her sweaty stomach.

             As the brassy trumpet of ‘Nachan Farrate’ came on, Suman saw the beaded curtain that separated the dancing room from the restaurant outside being pushed aside. A woman came in with a man, a professional-looking camera hanging on a thick strap from his neck. Suman was surprised to see a female patron in the dance bar. In her five years working at Topaz, this was the first time she had seen a woman enter the premises. As she pirouetted and flipped her hair, she peered through the men dancing awkwardly around her to catch a glimpse of the mystery patron. However, through the dancing shadows that played on the bar walls and the haze of the patrons’ hookah smoke, she could barely see the woman’s silhouette. All she could tell was that the woman and her friend were making their way over to the cash counter, to where Mohanbhai sat. Suman turned her attention to a young man who had just come forward from the crowd. He was 5’7”, a head and a half shorter than her. Suman judged him to be a teen - the hairs on his upper lip were fine, unshaved. How much money would this boy spend on her, Suman thought as she turned away, her eyes scanning the crowd of men for a middle-aged manin a suit. Those were the ones who spent the most on her. Rich balding businessmen, uninterested in their fat wives at home, looking for a young girl who would make them feel desire course through their pudgy limbs

             An hour later, the music became softer and the spotlight was turned off, allowing the girls to make a quick exit. It was midnight. The money boys came to wipe the floor clean of scattered notes.

             As Suman made her way to the door of the changing room, a middle-aged man came up to her. “Apsaraji, this is for you,” he said to her, gazing at her, awestruck. He pushed a large box with a red bow tied on top of it into her arms. “Apsara Juicers” was written in wide-spaced letters on both faces of the box, and below these letters were pictures of a large stainless steel and clear plastic juicer, surrounded by mangoes and carrots, and a tall glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. He had mottled lips, the outer edges so light that they blended into his skin. He would benefit from a lip liner, Suman thought to herself.

             “Gifting me things your wife doesn’t want, eh?” Suman said, and stepped into the changing room without waiting for an answer, letting the door swing shut behind her. She already had six juicers in her apartment, all of them still in their cardboard boxes. She had no real use for this one, but she was not one to reject gifts. This year her Diwali gifts to friends and family would only comprise of juicers, that’s all.

             Suman waited on the second step, behind Mandakini, to enter the changing room. The dancers on the next shift were squeezing past them onto the stage and the changing room was too small to accommodate so much activity. Suman looked around the room, her eyes settling on the woman sitting on the rexine couch in the far corner of the room. Was she a dancer? Suman had never seen her before. She couldn’t be, Suman thought, as she saw her bob-cut hair tucked neatly behind her ears. Plus she looked like she was inher mid-thirties. Too old. She was wearing a loose pair of cuffed blue jeans and a white kurta. A yellow scarf was wrapped carelessly around her neck, one of the ends just barely flung over her shoulder. Even a slight movement would make it slip off. A pair of round tortoiseshell glasses covered her kohl-rimmed eyes and smoke curled up from the cigarette she held between her fingers, fading into the stale air heavy with sweat and cheap perfume. The room vomited the five girls onto the stage as the lights began to brighten. The door closed behind them, the thud lost in the thumping beats that climbed higher in tempo with every passing second. Mandakini walked to her station and Suman followed to her own. She saw the woman look at her and rise from her seat.