Black Nights Matter


Black Nights Matter

Illustration: Mudit Ganguly

Agroup of Indian men in their 30s are sitting at the table next to ours. When we enter at 10 pm, they are as silent as anyone else at the other tables, checking their phones and sipping what looks like whisky. As the music gets louder, they begin to gravitate toward the African women dancing at a table close by.

The two women, one in a tight red dress and black high heels, and the other in a black skirt and printed yellow see-through top with chunky earrings, ignore the men. Instead, they move closer to each other, put their hands on the glass table, and begin to twerk. The men at their own table whistle and stand up in front of the Indian men. The Indians now can’t see anything over the shoulders of the Africans and sit down grumpily. Soon the African men start dancing too, and when the song ends they hug each other and wait for the next one to start playing. The Indians are still staring at the women.

We’re at Twins Party Hall in the Bangalore neighourhood of Kammanahalli. Africa Nights, which happens every Friday and Saturday, apparently has the reputation of being the place to “party like in Lagos”. My only sense of the music and dance at these parties comes from reading writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and through her books I’ve tasted Jollof rice and fried plantain. It’s exciting that one of the first things that Ayo, dancing next to me in a fashionably ripped white shirt, says sometimes, Africa Nights reminds him of home.

Around 11:30 pm, it really begins to get loud. Ludacris’ “Move Bitch (Get Out the Way)” begins to play, and it seems like every table in the club knows the lyrics to the song. A loud cheer goes up. The Africans all look glamorous, as though they’ve walked straight out of the music video playing on TV.

Ayo is from Nigeria. He lives in this neighbourhood, which is also where a 21-year-old Tanzanian woman and her friend were beaten up and stripped by a mob in February last year, and their car was set on fire. And yet this place is still jokingly called Kammanahattan for its unusual cosmopolitanism. Walk out on the streets and you’ll bump into Korean restaurants, a Korean church, an all-Black church, a Korean bakery, and several Afghan, Jamaican, Naga, and Naga-Goan restaurants. Ayo says he isn’t really keen to go clubbing elsewhere in Bangalore. “Don’t get me wrong, I do like to have a good time, but there’s only so much staring a person can take,” he grins, assuring me that if I entered a pub in Lagos, nobody would stare.

Now Major Lazer’s “Lean On” begins to play and Ayo starts to cheer with everyone else, before he disappears into the crowd toward an African woman in a pale pink jumpsuit, sporting a bright lipstick, and tightly braided hair. The DJ dims the music during the part that goes “eeh ooh, eeh ooh, eeh ooh”, and by now everyone in the club is singing. Over the music, one of the friends accompanying me, sounds slightly disappointed, and says, “I can’t believe that there aren’t any African boys on Grindr at the moment.”

Every African knows of Twins pub from back in the day, when it used to be Lounge 579, known far and wide for the best hip-hop music in town. There aren’t too many places like Twins in Bangalore. There aren’t too many in India, for that matter. African students in India mostly prefer to hang at home.

As we’re about to leave, we meet a young man called Gabe, until recently a Christ University student, who tells us that his brother was attacked.

Anabel, who graduated from St Joseph’s College a few months ago, used to visit this club when she lived in Kammanahalli. The first time, she had been so taken in by the Nigerian music that when she ordered a chicken starter, she was almost surprised to hear the waiter ask her if she wanted tandoori chicken or Chinese instead of Nigerian suya pepper. Over time, the staring Indians became more ignorable. She laughs and says it was a great place to meet men who danced, and she stopped feeling awkward like she did at other clubs like Plan B or B Flat, where everyone was always looking at her closely.

But Anabel hasn’t visited Twins for months now. She was asked to leave her PG accommodation in Kammanahalli by her landlord; he forced her to leave without any notice. “He just said something about short skirts and long hair, but the other Indian girl I had moved in with, who wore the same kind of clothes that I did, was allowed to stay,” she says. She wasn’t given her deposit back.

There are too many stories like that, but neither Anabel nor Ayo want to get into the details; they don’t want to give the impression that all Indians are racist.

I am reminded irresistibly of a photograph from Mahesh Shantaram’s collection Racism in India: The African Portraits. A young couple on a motorcycle at night under a massive tree in one of those idyllic quasi-rural spots you still see in this city. They are both looking around with a mixture of tension, amusement, and resignation. Shantaram calls this photograph “Danger lurks from behind, Bangalore 2016.”

By 12:30 am, when the party begins to get lit, with people dancing more freely and more drinks floating at eye level, the bright white lights come on. We’re still in Bangalore after all and hostage to its infamous curfew hours. People groan as though they’ve forgotten the time and the waiters scamper asking for bills to be cleared.

As we’re about to leave, we meet a young man called Gabe, until recently a Christ University student, who tells us that his brother was attacked. “He was punched by some Kannadiga men some weeks ago.” It happened right here – at the Twins – the one place known for embracing African culture. Three men sitting on the footpath had started cursing without provocation and said something about kappu (black). When Gabe turned to get an auto, one of the men punched his brother, and then they all ran away.

Tucked away in a corner of Bangalore, this cosmopolitan, everyone-loves-each-other melting-pot neigbourhood may look like a safe zone for Africans, but like the rest of India, even this is not. Just recently, another group of three African students was assaulted by locals and the fourth girl was helped by an old local woman. None of the victims thought of calling the police. There is no longer any faith that things will be fixed.

Ayo and his friends have made peace with the racism they face in India and have made a whole life out of a handful of places like Twins. One day, they will leave India and go back home to tell their people of this odd land which began its fight for freedom from an incident of racism in South Africa, only to one day become racist itself.