29 June 2013

Telling stories

In the early days, even on a Saturday, the bar had no more than five clients. While starting the bar was easy, attracting customers was not. Rukmini had assumed that it would be 20-somethings, flush with salary they earned at their first job out of college, who would enjoy a quiet place to drink and socialize. But she could hardly go to the IT companies where many of these girls were employed, and be welcomed to promote her bar - for most would wonder what other licentious and equally morally dubious activities happened there, in addition to the sin of consuming alcohol. A bar was a seedy joint, where drunks lay splattered inside a dark room illuminated by a dull red light; a room whose entrance was through a dirty thin curtain. No amount of respectability could be imagined for it, even if it did serve pure vegetarian snacks only.

It wasn't surprising then that some of her first customers were women who plied the trade. Rukmini tried hard not to categorize them as they walked through the door, but they had a distinct sense of dressing: hair filled with strands of jasmine flowers, a shiny sequined saree or salwar, strappy sandals with long heels, conspicuously bright jewelry and a gayness in the form. They would walk in alone, confirm that the bar was really only for women, use the bathroom and then leave. After a few weeks, finding a friendly face and ambiance at the bar, they descended in groups, sometimes with the Madam in tow. They started to drink and eat at the bar, using it as a waiting lounge, talking loudly, arguing fiercely, and depending on business leaving and returning after an hour. When other customers would walk in, they would be greeted by this commotion and beat a hasty retreat.

Rukmini was in a dilemma. She didn't want to ask these women not to come to the bar. After all, they were professionals in a sense, they paid their tab and though aggressive, always behaved well with her. She had requested, and they had accepted, that no man should loiter outside the bar and all monetary transactions should happen a few streets away. But the women scared away other customers, and unfortunately, once her bar acquired a reputation, it would be difficult to attract other clients. She could make a separate party room, she thought, for these women. But then it went against her principle of treating everyone equally. What to do?

At her beauty parlour, Rukmini received the sign: "This women's day, feel special. Get manicure free with pedicure." That's it, She could use Women's day as an event. Now, what sort of activity would draw women to her bar? She ruefully acknowledged to herself that advertising the location as a bar would not get her new clients. So, for the interim it would have to be a cafe. A font trick on the sign board should take care of that. She had observed, that women of all ages and  backgrounds generally like to speak about themselves, so how could she turn this into an activity? Telling stories about their lives might actually help them realize that they are not too different: making difficult decisions, under compelling social conditions. She branded the event as "Autobiography night". Already struggling to balance the books at the bar, Rukmini decided to take this chance. She spared no expense in splashing it in newspapers, women's magazines and local journals; even paying for flyers to be distributed outside malls and offices. She knew her advertising was effective when a few policemen came sniffing around for payment to provide security for the event, payable of course, in free booze.

Rukmini was nervous opening night - more than she had ever been in her life. The cafe nee bar was re-organized: a small clearing was made in the centre of the bar, a mike had been placed there, as well as a spotlight. The counter was cleared off alcoholic beverages and the menu spruced up. Extra help was hired for the evening. Women started to trickle in, lured by the advert and then gently ensconced in their seats by the snacks. Then the moment Rukmini had been preparing for, arrived. Her colorful client entered. She stopped at the door, suddenly aware of the new faces. Not seeing any of her friends, she immediately exited. Rukmini followed her out and invited her back in. "Amma," implored the woman, "it would not be good to be seen here." Rukmini assured her that she was welcome and to stay at least till her friends came. It was difficult to convince her, so Rukmini held her hand, and with head held high, walked her to the counter. She came. Similar tactics were employed for her friends. They sat together, looking uncomfortable. Rukmini had to keep orbiting them to ensure they didn't slip out.

When a sufficient quorum was established, Rukmini began the event. Each women in the audience was invited to share her story. She could either talk about herself, or a small incident from her life. Prizes were on offer. Rukmini started with herself, recalling humorously how she had an inter-caste marriage. Everyone laughed. The stage was set. A young girl came next. She spoke about the road romeo who followed her to bus stop everyday and then today, got bitten by a stray donkey. The stories got rolling. Rukmini had to push a sequined outfit on stage. You could tell she was very nervous, so Rukmini asked her to talk in any language she felt comfortable. Rukmini provided translation. Her story was simple - she spoke of her home town of lush greenery, tall coconut trees and jackfruit. In the audience, there were whispers and nudges, but the topic kept the judgements in check. The darker stories emerged a bit later. Rukmini set the tone by talking of Murugans' death and starting the bar. When she mentioned alcohol, there was a loud gasp. Some people walked out. Some asked for a drink! Rukmini ran the event for the next several weeks. The clients became familiar with each other, and the stories more personal. There was laughter, tears, oohs and cheering.

And this was how Rukmini's story-filled evenings began, for she realized that in each story everyone saw a little of themselves.

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