I think I've led a very sheltered existence – certainly during the past few years I have been in the Middle East.
I had been to a business meeting with 'Miss S' and 'Mr P' in the Royal Mirage One & Only Hotel – one of Dubai's better establishments - and by the time we emerged, S said she was absolutely famished.
P suggested we go to a restaurant on the Sheikh Zayed Road to do something about her hunger pangs and we piled into P's car and headed north.
Well, what with S prattling on the way she does, it was hardly surprising that P totally drove past the required exit (that always used to happen to me when S was a passenger in my car!) so we decided instead to go taste some real Indian cuisine in Karama. I know just the place, said S, holding a poker-straight face, casually mentioning she wanted to enjoy a "real beverage" with her food.
We headed towards Karama – one of Dubai's many "little India" suburbs – and finally piled out at the Karama Hotel. North Indian or South Indian food – that was the question; but after a little negotiating with the staff and ascertaining which had the best bar, we were shown along the corridor, a door was held open for us and our ears were assaulted from all sides by the sounds of "cheap Bollywood" – "paanwallah music" as S described it.
[If you are as ignorant as I am, then you might care to know that a typical paanwallah operates a small stall, roadside booth or push cart selling Betel leaf and areca nut, where local people generally gather around to chew and talk.]
As we rounded the corner, there in front of us was a stage area with a motley collection of females moving under flashing lights.
We were shown to a tiny table in the dance bar where all seats faced towards the stage area and very soon we had ordered drinks before we sat back to enjoy the "show".
These girls, explained S, came from small villages in the south of India. They would come over for about three months, make an absolute fortune (in their terms) and then be shipped back home again.
I say "moving" rather than "dancing" as it was clear that no one had ever shown these girls what to do. Choreographer Saroj Khan [self styled Queen of Bollywood, who teaches young nymphettes on NDTV's Nachle Ve show to do simple dance routines] would surely have wept into her Guinness.
There were 14 'dancers' in all, wearing a variety of outfits from the simply tacky to dresses that were way over the top. Two of the girls wore heart shaped breast plates over their bras; some looked like they had got dressed after the lights had been switched out; most of the girls were running to fat (one even looked like she was 6 months pregnant) and I could have sworn that one of them was a drag queen (P concurred with me).
One of the podgier looking girls looked daggers at S (who incidentally was the only female in the audience, and attracted as many glances from the rest of the motley bunch swilling beer as did the girls on stage). And if they thought for one moment that this handsome Brit would be turned on to the sight of them gyrating their hips (or whatever it was they were gyrating) then their hopes were surely dashed when they saw S lean towards me and shout something over the din of the music.
We munched on chopped carrots, a bowl of nuts, and later a platter of melon, grapes and apple slices, accompanied by kebab pieces, while the thump thump thump of the music continued relentlessly. I wondered if these girls went back to India at the end of three months with permanent hearing loss. An officious-looking well-built guy in a black suit – who I presume was the bouncer (just in case the comatose audience couldn't resist throwing something at one of the girls, perhaps?) strutted up and down looking, well, officious. He too probably went home at night with his ears ringing.
Normally around four or five of the 14 girls would perform whilst the others sat out, eyeing up the audience and sharing a private joke or two between themselves (or could this have been an act, as I am sure they could not have heard a single word uttered in that place). One of the girls kept on looking at her watch; another found herself dozing off, before a spotlight would brush over her and she would wake with a start, instantly switching on her well-rehearsed smile and pretending she was enjoying the experience.
Our waiter shouted at P, as he competed with the loudspeakers, that for a mere 100 Dhs, we could award one of the girls with a "crown" – a gold coloured plastic tiara that, P explained to me later, would let the particular chosen favourite know that you were interested in her so that at the end of the evening you could more freely negotiate other services from the poor brat. I suggested that perhaps S could pretend she was a lesbo – something that P thought a great idea – in order to liven up the place and see what the reaction would be, but for some unfathomable reason, S shied away from the idea.
One of the girls decided it was time to do a solo act. She had obviously been inspired by whirling dervishes, as she wheeled round and round throwing her hair about like a demented bit part actor in Wuthering Heights. She was rewarded after just a few minutes with a tiara and the look of relief on her face was touching – until she saw who was intending to book her favours, at which point the smile became more forced and she tucked the piece of paper that had been handed to her into the back of her knickers.
Inspired by her colleague, no doubt, another girl wearing a white dress got up to dance. (Hey dear, did your mother never tell you not to wear a black bra with a white dress???). The Bollywood number included the immortal line My name is Sheila I'm so sexy for you as a chorus to the Hindi lyric – something that could not have been more inappropriate. Whereas I might even have offered to pay her to stop dancing, someone else decided that she too was worthy of a plastic tiara, which all goes to prove that there is no accounting for taste.
Soon after that plastic tiaras were being offered up one after another, as the beer-swilling audience obviously realised that if they waited much longer they would lose their chance of a pick up. As S continued obstinately to refuse to play the part of a lesbo, it was clear that the fun would soon be coming to an end; and as the fruit and kebab nibbles disappeared off the plate, it was time to move on.
The sheer bliss of no longer having a full frontal attack on our eardrums was heaven as we walked out into the hot night air. I wondered aloud how any of those in the audience could possibly fancy any of the dancers, with those spare tyres around their waistlines; but as P pointed out, Indians like something to take hold of with their women – More bangs for your buck, as S added helpfully.
A bang with one of these girls would probably be around 150Dhs, P explained, obviously realising that my education was sorely lacking after such a long time in the Emirates. And, it turns out, almost all the Indian hotels in the area have similar dance bars devoted to matching village girl with local hustler.
Of course, to the 150 bucks, you would have to add the cost of a room at the hotel (after all, the hotel needs to get something out of this arrangement too) but it struck me what a perfectly civilised way this was of continuing the oldest profession in town. It sure was different from the way they do things in Beijing. Yet another difference between Chinese and Indians I decided as we drove off into the night.