Monday, November 21, 2005

Down And Out in London

You might have seen this happening sometime or the other. You’re buying ice-cream from the roadside, or beachside, vendor when a foreigner comes and asks for one. The vendor charges you Rs 15, but for the foreigner, hikes the price to, say, Rs 30. “Why are you doing this?” you protest. The vendor replies, “What‘s your problem?”

Yes, what’s my problem! What’s 15 rupees for the foreigner — that’s like loose change. But big money for the vendor, who doesn’t even have proper clothes to wear. But cheating is cheating, and we Indians have earned the reputation of excelling in the art. Travel writers from the West describe — in stylish prose — how people tried to extract money from them in every nook and corner of India. Fine, fine, some people do that — but only to get richer by a few hundred rupees. In the West, they can cheat you big time. Boy, you can feel miserable for the rest of your life. Here’s my story.

Soho is one place in London where you usually don’t hear the hurried clip-clop, clip-clop on the cobbled streets. People stroll about, getting drunk on the evening air. In one corner, a man in tatters plays Four Seasons on the accordion. In the next street another man plays the guitar: the guitar case is open for people to drop money. The smell of draught beer floats out of a pub, which is quickly killed by the perfume of a pretty woman passing by. You don’t know which one you like more. You move on. Suddenly, from one of the shops, floated out a voice. It was a striptease joint.

“Sir, come sir, five pounds, only five pounds!” The model-like woman beckoning us kept closing and opening her palm to indicate the amount — five pounds! I wasn’t really impressed, but I was curious — such things don’t happen openly in India. So why not check it out? I asked my Sudanese friend who was accompanying me. He didn’t mind, but he had no money. “Don’t worry,” I said, and we stepped into the joint.

I immediately noticed a printout at the reception: It is compulsory for customers to buy one drink each. “How much is the drink?” I asked the model-like woman. “Minimum four pounds, sir.” I did a quick mental calculation. Entry for two = 10 pounds. Drinks for two = eight pounds. Total 18 pounds. No problem. But to be sure, I asked the woman: “Are you sure there are no other charges, I mean hidden charges?” “Not at all, sir. Have a good time.”

We walked down a dark stairway, into a dimly-lit room in the basement. There was on sign of any striptease. But many of the tables were occupied — as if the show was about to begin. We took a table. A woman came over and we ordered drinks. She returned with two tiny glasses of beer and said, “The show will begin in 10 minutes. Have a great time.” Pleased, we settled down.

But we barely had taken a sip when she returned again, with the bill. I opened the folder. For a moment I thought they had added an extra zero by mistake. But I was mistaken. “That’s the hostess charge,” the woman said. Her tone had changed. “But we don’t have 100 pounds. And we were told...” I tried to protest. But it was too late.

“Gentlemen,” she thundered, “this is a licensed club. You have to pay the hostess charges. If you don’t, we will have to call the police.” The threat was very assuring. I told her I did not have the money, and that she was free to call the police. “Please show us your wallets!” she commanded. We did so. Mine had two 20-pound notes peeping out. My friend’s showed none. “There, can I have that?” In less than a second my money was in her hand. “Now, please come and see the manager,” she commanded again.

We followed her meekly. The manager was a 40-something woman who must have never smiled in her life. “Gentlemen, this is a serious offence! Do you know we can call the police?!” She asked us to show our wallets again. There was nothing to show. She asked us to leave. On the way out, I met the model-like woman at the reception. She looked away. It was a relief to be on the street again. Soho was getting livelier. But we had no money. We walked back to the hotel in silence. The rest of my days in London were spent thinking what all I could’ve done with those 50 pounds.

October 2002

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