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Dressed up with no place to dance
- Curtain drops on Mumbai bars but girls still live in hope

Mumbai, Aug. 14: It is the intersection of everything that makes the city fascinating: money, sex, love, death and show business, writes Suketu Mehta of dance bars in his book on Mumbai, Maximum City.

No longer. As dance bars down the shutters today following the state government’s bill passed last week, all that is left is the desperation on the face of the women with cheap pan-cake slapped on.

Not all bars have followed the government order. In Savali Bar and Restaurant, a seedy dance bar in Kandivli, with a minuscule dance floor that has padded chairs circling it close, the women ' dancers, waitresses ' can speak of only one thing.

They have come today, too, as their “Seth”, a young man called Shekhar who drives a dashing yellow Toyota Sera, informs that he is yet to get the notice from the government. The music plays and the dim lights, red, green, yellow, glow from the ceiling. But there is no party.

The women put up a brave front at first. “Our Seth has said we will fight it in court,” says a woman in her thirties in a black sari fiercely, who refuses to identify herself. But as she, a waitress at the bar, opens up more, she says everyone is terrified of what the future may hold.

“Last night was terrible,” says another waitress, a round-faced woman in a blue sari. She wears a stone-studded blue bindi and thick kajal that seem to pull down her skin more. She also wears sindoor prominently and both her hands are adorned with shankha and pala.

She is a Bengali and is from Calcutta, she says, like many among the 30 women who work at the bar. “After the performance last night, the whole place changed. The women just broke down,” she says.

The woman, who lives in a slum nearby with her husband and 10-year-old son, said she has been near a collapse the past few days. Like the other waitresses, she is in her thirties --- the older women serve at the tables, while the younger dance.

“Even when the girls danced at peak hour, sometimes I would find myself standing in a corner crying. The others would ask me to get a hold on myself,” she says.

“But how can I' I have worked here for six years and my family lives on my income, Rs 200, or at the most, Rs 500 per day. I have to pay a rent of Rs 1,000 and Rs 200 for electricity and water. My husband doesn’t earn. I have to send Rs 2,000 back home to my mother who is very ill. I can’t kill her off,” she says.

“I have to look after the children of my husband’s brother, too. Everything runs on the basis of my daily earnings. So whenever I sit down to think I go crazy,” she says as her face crumples up with tears she is trying to choke.

The Bar Owner’s Association is planning to move court on Tuesday, requesting a stay order. “We will file a petition against the decision saying the decision is discriminatory and deprives the women of their right to livelihood,” said Manjeet Singh Sethi, president of the association.

The Dance Bar Girls’ Association is filing a separate petition on similar grounds, said Varsha Kale, who heads the organisation.

But the women are scared. Except in the upmarket bars --- Topaz, the backdrop of Raveena Tandon’s hot number Yeh Raat in Aks or Sapphire or Guddi ' where the women earn corporate salaries, most of the dance bar women earn between Rs 10,000 and Rs 30,000, says a recent survey done by S.N.D.T. University and the Forum Against Oppression of Women. The survey also found that on an average a dance bar worker would support families with an average of nine dependants.

There are an estimated 1 lakh women who work in the bars. With the bill, to be effected from today across 307 bars in Mumbai and 1,300 in other parts of Maharashtra (and there are many operating without licence), they face joblessness. Or worse.

“Many women have left,” says Sujata Gothaskar, who worked on the survey. “They have left for Hyderabad, Jaipur, Goa or Delhi to work in similar set-ups,” she says. “But many have not left either. They have absolutely no choice but to get into sex work,” she says.

“Though the bill bans dancing, it doesn’t stop women from waiting at bars. But the waitresses will then become euphemisms for sex workers,” she says.

“It will also force the older women who are waitresses now out of the profession,” she says.

Prabha Desai, who runs an NGO Sanmitra Trust that works among the 6,000 dance bar workers living in Malwani, has the same fears.

“Many of the 2,000 Bengali women here are thinking of leaving for home for a short while to see how things turn out,” says Desai.

But she sees a little ray of hope. “The State Bank of India will inaugurate a scheme with our organisation for self-help groups of dance bar workers on Tuesday. It will enable the women to get a loan of four times the amount they save after six months,” she says.

Meena Gopal, another activist with Forum Against Oppression of Women, says there is also an effort to bring more women into the Bar Girls’ Association.

Activists are hopeful that the petitions in the court will be strong as the government’s decision is obviously discriminatory.

Till then, the women live in fear.

With them, their families and the small industries that have grown up around them: of male waiters at the bars, paan and cigarette shops, autorickshaw and taxi drivers who reach the women to the bars and take them home, and tailoring shops and beauty parlours that have mushroomed wherever the girls live --- Malwani in Malad or the Congress House in Foras Road in south Mumbai.

And many men have lost their fantasies.

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