The story of a bar girl

File picture of a girl performing at a Mumbai dance bar. The girls, sometimes as young as 14, would more likely be the sole breadwinners of their family.--PHOTO: AFP
File picture of a girl performing at a Mumbai dance bar. The girls, sometimes as young as 14, would more likely be the sole breadwinners of their family.--PHOTO: AFP

I always saw Pinky (not her real name) because we took the same Mumbai train whenever I worked the night shift. We even got down at the same station, from where I walked to the newspaper office where I worked.

She was young, in her late teens or early twenties, but by and large average looking. She wore traditional Punjabi suits and chose the women-only carriages, which were relatively empty at that time of day.

The 50-minute journey was siesta time for Pinky, who would unabashedly stretch her 1.6-metre-something frame on the wooden benches, cover herself with a dupatta – the long scarf that completes the Punjabi attire – and doze off within minutes.

She sometimes asked a fellow passenger to give her a nudge before her stop so she could get ready to alight before the office workers rushed in. This appeared to be her regular routine, even though I did five night shifts only once every two months.

During one such journey, the train was unusally crowded making it difficult for her to catch her forty winks.

I noticed she was shifting uncomfortably in her seat and flashed her an understanding smile. That was cue enough for her to start talking to me like I was an old friend.

“Too crowded today,” she sighed. “I need to sleep or else I will be cranky at work.”

“Where do you work?” I asked politely, letting journalistic curiosity get the better of my good manners. 

“I work at a dance bar,” she replied with no hesitation or embarassment. “It’s good money,” she told me as she chatted away for the rest of the journey.

My initial shock at the mention of her profession stemmed from long-held perceptions that equated bar girls with vice since they danced in shady night clubs and poured drinks for their male clients. That evening, I got to know more about her and her job.

She earned at least 5,000 rupees (S$106) a night, mostly tips from happy customers. She had her own set of admirers, among them law enforcement officers. They showered her with gifts from lipstick, clothes and fake designer purses. One of them even gave her a handphone.

Pinky and a few friends working also as bar girls share a rented house. But residents in their apartment complex did not take kindly to their presence, and if they were not ignoring or taunting them, they were looking for the flimsiest excuse to kick them out.

She said she had very little education and sent part of her earnings to her family living in one of the country’s poorer states. She held no illusions about her job. “Now is my time to make money. Then I will go back to my village and get married,” she said matter-of-factly. 

When we reached our station, she bade me goodbye with a big smile before walking away. She didn’t tell me her name and I didn’t think to ask.

But I was struck by her spirit.

Here was a girl who made the proverbial lemonade when life gave her lemons. She worked hard and did not mind the hours because she was aspiring to a better future. I would give a nod of recognition on the few occasions I saw Pinky subsequently but we never spoke again.

I didn’t even know when she stopped taking the evening train but reckoned it must have been soon after the Maharashtra state government banned dance bars in Mumbai and other cities in 2005. 

I never saw Pinky again. I found my current job with The Straits Times and moved to Singapore in 2007.

Now, six years later, memories of the young woman spilling her life story to me, a total stranger, came rushing back as I read that India’s Supreme Court has lifted the ban on dance bars. And I sincerely wish that she has since moved on to a better life, perhaps gotten married and started a family.