Partying with the newly rich of India.
I found myself in Pune, my first time in India since 2001 and now I was back to close some circles. I had spent years here on and off from 18 until 23 before I decided the rest of the world deserved exploring. I had never found anywhere else like it but now all the talk was of change in India, of the new economy that was bringing the country at least into the 20th century, if not further.
It seemed like nonsense to me.
The economists trotted out figures of India’s soaring growth but it was odds on that the money would only be made by the richest 10% of the population with a minimum amount of trickle-down wealth. The government would doctor the numbers to suit themselves and for the average Indian not much would have changed.
Still, 10% of the population amounted to 100 million people and so the signs of wealth could be seen in all the cars made crossing the road a hazardous activity and the clothes shops that imitated Western fashions. And on a stroll one evening I got talking to some young Kashmiri guys in the street by their 4×4 jeep. They were just ‘eating the air’ and watching the girls go by outside the pizza joints. Some of their equally idle friends came by to smoke a cigarette and chat and after a couple of hours of hanging out they invited me to come to a disco.
My experience of India had involved hitchhiking on trucks that only covered 150km a day on pot holed roads, sleeping on benches in train stations, living on 10 rupees or less a day on the beach, squeezing onto trains without a ticket and being fed by kind Sikhs at the temple. An Indian disco seemed an oxymoron, quite out of my experience and so, naturally, I accepted.
My new friends got us in for free as they knew the doormen and I found myself under flashing disco lights with Bollywood tunes alternating with pop songs of Shakira and the young, rich and pretty bodies of Pune shaking on down. Drinks cost 100 rupees each and buying a round of colas for my Kashmiri buddies, I couldn’t help but reflect that I could once have lived a month on the money.
I quickly got into the spirit of things though and hit the dance floor, hoping to impress some Indian princess, and reignited the old moves that I used to pull at parties back in the golden days of Goa Trance. I had always been an eccentric dancer, to put it kindly, and such were the quantities of drugs taken at the parties, I used to get away with moves that would have summoned a strait jacket elsewhere in the world. Here in an Indian disco, however, my contortions were as idiosyncratic as Bollywood dance routines and to my astonishment I became an instant hit with the other dancers circling around me as I span like an out of control clockwork toy.
We hit another disco afterwards and though conversation was impossible with the loud music, I had clearly been adopted as one of the gang that now included another 5 or 6 Indian girls and guys. We grinned at one another under the lights and yelled encouragement into each others’ ears over soft drinks.
When we finally left the disco it was still dark but the workers at a nearby market were unloading heavy sacks of vegetable produce from trucks and hauling them away to the stands. As my friends chatted on their cell phones and we discussed where to go in our jeep, the economic contrast haunted me. I wondered if my companions had ever looked at it that way but decided not to bring them down with that kind of conversation after a long night.
They came to the conclusion that we’d drive out to a local hill spot and before long we were driving along a motorway that could have compared to any in Europe. It was almost spooky to see Indian trucks covered in tinsel and lettered HORN PLEASE on these smooth surfaces. I would later learn that most of the modern highways in India were foreign-built and maintained and that at least assured me that not too much had changed in India.
We pulled up for snacks at a service station and then after a debate in Hindi, I was informed that we would head back to Pune after all. As cool as my friends tried to be, it seemed that they spent most of their time wasting it. The main thing for them was to be going somewhere, not to actually arrive, drifting aimlessly was the thing with the casual boredom of the well-to-do.
Heading back into Pune we got stuck in a traffic jam that was pure India. There were no lanes, only a mass of cars and trucks shunting forwards, fighting for inches of dusty ground and by-passers furiously gave advice and commands to the drivers manoevering their vehicles through this chaos. The atmosphere was like that of a war zone and for the next hour and a half and our driver fought valiantly through the battlefield of combustion engines, each churning out thick black smoke from the adulterated fuel.
India hadn’t really changed a bit.