City Life- Bombay: Shoot-out at the not-very-OK locale

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The Independent Online
BOMBAYITES saunter through Delhi with a distinctive smugness, and always complain about the dearth of nightlife. It rather resembles the way New Yorkers feel about buttoned-up Washington DC.

As a Delhi-ite myself, wanting to sample the fabled Bombay cocktail of glitz and sleaze cut with sea breeze, I flew down to the rival Indian metropolis recently with high hopes. It was about time to see for myself that sea-front skyline, known as the Queen's Necklace, and to sniff out what really happens here after dark.

But my first hurdle was simply booking a hotel room. Wedding season means there's hardly a room to spare in Bombay at any price these days. What's more, because the cost of office rents soared to the highest in the world a couple of years ago, businesses began leasing hotel suites as a stop- gap and took much of the best accommodation off the market.

After being turned away over the telephone by a dozen hotels, I pleaded with a tourism official at the airport to help me find somewhere to stay.

"It is difficult, madam," he muttered, "Everything's taken." When I implored him to check beyond the government-approved listings, since I needed only a bed plus a working phone and loo, he took a dog-eared notebook out of his pocket and scrawled down an address. "It's not central Mumbai; it's up at Juhu Beach. But they do have a vacancy," he assured me. "You must pay cash." What he failed to tell me was that the place was in the process of being torn down.

Four seedy flophouses were being refurbished with money from the Middle East into a single grandiose inn. For now, the reception desk was propped up behind wonky beams and plaster dust flaked everywhere, though it was quite encouraging to see a switchboard operator. (He kept trying to redial Dubai.)

Amazingly, my room was intact up on the second floor, but, with several stairs missing, and dismal lighting, I was forced to share a lift with a swarthy man wearing gloves, who kept cracking his knuckles. He looked like an underworld hitman from central casting. Suddenly fascinated with my room key, I avoided his eyes.

When my flight-attendant friend Tara Kotaria dropped by to check out these Bombay lodgings, she stared goggle-eyed at my gleaming marble bathroom and the multiple mirrors near the beds. It was not what she expected after picking her way through the skeletal building.

Tara was utterly appalled at the lack of security: my door was flimsy plasterboard, and there were forced-entry marks around the simple metal latch - the kind you find on a broom closet.

"There's something fishy here. I won't let you stay alone in this place," she declared. "I'm spending the night too." We cut short our evening with her flight crew and cousins at Razzbery Rhinoceros, the nearest disco, and returned to my room in the nameless hotel just after midnight.

Before we blocked the entrance with our luggage for the night, we buzzed room service to send up some mineral water, then attempted to phone home to Delhi. All lines were dead.

With visions of being snatched away by Bombay's notorious gangsters at any moment, we listened for footsteps in the hallway. I swore to Tara that I had witnessed other guests checking in - that we weren't the only ones. She nodded wisely and flicked on her lighter. By examining the flame's reflection in the mirror, Tara was trying to determine whether this was two-way reflective glass. Some underworld type could be peeking at us while we slept or undressed. "You read too many thrillers," I scoffed, and then we both froze. Loud voices argued next door, and two gunshots rang out. A door slammed.

Before we could react, the door creaked opened again and we heard feet shuffling. The shouting resumed and two more bullets were fired. We couldn't telephone the police, so we went undercover - and pulled the blankets right over our heads. Again came the shouts.

"Wait a minute," Tara said brightly. "Those are exactly the same words as before. They must be rehearsing lines." It turns out that, instead of a shoot-out next door, we were overhearing a night shoot.

Bollywood studios in the Hindi film capital crank out more features than Hollywood does - some 150 per year - and must work round the clock fit them all in. Studio space is scarce, so inventive directors set scenes wherever they can. It was just our luck to check in next to the set location for the third shift, which normally lasts beyond 3am.

Racy Bombay nightlife, anyone? Tara and I managed a brush with film stars and gangsters without even having to leave my hotel room.