About halfway into the three-hour flight from Delhi to Tashkent, I fear the plane will begin to spin anti-clockwise and spiral down. This is because almost every passenger from the right and middle sections of the plane has risen and crowded into the left aisle, with some actually crouched above those sitting in the leftmost seats of the Uzbekistan Airways A310. This exodus, in many cases with point-and-shoot in hand, is the result of people on the left calling out to their friends in other parts of the plane to come see the snow-capped mountain range visible on their side. The call’s reach is particularly devastating because, with only a few exceptions, the aircraft is filled with tour groups of Indian men, each group in turn composed of groups of friends seated in different corners of Economy. Even those who haven’t received a rallying cry realize that something is afoot, and keen not to miss whatever it is, percolate leftwards. I hunker down grimly in my seat in the middle block, hoping it might go some small way towards maintaining our centre of gravity. Disaster is averted by a matronly flight attendant who soon makes her harassed way down the left aisle despatching passengers to starboard while shouting ‘Take a seat please! Take a seat please!’
This is only the latest (and not the last) of the flight attendant’s troubles. While the plane is still on the tarmac at IGI airport, one of the tour-group Indians asks for cotton to stuff in his ears. The attendant considerately produces a mini-bale of cotton from the plane’s first-aid supplies and asks the man to pinch some off. On seeing this others around him want cotton too, and the ensuing ripple effect requires the attendant to go down the entire length of Economy as passengers reach out for chunks of cotton, some of them all the way from the other aisle. She makes her way down the aisle with the diminishing roll of cotton in her hands and a look of bemusement and resignation combined, all the while chanting (since flight attendants are trained never to walk down an aisle without an incantatory phrase): ‘It does not help. It does not help.’ Then, just after take-off, with the plane still climbing, a passenger in front of me clicks open his safety-belt, stands up, stretches, and begins to trudge up to where his friend is seated, causing the aghast flight attendant to unfasten herself from her minder’s chair and come hurtling downhill to put him in his place. Once the plane attains cruising altitude, she must deal with the overhead lights calling for her attention popping on faster than she can get them off: ‘Water’ is a universal cry, and from just the seats within earshot I hear one instance of ‘I’m hungry’ and one of ‘AC not working’. Then, there’s the propensity on the part of us tour-group Indians to constantly shuffle and sidle about the plane, either en route to huddled conclaves or as part of complex seat exchange arrangements. All this gets significantly in the way of the attendant’s regular trolley-wheeling duties. She makes something like a dozen ‘Take a seat please!’ forays in the span of the three-hour flight, coming across as a hapless teacher in charge of a rowdy excursion bus.
It is a bit of a rowdy excursion. Right from the outset there’s an air of impatience, of raring to go. One middle-aged man boards the plane and finds his friend already inside and buckled up. ‘Kyon, badi jaldi hai jaane ki. (Why, you’re in a hurry to leave),’ he teases, and they slap palms together and laugh with a heartiness so intense that it sounds stagey. One man from my group negotiates a temporary mid-flight seat exchange to the seat in front of mine, next to the tour leader. ‘Dekho,’ he tells the leader, preliminary to a logistical conversation, ‘hum poora enjoy karne aaye hai. Look, we’ve come to enjoy fully.’ Which makes for as good a statement of our agenda as any. Almost to the man, we are a plane full of Indian men, and we are sex tourists bound for Uzbekistan.
Those who work in the travel industry seldom use words such as ‘hotel’ or ‘resort’. ‘How’s the property?’ they’ll want to know, perhaps weary in the knowledge that the carapace is the only solid reality here, all else being design and decoration and branding and positioning and marketing. Likewise, using words such as ‘tour’ or ‘trip’ to describe a package tour immediately gives one away as an amateur. To the insider, those are products. Executives in charge of product development pore over maps and flight schedules and lists of properties to come up with combinations of itinerary and comfort and price-point (never just ‘price’) that are attractive to the package-touring public. ‘No one else has a 12D/11N Europe product including both Spain and Germany with a price-point under 80k,’ a travel executive may boast. Travel products are also differentiated by target demographic. Tours designed for farmers may take in the sights of China or Israel while offering glimpses of how agriculture is conducted there. Other tours may have facilities and itineraries that keep in mind senior citizens. Women-only tours go with a woman guide. Group honeymoon tours allow newly wed couples to enjoy a romantic (if somewhat crowded) European honeymoon without beginning their marriages in financial ruin. Some tour groups are united by language, often Gujarati or Marathi or Bengali. Or food, as with tours that serve Jain vegetarian food, no matter where in the world the group is travelling. And then, there are the somewhat lasciviously undertoned men-only tours to various destinations around the world.
I’m at the Mumbai head-office of a popular travel company to enquire about their men-only tour of Thailand. Product name: Prince Charming. The ground floor is reserved for receiving customers and is reminiscent of the interior of a large branch of one of the foreign banks operating in India. A row of young women in red company T-shirts sits at desks to receive and guide customers. A level deeper, men in white shirts and ties sit behind computers, involved in endless counselling and option-checking for the prospective tourists in front of them. I explain my interest to one of the women in red, who calls someone upstairs. I’m directed to a lounge of sorts where customers wait to be seen by the men in ties. The room is rife with glossy brochures. A wall-mounted screen plays a looped video of ecstatic tour groups with foreign landscapes and European monuments in the background. Someone from Marketing and Promotion comes down to see me. I tell him I’m considering taking one of their tours for a travel book I’m working on. He’s all for it and suggests they might give me a discount or even write off the tour’s costs if I agree to mention the company’s name. Which tour was I thinking of? Prince Charming, Thailand. He seems taken aback. ‘It’s not what people think,’ he explains. ‘Of course, people go for that, but it’s not only that.’ Would I be interested in any other tour? Not at the moment. He’ll let me know in a few days, he says, and sends me off clutching tour itineraries and brochures.
I don’t hear from him, and when I check by email a few times, I get such non-committal one-liners in response that it’s clear they see no place for my charms on their tour. Of course, they aren’t the only company that conducts tours of Thailand. Most travel agents would be able to book me on a similar tour, though perhaps not one as chivalrously branded. I mention to a friend that I’m looking for a men’s tour of Thailand, and she says I should really go to—of all places—Uzbekistan. She tells me of how she was flying to Tashkent on work, and was taken aback to find the plane full of Indian men. Her male colleague, after being subject to much nudging and winking from his Indian neighbour on the flight, had asked what was going on, and learnt he had been mistaken for a sex tourist because every other Indian man on the plane was one.
A travel agent in Bangalore books me onto one of these tours through a nameless entity in Delhi. I pay him and submit my passport and photographs for the visa. The sole requirement for a visa is a letter of application on a company letterhead. I offer to provide other bona fides since I’m not employed by anyone, but the agent is appalled. ‘If we give them more documents they will start asking for them every time,’ he says and implores me to somehow produce a letter on any company’s letterhead. This I do, and my application is in Delhi when the Uzbek embassy decides to stop issuing group visas to Indian tourists for an indefinite period. Apparently there have been incidents involving Indians, and the Uzbek government is worried. ‘They don’t want to get Thailand’s reputation,’ my agent explains. It only lasts a couple of months. Local businesses—hotels, restaurants, transport companies, guides—begin feeling the pinch and the Uzbek government is coaxed into resuming group visas for Indian tourists. The standard text of the visa application letter is identical to the previous one except for an appended undertaking: ‘I assure you that during my stay in Uzbekistan, I will abide by the rules and regulations framed by the Government of Uzbekistan. I will respect the culture of the people of Uzbekistan and not indulge in any activity against the laws of the country.’
The group is to assemble at 8:15 on the morning of our departure in front of Gate 6, T3, IGI airport. This assembly is critical because our passports and visas are with the nameless Delhi entity that’s organizing the tour. (Nameless to the extent that when I have to send my amended letter post-haste to Delhi, my Bangalore travel agent makes me address it to him, but at a Ghaziabad address.) Further, ours is a group visa that’s valid only when accompanied by the tour leader. There are dozens of people milling about and after a small wait I notice a knot of people around a man. He nods when I say ‘Uzbekistan?’ but can’t find my name on his list of fifty-odd people. I show him my print-out with group and hotel details, and he tells me I must be with a different nameless operator. It’s a revelation to me that there are actually multiple tour operators conducting men to Uzbekistan. (Later, on board the plane, it becomes clear that it’s packed with tour groups (including one that is entirely Gujarati speaking), and a glance at the timetable in the in-flight magazine gives me an idea of the tourist volume: currently Uzbekistan Airways flies to Tashkent five times a week from Delhi and thrice from Amritsar.)
I find my rightful contact person some distance away, handing out passports from a kit-bag placed on a luggage trolley. The group accumulates in twos and threes until we reach our full strength of thirty-four. The nameless entity’s representative introduces us to our tour leader, a young fellow with wavy hair and a sunny disposition. The tour leader’s role here is not that of tourist guide—there will be a local guide in Tashkent—but that of shepherd. The lone visa sticker is in his name and under ‘Remarks’ it says ‘+ 33 persons’ with the attached sheets detailing our names and passport numbers. The rest of us only have photocopies of the group visa and must stick closely to him if we are to pass Immigration at both ends.
While waiting for the group to gather I’ve been diverted by the presence just outside the airport’s sliding doors of what I take to be a sports coach waiting for his team. The man, in his fifties, is wearing green track-pants, a green cap, a tri-colour-splashed white jacket with INDIA across the chest, and has a green kit-bag hanging from one shoulder. It turns out he’s waiting not for his team but for his passport —he’s part of our group. In later conversation he reveals himself to be an athlete who’s been a part of Indian Masters contingents at various sports meets, and though he does not wear the track-suit again on the tour, the official cap remains a totemic fixture, worn even indoors. Also part of our group is a powerfully built man in his fifties, weighed down by a massive pot-belly. His arms, forearm on, are cluttered with bracelets, a chunky watch, threads of religious significance, and heavy rings. There’s further shiny metal around his neck, and a diamond encrusted trident glimmers in his collar’s hairy vee. For his appearance, style, brashness, and an unsurpassed ability to spend money, he will come to be known among the group as Don. There are four sardars. And there’s a group of three from Haryana who arrive at the airport identically dressed in white trousers and white full-sleeved shirts.
Geographically, the states/territories represented are Delhi, UP, MP, Uttarakhand, Haryana and Gujarat, with my presence adding the outlier Karnataka to the list. Age-wise (with precise tabulation made possible by the group visa), three of us are in our twenties, fourteen in our thirties, seven in our forties, eight in our fifties, one is in his sixties, and Kakaji as he will come to be known, often in the sentence ‘Sab se zyaada toh Kakaji enjoy kar rahe hain. Kakaji is enjoying more than anyone else’, is in his seventies. An impressionistic survey shows that pot-bellies are well-represented in the 30+ demographic, and the 40+ demographic shows evidence of recent application of unnaturally dark dye on facial hair and such hair on the head as remains unravaged by male pattern baldness.
In terms of occupation we are mostly businessmen—real estate dealers, government contractors for road and construction projects, a defence supplier, the owner of a transport company. A sari distributor from Gujarat named Paras one day tosses off an astute observation to the group at large: ‘It’s only people with do number ka paisa, unaccounted money, who go on a tour like this.’ No one disputes him; two doctors in his immediate vicinity smile; and one impecunious writer seethes internally.
I haven’t been able to purchase foreign exchange before coming to the airport because when I tried at my bank they wanted my passport and ticket, which were with the nameless Delhi entity, and so I must now buy dollars inside the airport at an extortionate mark-up. The very idea of going to a bank to buy foreign exchange would, I’m guessing, seem laughably naïve to my companions, all of whom have arrived pre-loaded with dollars. The tour leader announces that on arrival in Tashkent we will be asked to fill two copies of a form declaring the exact amounts of all currencies in our possession, and that this better be filled out diligently because ‘checking ho sakti hai’—followed, in cases of discrepancy, by prolonged questioning. Someone asks, ‘Do we need a forex receipt?’ and a shiver of anxiety passes through the group with several members echoing the question in worried voices. But no, the tour leader assures us, no receipt required.
It takes a while inside the airport for everyone to fill out their Immigration forms. We are all bound to wait for each other owing to the group visa. During this time one of the younger guys (conspicuous for having his left arm in a cast) comes up to me and extends his right hand. Where am I from, what do I do. I tell him. Navin is a glass manufacturer from Delhi. How did he become a glass manufacturer I ask, and he takes over the conversation. ‘Think you are in a job,’ he starts. ‘You may want to go home at 6, but your boss will come and say, “Brother, please do this work” and you will do it. You may fall sick and then you may not be able to get leave.’ ‘Yes,’ I say, thinking he has misunderstood my question, ‘but how did you get into glass manufacturing?’ He looks annoyed: ‘That’s what I’m telling you.’ First, he makes a lengthy case for self-employment, then gives a blow-by-blow account of how he ended up in his line of work. I change the subject and ask him how he heard about this tour. He turns out to be a friend of the tour leader, with whom he will be sharing a room. At least that’s the gist of an epic description detailing how his friend was going as tour leader, how the tour leader suggested to Navin that he join the group, the various considerations Navin had to make while deciding whether or not to go, and so on. One of the factors pushing Navin to go on the tour (as also previously into self-employment) appears to have been schadenfreude: ‘My friend—he is working na? So he cannot enjoy. But I am free, I have no work. So I can enjoy.’
This is the first use of a word I will hear deployed many times a day on the tour, both in Hindi and in English sentences: the intransitive verb ‘enjoy’. It will also be the key to what drives the group and perhaps all such tours: the idea of being able to enjoy absolutely and without object.
It takes a while to get through Customs at Tashkent International Airport. Every arriving passenger must fill two copies of a form with all the usual details plus exact amounts of all currencies in their possession. The Customs official pores over these details with uncommon attention to detail—ticking, circling, underlining, authoritatively scrawling, rubber-stamping—before turning over one copy to the passenger, who should preserve it for similar processing while leaving the country. The same official then scans passports and x-rays luggage before letting us loose on Uzbekistan.
We troop into a waiting bus and are soon face to face with our local guide Jabir, a lanky man in his early twenties who holds the mic of the in-bus PA system and begins: ‘Namaste, Sat Sri Akaal, Salaam aleikum.’ Jabir, light-skinned with brownish hair and a native of Uzbekistan, goes on to welcome us in impressive Hindi. Later questioning reveals that he learnt the language in Tashkent in the service of subcontinental tourists, and later made a trip to India during which he honed his Hindi.
Even before the bus leaves the airport, Jabir addresses the question of local currency. The Uzbek currency is the soum and the official exchange rate at banks is currently 1950 soums per US dollar. Jabir will give us 2300 soums per USD. We will meet others who will offer to sell us soums, he tells us, but we might get into trouble with the law, so best to buy from him. Uzbekistan has severe problems with currency devaluation, and the highest denomination available—either because the government is trying to prevent currency-hoarding, or because the currency has slipped in value, or both—is a note of 1000 soums. Jabir has a backpack full of 1000 soum bundles and he goes through the bus stopping at each seat to exchange a few hundred dollar bills for towering stacks of soums. Over the next few days we discover that almost anyone who hangs around near a hotel or market or monument is a forex trader, and we develop a suspicion that we’ve been had by Jabir. Within a minute of my entering my hotel room a bell-boy knocks and offers me 2400 soums per USD; later, a man at a market offers one of us 2800; one night the concierge at the hotel we’re staying in is in need of USD 1 notes and he buys them off me for 3000 soums each. The official rate at this time is indeed 1950, and it doesn’t take an economist to tell that this discrepancy in official and informal rates can’t be good news for the soum, which, it turns out, means ‘pure’ in Uzbek.
Tashkent is obviously doing much better than the currency. The roads are wide and lined by trees; the government offices look stately, the monuments impressive. The city exudes the clean, kempt, landscaped sparseness of a European city. During the twenty-minute bus-ride from the airport to our hotel in the centre of the city, Jabir (who addresses all of us as ‘bhaijaan’) gives us a quick introduction to Uzbekistan: independent in 1991 after the disintegration of the USSR; a country of 20 million people (though in fact closer to 30, if he looked it up on the Internet); languages spoken are Uzbek and Russian; Islam is the dominant religion. A glance outside the window is enough to learn that at least in matters of women’s clothing this is not a conservative Islamic country. It’s mid-afternoon, and the mini-skirts and tight jeans on the footpaths elicit longing looks and neck-craning from our bus. Finally, someone asks Jabir to come to the point—what’s the plan for the evening?
We’re to first go to the hotel and settle in. Later we’ll go on a quick Tashkent City Glimpse tour before heading to an Indian restaurant for a ‘gala dinner’. A chorus of voices wants to know the further plan for the evening: ‘Arre, kuchh setting kara do yaar. (Fix something for us, mate).’, ‘Raat ka program batao. (What’s the plan for the night?)’, and so on. Jabir tells us there will be ‘night managers’ at the gala dinner. We are to manage our night by dealing directly with them. Jabir won’t involve himself in procuring women, but for USD 60 per person, subject to a minimum attendance of ten persons, he can organize a private dance show.
It is perhaps because Jabir’s Hindi has been learnt in an environment of sex tourism that he is matter-of-fact about vocalizing details that most Hindi speakers would be slightly coy about. His description of the private dance show is a marvel of specificity: ‘Ladkiyaan poori nangi hongi, aapke goad mein aake baithengi. Aap daba sakte ho, kiss kar sakte ho, par zyada zor se nahin. (The girls will be completely naked, they’ll come and sit in your lap. You can squeeze, you can kiss, but not too hard.)’ He adds, ‘No boom-boom.’ Someone says ‘Toh kya faayda. (Then what’s the use),’ to which Jabir giggles and says, ‘Baad mein room jaake soap ke saath... (Later in the room, with some soap...),’ and moves his fist up and down. I’m transfixed by the novelty of a 23-year-old saying these things to a group in which everyone is older than him, with a couple of men old enough to be his grandfather. What’s more, Jabir speaks Hindi with an accent that knows no hard consonants, which makes him sound like a particularly precocious and foul-mouthed toddler, and renders him altogether irresistible.
Our hotel is one of the older five-star hotels in Tashkent. The rooms are palatial with plush carpeting, massive quantities of heavy wood, and brass fixtures. There’s even a leather-upholstered writing desk the size of a ping-pong table (at which I sit down twice a day to ceremoniously make notes that are, as often as not on this trip, downright sleazy). The old-world stateliness is charming except for the fact that it extends to the hotel’s technological preparedness as well. The television in my room is a gigantic boxy affair that has no doubt broadcast live the disintegration of the Soviet Union. This must also be one of the last five-star hotels in the world not to offer wireless Internet in its rooms, and Reception only shrugs when asked about a plug adapter for the power points in our rooms. The hotel lobby does have wireless Internet as well as scattered power strips that take various types of plugs, and the lobby is thus rendered an electronic refugee camp, full of people thumbing screens, charging phones and cameras, and tapping away at keyboards.
It is only later when I’m looking for some information about Samarkand and find Google blocked that I begin to wonder if this e-herding in the lobby is not just a sign of the hotel being out of date, but of something altogether more sinister. Uzbekistan is supposedly a democracy, but with an authoritarian president who was appointed just before the nation became independent, and who has since conducted four elections that he’s won himself. “We keep electing him because he is a very good man,” says Jabir with a straight face. There’s no way of telling if this is a genuinely held belief or sophisticated sarcasm, but as an Internet search would show, there are human-rights activists and political opponents who disagree vehemently. And as I learn later from a guide in Samarkand, there are people in the shadows who keep an eye on what tourists and guides are up to.
Only three members of our group don’t have a friend or relative accompanying them. One is Paras, who quickly teams up with a couple of other Gujaratis on the tour. The other two are Rajesh and me, who by default end up sitting next to each other on the bus and at the same table during meals. We chat for a while at the hotel while waiting for the City Glimpse tour to take off. Rajesh is a scrawny, sleepy-eyed man of 27. He comes across as somewhat jittery and constantly smokes cigarettes to calm himself. We get to talking about our families and what we do. Rajesh comes from a family of industrialists that is ‘super-rich’ according to him: ‘House like a palace, lots of big cars.’ But he is estranged from his family except for nominally being in charge of one of the family’s factories and receiving a generous income for what he admits are very light duties. I ask him what he does with all that free time. ‘I do a lot of meditation. I work on my consciousness.’
The group is so lackadaisical about sight-seeing that Jabir has to call every room from Reception to get people into the bus for the tour. It’s twilight by the time we set out to see the city. We begin with Independence Square, a vast fountain-studded garden at the centre of the city, surrounded by government buildings. We stop at a large sculpture of a woman cradling a baby in front of a globe set on a pedestal. This, Jabir tells us, is a monument marking the birth of Uzbekistan. At another corner is a flame kept burning constantly in memory of the Uzbek soldiers who died in World War II, this time with a grieving mother in the background. Nearby is a memorial along whose corridor the names of those fallen soldiers are engraved on brass plates that can be turned like the pages of a book. Around 330,000 Uzbek soldiers are estimated to have died in the war, a statistic made palpably real when one leafs through their names and sees from the years book-ending their lives that most of them died tragically young. The monuments scattered around Independence Square are impressive in scale, and I imagine it’s all very powerful when seen during the day. Jabir is making a brave attempt to point at the barely distinguishable outlines in the dark and place them in the context of Uzbek history. But he’s also having to quell internal rebellion in the group, which is a) hungry, not having eaten anything since the not very appetizing airline meal; and b) eager to get started with what is after all the tour’s raison d’être. Even while Jabir spouts numbers and facts, I overhear Don complaining to one of his henchmen about how even now, after we’re in Tashkent, there is a marked absence of any ‘setting’. Don is also afflicted by peer pressure, notably by comparison with a friend back in India named Patlu who has previously toured Uzbekistan: ‘Patlu ne toh pehle hi din kaam kar diya tha. Aaj kuchh nahin hoga toh usko kya kahenge? (Patlu did the work on the first day itself. If nothing happens today, then what will we tell him?)’ Then, it turns out that someone in our group was offered a massage in his hotel room for USD 40 soon after arrival, which he immediately accepted. A few people gather round to find out what happened. ‘Arre, woh massage massage tha. It turned out to be a massage massage,’ is the answer. A voice clarifies: ‘Isne kapde utaare, lekin usne nahin. (He took off his clothes, but she didn’t.)’ There’s all-round chortling and someone says ruefully, ‘Bangkok ki aadat pad gayi. (We’ve got used to Bangkok).’ In between, while walking between the monuments around Independence Square, Jabir is being pressed about dinner and post-dinner plans, and he finally gives up and asks if we want to leave right now. The answer is a resounding yes and we wait for our bus beside what Jabir says is the Romanov Palace, where a Russian prince bided his exile in the nineteenth century. Of the glimpses listed on the tour program—Independence Square, Broadway street with artists and souvenirs, Amir Temur Square, Victory Monu- ment—I only have a recollection of walking around Independence Square.
Tour programs are written with almost lawyerly precision to avoid disputes during and after the tour. The entry for our dinner reads: ‘Gala Dinner at Indian restaurant with dance show, 2 veg + 2 non-veg snacks, soft drinks, local vodka and beer.’ We troop into the restaurant looking adoringly at the waitresses greeting us with namastes, and sit at tables in ways that preserve the sub-groups among us. Most of the group can’t be bothered with vodka or beer and have bought bottles of Chivas Regal and Johnny Walker at Delhi duty-free. I sit at a table with Rajesh this first night, and we drink the local vodka (which, it must be said, is pretty good).
The first dance act is a gymnastics routine by a couple who wind themselves around each other in all sorts of impressive ways. They’re followed by a group of girls who perform a folk-dance in hats and frilly skirts, and hoot in chorus at fixed points in the song. These are only the opening acts. Next is a group of girls in bodices and sheer pants who wriggle their hips and trace sinuous arcs with their sequined chests, and with the whisky beginning to make its presence felt, the evening begins in earnest.
Don gets up from his chair, a fan of notes in the hand of his raised arm, and dances to the clearing in the centre of the room. He’s slow but surprisingly rhythmic, and looks like he does this every day. He picks a girl to dance with and hands her a few notes, the remaining cash still splayed in his hand. Jabir has told us there’s no touching allowed, and Don shows himself to be an exponent of the art of close dancing while only occasionally and accidentally brushing against his partner. He periodically hands her notes or showers a few over her head with a flourish of the wrist. He dances with a consistently broad and rapturous grin on his face, and when he is not up close, his eyes ravish her body. When the song ends, he pats her on the extreme lower back and returns to his table to high-fives and hearty claps on the (upper) back.
It’s soon a free-for-all with the girls dancing between the tables and the men either sitting down and leering while drinking and smoking, or getting up and joining them. Some of the men dance at a respectful distance; Kakaji, remarkably lithe for his age, holds both hands of a girl and jogs in place while the others cheer him on. Sharmaji, a fiftyish, bald, real-estate agent from Haryana, holds his arms up in the air and skips from leg to leg, occasionally trying to grab at a girl. He’s not the only one; there are plenty of clumsy attempts to break the no-touch rule, but the men are heavy with drink and bellies and lust and are no match for the girls, who shimmy and spin out of reach. The floor keeps getting littered with currency notes that are scooped up between songs by waiters. Don is easily the largest contributor here, having come with a large leather bag full of soums.
‘Aap enjoy nahin kar rahe ho? (You aren’t enjoying?)’ asks the tour leader, concerned that I am not dancing. I shrug and after a while join him outside the restaurant, where he is waiting for the night managers to arrive. He’s 24, an MBA student in Delhi, and he does this part-time for the money. It’s his second time as tour leader to Uzbekistan. He tells me that things have changed this time around. Previously the tour guide would manage the ‘setting’ but things are different now after the Uzbek government kicked up a fuss.
The night managers arrive in cars. There are four or five of them I’d guess, but it’s hard to say exactly because they all seem to have emerged from a single mould: they’re burly and bouncer-like in build with close cropped hair, wearing track-suits or at least one half of a track-suit; they’re all freshly shaved with faces that are immobile except for darting eyes; they all have a cigarette going; the other hand is in a pocket and emerges every half-minute or so with a cell-phone that they hold to their ears impassively before ending the call with a single sentence, word or grunt. Some members of our group already seem to know where the action is. The sardars come across as particularly savvy, quietly taking off together in a taxi. (Contributing to their aura of savvy are the turbans they’re wearing. This morning in Delhi they were all wearing regulation monochrome turbans, but here two of the younger sardars have donned multicoloured patterned things that sit nattily beret-like on their heads.) The unsavvy among us run back and forth between the night managers and the group. Navin adds himself to the mix, rushing between the night managers and the members of our group. The deal in the air is this: there’s a farmhouse somewhere that interested parties can repair to, where there’s a USD 50 charge to inspect the girls and then a further USD 150 for spending three hours with one of them. Some decide to return to the hotel and head to a night-club from there. There’s much confusion and Jabir tries to herd those returning to the hotel into the bus. Sharmaji is drunk and frustrated with the night managers and becomes livid when asked to get into the bus. ‘Behenchod,’ he screams at Jabir on the street, furious at the prospect of a boom-boom-less night. ‘Hum enjoy karne aaye hain. Park dekhne, daaru peene nahin. (We’ve come to enjoy. Not to see parks or to drink.)’ Jabir is immediately placatory and begs for forgiveness, saying he’s only a child in front of Sharmaji. Some others in the group intervene, and peace is restored. Sharmaji goes off to relieve himself in the street while Jabir enters the bus and says into the mic: ‘This is not India. We don’t piss wherever we want.’
I’m walking into the hotel with Rajesh when the security guard at the hotel stops us to ask if we’re looking for girls. Rajesh is, and he’s told to go to the sixth floor of the hotel to make a selection. (Talking later with the security guard, I find that he thinks of himself as an artist. He’s broken-hearted after being dumped by his girlfriend of four years, and has written a song about it. He also plans to write an English novel and has got as far as the title: The Billionaire Living Inside of Me. From him I learn that in addition to Indians, it’s Pakistanis and Koreans who make up the bulk of sex tourists to Uzbekistan.)
I emerge from the hotel the next morning to see Rajesh in a red leather jacket and sunglasses, smoking a pensive cigarette on a bench outside. I join him and ask how last night went. ‘So-so,’ he says. He’d picked a blonde Russian girl and was told she’d come to his room, but a dark-haired Uzbek girl had showed up instead. He didn’t want to kick up a fuss so he’d made do with her and paid up.
Today we’re to go by bus to the Chimgan Mountains and the nearby Charvak Lake. The tour program says we start at 9; Jabir has deferred it to 10; we finally set off at 11. There are many empty seats in the bus—Don and his henchmen are absent, as are the two beret-turbaned sardars and a few others. They’re either recovering from the exertions of last night or resting in anticipation of tonight’s. The bus is triumphant with stories of boom-boom from the previous night. Someone asks about Kakaji, and Paras says, a few rows behind Kakaji and out of his earshot, ‘He was saying that he can’t get it up any longer.’ Someone shouts out, ‘Arre Kakaji, Viagra le lo.’ Another recommends a magic ‘chutney’ that Don (who else?) has, that is guaranteed to work wonders.
The darker story from last night that’s making the rounds of the bus is that three men from the group went to a farmhouse with one of the night managers and soon found themselves in the middle of a police raid. They were the only customers there, so it would seem that the whole thing was an inside job. The police had threatened the men with imprisonment and extracted from them all the money they had, even driving them to the hotel so they could fetch cash from the room. Total damage: USD 1900. Later in the day Jabir announces on the PA system that they needn’t have paid anything at all because it’s only the sex-workers and pimps who are vulnerable to prosecution, and if any of us finds ourselves in a similar quandary we have just to call Jabir and he’ll arrive at any time of the night and—this communicated in his sweet, lisping Hindi—thrust a pole up the cops’ rear ends.
‘On the way enjoy view of mountains and life of local people’ suggests the tour program. The two- hour bus ride to Chimgan Mountains does take us through a good cross-section of Uzbekistan. The roads in Tashkent, pleasantly wide and uncongested, are disproportionately full of Chevrolet cars (manufactured at General Motors’ Uzbekistan plant that accounted for 94 per cent of all cars sold in the country in 2011). Outside the city there’s little traffic, most conspicuous being the donkey-carts piled high with hay making their way along the side of the road. The landscape is flat with occasional patches of sparse green that give way easily to a rocky dusty brown. The only green here is scrub and shrub and frizzy trees with branches that rise upwards as if in surrender. Large expanses of land are given over to cultivating cotton, the export of which is one of Uzbekistan’s main sources of income. Jabir tells us about how government employees and school and college students are marshalled for picking cotton by hand. (These are considered forced labour camps by human rights organizations. In general, cotton cultivation in Uzbekistan isn’t a shining example of the liberties its citizens enjoy: in addition to these camps that ensure low-cost harvesting, farmers must meet quotas and sell only to a government agency which in turn exports cotton at huge profits that cynics claim line the pockets of the influential.) Besides cotton, there are large apple orchards; apricot trees seem to spring up anywhere there’s space.
Uzbekistan happens to be blessed in the matter of fruits and nuts. This morning, on seeing the laden fruit table at the hotel’s breakfast buffet, I’m reminded of what I’ve read about Babur, who founded the Mughal dynasty in India, but was to the end disdainful of the quality of fruit there. Babur, recorded as being obsessively passionate about fruit, spent his youth in what is now Uzbekistan. In his memoir Baburnama, he credits the township of Akhsi in Fergana with producing a variety of melon that he suspects has no equal in the world. He should know, being a near-maniac about melons: he’d pit varieties of melons against each other at dinner parties, and once, when in fruit-deficient India a melon was brought to him from Kabul, he wept. At the hotel buffet I fill my plate with large grapes, slices of apple, and cubes of watermelon and musk melon. I manage to hold back the tears, but there’s no doubt Babur was on to something—there’s a just-right combination of sweetness, juice and crunch to the fruits that’s remarkably satisfying.
A little before we reach Chimgan we stop by the side of the road to buy slabs of roasted almonds, sun-dried with honey into a delicate lattice. They’re being sold by a half-dozen scarf-wearing Kazakhi women whom Navin takes on single-handedly. He rushes around organizing us into impromptu buyers’ collectives, and heaps packets of honey-almond in front of each of the women as he gauges demand from us in Hindi and forces the price down with peremptory motions of his unbroken right arm. When the bus is about to leave he initiates a parting high-stakes game that involves adding packets of the higher-priced variety of honey-almond to already full plastic bags and fishing them out when his price isn’t agreed to. I notice that he’s slipped in an extra packet in the frenzy and point it out thinking he’s made a mistake, but he only grins. In the end, the Kazakhi women have sold plenty of honey-almond and our group has got a good price, but the most satisfied person here is Navin, who thrives on deal-making. Even without having too many words to serve him here, he’s managed a transactional prolixity that’s left everyone else exhausted.
Uzbekistan is a landlocked country bound on all sides by -stans: Afghanistan, Turkmenis- tan, Kyrgyztan, Tajikistan and, in front of us, beyond the Chimgan mountains, Kazhakhstan. The mountains are an upswelling of dust and craggy rock—the Central Asia of all that war footage from Afghanistan, of those expanses from Kiarostami films. The ‘Chimgan mountains’ of the tour program are really the Western Tian-Shan range, with Chimgan being the name of a ski-resort as well as the tallest peak in the area. Our group hops onto the chair-lifts in pairs to reach an elevation that now, without snow, simply serves as a viewing point. We take pictu- res of each other; Sharmaji and a couple of others look for a place to pour midday pegs of whisky. On the descent I share the chair-lift with Rajesh, who seems more fidgety than usual. I ask him if he’s okay. He tells me, quite casually, that in a previous life he’d been killed by someone who chased him and hit him on the head. It comes back to him occasionally in the form of knocks at the back of his head, accompanied by the feeling that he’s falling forwards. He’s receiving those reminders now. ‘Thak. Thak. Thak,’ he says, holding the back of his head. We’re suspended high above the mountainside—a terrible time to be talking of falling. I say something about how we don’t have to completely believe everything our mind throws up. ‘I don’t believe. I know,’ he says. The knocking soon grows fainter and we end up talking metaphysics all the way down. He talks about the Self with great conviction, almost entirely in unconnected aphorisms attributed to Osho. He considers himself a follower of Osho and has spent time in the Pune ashram. Returning to earth, he tells me: ‘It’s very easy to have sex there. In two months I had twelve girlfriends.’
A short drive away is the Charvak Lake, a water reservoir formed by damming the Chirchiq River. Its shores are lined by resorts, and it is at one of these that we have lunch. The resort is empty and the group hangs around aimlessly after lunch. I’m chatting with a couple of men who are government contractors and we’re all surprised by the fact that Uzbekistan appears more developed than India. Tashkent has wide, clean tree-lined avenues with parks and squares, large buildings and monuments. One of the contractors certifies that the roads are even of good quality. Jabir joins us. He’s had a couple of beers with his lunch and is in a frank and expansive mood. He tells us that people are hard-working in Uzbekistan and that’s not the case in India: ‘You won’t throw rubbish in the bin because you have to walk a few metres.’ And that is why, according to Jabir, India is dirty and poor. He’s noticed something else about Indians for which he’d like an explanation, but none of us has an answer. ‘Tum Indians na,’ he says, ‘paani bahut peete ho aur susu bahut karte ho. Kyon? (You Indians drink a lot of water and you pee a lot. Why?)’ The question is of significance to Jabir because: a) he is pestered for frequent toilet stops by Indian tour groups; and b) he is bound by the legalese of the tour program to distribute 0.5 litre of water ‘per pax’ per day, which requirement he more than meets, but still finds himself besieged by parched pax who haven’t received their water. As our tour progresses, discussions among the group will indicate that there are some who are sneaking multiple bottles of water into their bags for later use. More than one person’s whispered testimony will implicate the athlete among us (who bears an uncanny resemblance to the actor Dilip Kumar, down to the jet-black dyed hair that becomes visible when his official cap comes off in moments of weakness.) It is possible that Dilip Kumar, being an athlete, needs to maintain higher levels of hydration than your average sex tourist, but he and his companion also boast—whenever anyone in the group complains that the one thing they miss here is chai—about making cups of tea and coffee in their hotel room with an electric kettle for which the water must come from somewhere. The two also insist at the gala dinners that they occupy a separate table all by themselves. On occasions when those of us who aren’t in a tightly-bound group try to join them, they conspicuously slink away to a new table to sit by themselves so that—it is speculated by the large and teddy-bear-like Gujarati government contractor—they can polish off an entire table’s worth of snacks and fruit. Any doubts I have about DK’s guilt in the water scam—Watergate?—vanish when I see, during one of the gala dinners, that DK has taken a two-litre bottle of Sprite from the bar counter and hidden it under his table. It’s possible there are mitigating circumstances, and maybe this is some sort of each-man-for-himself attitude picked up in the past from touring in the company of hungry, thirsty sportsmen, but the duo’s overall attitude earns it few friends in the group.
Something else that Dilip Kumar may have acquired during sports tours is the compulsion to be the life and soul of the party. After sitting quietly for a day and a half, he strides up to the front of the tour bus at a time when Jabir isn’t speaking and takes the mike. ‘From now on,’ he announces, ‘I’ll always have the mike when Jabir isn’t using it.’ He bursts into ‘Kabhi alvida na kehna’ even if it’s a little premature (as he himself admits) for a goodbye song, and then launches into an elaborate joke presented here in precis:
Kakaji (for DK employs the jocular device of picking his characters from the group) had a pair of shoes with singularly reflective uppers made at great expense before leaving for Uzbekistan. On the flight to Tashkent, when the young, pretty, short-skirted, female flight attendant served him a peg of whisky, Kakaji slyly inserted his foot into the aisle and accurately told her the colour of her underwear. The attendant, taken aback by Kakaji’s guess, changed her underwear to test him and brought another peg, only to be humbled again. After this happened a few times the flustered attendant decided to outwit Kakaji by serving him a whisky while wearing no underwear. Kakaji burst into tears. Now concerned, the flight attendant asked if all was well, upon which Kakaji pointed to the foot of his outstretched leg and lamented between sobs the fact that his new shoe was already torn.
There are several puzzled faces in the bus post the joke and this prompts Dilip Kumar to explain it in such excruciating detail that I suspect my mind switches off to cope. DK’s subsequent jokes are only hazy memories when I later sit at the grand writing-table in my hotel room to make notes. I do remember however that DK introduces each new joke with the phrase ‘Aur ek chutkula’ and that one of DK’s chutkulas is a long-winded and atrocious meta-joke about how the very word chutkula derives from a Hindi vulgarism for a certain part of a woman’s body.
The second evening’s gala dinner, at another Indian restaurant, features dancers who would be considered outrageously beautiful in any part of the world. They’re also accomplished belly dancers and the evening is a low-lit blur of skin and diaphanous fabric. The dancers are on a small stage in the middle of the dining area and there’s a sign that says the stage is only for performers. This does not stop Don from clambering up with an ecstatic expression and a bundle of soums. Sharmaji is next. Soon, the girls are down among the group, dancing between tables to Sheela ki Jawaani, Kajra Re and Munni Badnaam Hui, and the floor is carpeted with soums. There are many attempts to chat up the dancers, who smile coyly and accept money, but will not disclose even their names. Paras, the sari distributor from Surat, is in his thirties but often boyish in behaviour. He tries to woo a waitress by looking longingly at her and saying ‘Helllooo’ but it only causes her to break out in giggles.
It’s a drunk and slavering group that heads out of the restaurant. The sardars immediately get into a taxi outside the restaurant in the company of a mini-skirted woman. The rest have plans in or around the hotel, and head back in the bus. Four of us—Paras, Rajesh, a businessman from Gujarat in his mid-thirties, and I—are planning to sample a night-club near our hotel. Kakaji, who has danced with abandon and is slightly drunk at the end of the evening takes us aside to give us some advice after we alight at the hotel. ‘This body is all bones and flesh,’ he tells us, extending his arms and looking at himself. ‘It’s nothing at all—here today, gone tomorrow. Enjoy everything; enjoy all you want. But just keep one thing in mind—never enjoy yourself at anyone else’s cost; never hurt anyone else.’
Before we set off with the elder’s blessings, we want to leave behind in our rooms our passports and money in excess of what we need for the night. In the hotel lobby we are stopped by the security guard who tells us there are girls waiting on the sixth floor. We stop by on the way down from our rooms. The sixth floor corridor is dense as a railway platform with members from our tour group. They’re sprawled on the floor or sitting in small groups smoking and drinking whisky. They’re the ones who are sharing rooms with one or two others, and they’re waiting in the corridor while their friends are busy in the room. At one end of the corridor is a service entry passage where a half-dozen young women are waiting—leaning on the walls, sitting on the floor; one is seated on a toilet, the door to the stall open. A hotel security guard stands by smoking and checking his phone. The air is thick with perfume. The women array themselves invitingly as we arrive. Rajesh grins at the one resting on the toilet and asks if she’s finished. They all laugh obligatorily and resume radiating allure at us. They’re of different builds and hair colours, all in short skirts, high-heels and fresh make-up. From close up, there’s something strangely unreal here—a mechanical coquettishness that brings to mind characters from video games, where if you stop playing and just look at one of the characters for a while, you’ll see the rendered presence heave microscopically and twitch and blink in ways that are meant to aid verisimilitude but actually do the opposite once you pay any attention.
Rajesh is overcome with lust for one of the women. The transformation is startling—one moment he’s casting a cool, appraising eye over the women and the next he’s entranced by a blonde who’s standing with her back arched against the wall. ‘You’re very pretty,’ he says and kisses her tenderly on the cheek. He looks her over transfixed; he bites his lower lip and strokes the tattoo that’s partially visible over the waist of her skirt. She can be his for an hour for USD 100. ‘How much for full night?’ he asks the security guard, who’s also the pimp. USD 300. He turns to us like a man who cannot believe his luck. ‘Yaar, yeh mast hai yaar,’ he says, and transfers his gaze back to her. Paras tells him to take her if he wants, the rest of us will go on to the club. Rajesh thinks for a minute and snaps out of it. It’s only 11 pm. He’ll try his luck at the club and come back here if required.
A car with four women pulls up beside us as we walk to the club. A window rolls down and one of them asks: ‘Boom-boom?’ There’s a short conversation. USD 100 for 2 hours; USD 150 for the whole night. ‘Massage, boom-boom, everything,’ the woman says. ‘Exchange girls afterwards.’ But the night is still young and we move on. One of the hotel’s receptionists has given us directions to the club. When we get there, there’s a club, but not the one we are looking for. Girls go in and out; burly men fitting the archetype of night managers stand outside in track-suits or hoodies. One of them tells us the club now has a new owner, a new name and a fairly steep cover charge plus ‘table deposit’. There’s going to be a strip tease and there will be plenty of girls to be picked up. The other three are serious about following through, so I leave them there and walk back to the hotel. A couple of taxis slow down beside me: ‘Boom-boom?’ In the hotel elevator, a bell-boy asks, ‘Sir, you want massage in your room?’ It’s an achievement to return to the room with the night unconsummated.
In the morning over breakfast I learn that Rajesh and the others picked up girls at the nightclub, took a taxi to one of their apartments at 4 am, and have only just returned. They paid the girls USD 80 and are subject to eager questioning by others in the group who feel this is more boom-boom for the buck than they’ve been getting. Paras is adept at bargaining (no doubt from his experience in the sari business), and like all good strategists he knows when retreat is the best policy. He regales the group with an incident from last night when he invited four girls to sit at their table and asked if they’d like a drink. They wanted Red Bulls, which Paras, casting a quick eye on the menu, saw were USD 15 each. So he sprang up from his chair as if taken by the song that was playing, and lost himself in dancing until the girls were gone.
We are a depleted group again this morning as we head to the Lal Bahadur Shastri memorial. Tashkent was the site for USSR-moderated peace negotiations in 1966 between the Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and his Pakistani counterpart Muhammad Ayub Khan. Shastri died in Tashkent a day after the agreement was signed, and today a small landscaped plot with his bust serves as a memorial. Jabir has thoughtfully brought a couple of roses with him and members of the group have their photographs taken side-on, ostentatiously placing a rose at the base of the pedestal while twisting their necks to face the camera. We mill about and I hear some of the older members of the group talking about Shastri’s integrity. The matter of his having resigned as Railway Minis- ter after taking moral responsibility for an accident comes up. ‘No one could point a finger at him,’ one man says in admiration. Inevitably, a contrast is drawn between him and today’s scam-ridden politicians, and there’s much clucking and head-shaking about corruption (which I can’t help thinking is a bit rich coming from a group com posed in large measure of adulterers and tax-evaders).
We drive over to the Shahidlar Xotirasi—Memorial to the Victims of Repression—a museum and park that remembers the Uzbeks who resisted the regimes of the Tsars and the Soviets and were killed or incarcerated. We don’t enter the museum, but we walk in the park laid around a soaring rotunda. This is also one of the few times we get to meet locals. Schoolboys ask for Indian cigarettes; schoolgirls want to pose with us for pictures to be taken on their phone-cameras. There is no common language for communication except Hindi cinema. Subtitled Hindi films were popular in the USSR and continue to be so now in Uzbekistan. So once it has been established that we are from India, an older man or woman might beam and say, ‘Raj Kapoor!’ to which the correct response could be a cheery ‘Dilip Kumar!’; then a ‘Rishi Kapoor!’ possibly countered with an ‘Amitabh Bachchan!’ The school-kids are more contemporary, bringing up Kareena Kapoor, Hrithik Roshan, Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan. As usual the most loquacious of our group turns out to be Navin, who in addition to never tiring of exchanging names of actors, has actually made the effort to acquire a rudimentary Russian vocabulary. As a group of school-girls leaves after a long photo session in which Navin poses with them in various combinations, he calls out ‘Dasvidaniya’ and ‘Ya tebya lublu’, which elicits an uncomfortable blush from a couple of them.
If a lot of Tashkent looks new and shiny, it’s because it is. An earthquake levelled Tashkent in April 1966 and today’s Tashkent is mostly Soviet or Uzbek construction. We visit a monument marking the earthquake (one of the few Soviet era monuments to survive Uzbek independence): a larger-than-life couple with a child brace themselves against the earth splitting open at their feet. In the afternoon we go to Chorsu bazaar, a packed market in which pretty much anything one could want is on sale either in the shops or from the women in scarves seated on the pavements. Our interest is in the blue-green dome at the centre that houses the spices and dried fruits section. Dried fruits are what Indian tourists take back with them, and here are almonds, walnuts, raisins, apricots and dates available in varied sizes, shapes, combinations, and stages of processing. Competition among the sellers is so intense that they physically force potential customers to try samples and I walk out of the market with bags and stomach full of dried fruits. I see that several of the others have bought pomegranates at the fresh produce market nearby and am pleasantly surprised to find amidst us this Babur-like connoisseurship of fresh fruit until I overhear someone in the bus mention that it gives ‘strength’.
In the evening I take a walk with Rajesh. He tells me he’s looking for a larger purpose in life. He earns around ten lakhs a month from his family business without much effort, but he doesn’t want to go on like this, working half-heartedly at something he’s not interested in. ‘I want to do something,’ he says. To that end he’s planning some high-risk projects that should earn him a few crores in the span of a year or two. After that he’ll be free of his family business and can work on something related to the arts. The evening’s gala dinner features the same performers as yesterday, so it’s a joyful continuation from where everyone left off. Kakaji has body ache and is subdued—the flesh and bones are making their presence felt after last night’s drinking and dancing. I get up to use the toilet, find it occupied by someone who’s taking inordinately long, and return to my table. Later I find out that one of the men from our group entered the toilet and found he had walked in on a woman who worked in the restaurant’s kitchen. By force of habit he’d held out two thousand soum notes in apology. She’d looked at the notes and signalled five, upon which he’d locked the door behind him. The fourth day of the tour is ‘free at leisure’ according to the tour program. Some of us have asked Jabir to organize a day-trip to Sa- markand. It seems a shame to come all this way and not visit one of the most ancient and historically rich cities in the world. We’re to leave early tomorrow morning. Navin asks Rajesh as we enter the hotel if he’s going to Samarkand. ‘Yeh history-wistory koi kaam ki cheez nahin hai. This history-wistory is of no use,’ says Rajesh. ‘I believe in only two things—sex and money.’
Nine of us have booked the Samarkand day trip: Dilip Kumar and his friend, Paras and two other Gujaratis, three Muslims from Delhi (whose religion plays a role in what transpires at Samarkand), and I. For USD 100 each—the price of a boom-boom—we will be driven to the railway station to board the non-stop bullet-train to Samarkand, where we will be met by a van and a guide who will take us around the sights of Samarkand and drop us off at the station in the evening.
The railway station is a large and impressive structure. As Paras puts it, Tashkent’s railway station looks like an airport and the airport looks like a railway station. Our bags are x-rayed, our passports checked, and we get on to the platform where a sleek pointy-nosed train of Spanish construction is waiting. Outside the door to each compartment is a ‘train-hostess’—a young woman in beige skirt and white shirt who looks at our tickets and smiles in welcome. We take pictures with the train, and then with the train-hostesses before taking our seats for the 344 km ride to Samarkand.
In about two and a half hours we are met in Samarkand by our guide for the day—the aptly named Bobur. He tells us that there are seven or eight sites that we shouldn’t miss in Samarkand, but we don’t have much time, and he’ll do his best to show us as much as he can. One of the Muslims pipes up with a constraint—today is Friday and they need to be in a mosque at 1 pm for namaaz. Which explains why one of them has today donned for the first time on the tour a white skull-cap.
First Bobur takes us to the Imam Al-Bukhari memorial complex. The Imam was a ninth-century scholar whose compilation of Hadith is considered by many to be the most authoritative Islamic text after the Quran. The complex contains his mausoleum and a large mosque. The Muslims go to the washing rooms to cleanse themselves before entering. The Hindus—the rest of us—don’t want to enter because we’re not interested enough to pay the entrance fee. We hang around the grounds as Bobur tells us about how the ancient city of Samarkand was in ruins after being sacked by Genghis Khan until Timur revived it by making it his capital in the fourteenth century. For that, and for his prolific military conquests, Bobur tells us, Timur is a national hero in Uzbekistan. Paras mutters: ‘Lutera tha, daaku tha saala.’ (He’s referring to the fact that Timur reached as far as Delhi when he attacked the ruling Sultanate in 1398 and returned with elephants—as many as ninety according to a source from the time—loaded with gold and precious stones.) In the meanwhile we’re restless in the knowledge that we have all Samarkand left to see, but the Muslims are taking forever to emerge from the complex. When they finally do it’s around 11:30 and they propose staying on till it’s time for namaaz. But Bobur tells them he’ll make sure they get to another mosque on time.
It’s a little after noon when we reach Gur-e-Amir—tomb of the kings. Timur is buried here as are his sons and grandsons. The 15th century structure features a single densely ridged dome with intricate patterns in blue mosaic, with the prominent pillars and ornate gateway being a later addition. The Gur-e- Amir is regarded as the predecessor of mausoleums built in India—such as the Taj Mahal—by Timur’s descendants, the Mughals.
While the Hindus look at Timur’s tomb, Bobur leads the Muslims to the mosque a short distance away. The Hindus finish with the tomb, but there’s a discourse going on at the mosque and namaaz hasn’t even started. So the Hindus go to the small Ruhabad mausoleum next to the mosque, which is said to contain a hair of the prophet Muhammad. There’s not much else to do and the afternoon sun is fierce, so all the Hindus except me repair to the van to wait. I chat with Bobur for a while under the shade of a tree. He’s a devout Muslim and if he weren’t working right now he’d be at a mosque too. I ask him how, despite most of Uzbekistan’s population being Muslim, the country feels quite liberal in the matter of alcohol or nightclubs or women’s clothing. According to Bobur this is the case only in the cities, and even that is so because Islamic leaders cannot have their way. The government is apparently wary of extremism, and ensures that religion stays low-key. He tells me of the time he showed a group of Pakistani tourists the sights of Samarkand. After they left he was picked up by the ‘secret police’ and questioned about the tourists’ motives and interests. They’d never do that with Indian or Western tourists, he says.
Breakfast has been early and light, and I’m ravenous. There are no shops or restaurants nearby, so I walk back to the van to check if anyone has something to eat. I find the rest of the party around the van, tucking into biscuits, khakhra and pickle, reliably brought by the Gujaratis. Everyone’s a little annoyed that the limited time we have here is being squandered like this, and there’s something of an anti-Muslim sentiment being worked up. There’s talk about the sudden Friday piety on display after all the boom-boom of the last few days. Then Paras says, ‘I’ve heard they actually worship a shivling at Mecca.’ Dilip Kumar nods vigorously. ‘It’s true,’ he says, and adds, bizarrely, ‘They also worship pigs there.’ The namaaz begins in the mosque and seems to go on and on. As do the khakhras, of which there’s a seemingly endless supply. What was a stopgap snack until lunch becomes lunch. A plan is hatched to make the most of the afternoon: we’ll give the Muslims what’s left of the biscuits and khakhra and avoid stopping for lunch. They finally arrive with sheepish smiles: ‘We thought it would be over in twenty minutes like in India, but it took a while.’ Paras explains the plan to them: we don’t have much time, so could they make do with snacks instead of lunch. ‘I have to eat soon,’ says one of the Muslims. ‘I am diabetic and I am already getting chakkar.’ There’s no arguing with that, so we ask Bobur to take us someplace where we can pick up some food quickly. He claims to know of no such place, and says he’ll take us to the one restaurant that he does know. On the way, the Hindus for some reason start talking politics. The doctor says to the Gujarati contractor: ‘Modi has done an incredible job in Gujarat. In ten years he’s completely transformed the state.’ There’s general agreement on that, and further discussion in the van (during which the Muslims stay mum) leads to the consensus that Modi is by far the frontrunner for PM in 2014. There’s a round of bashing the Congress-led government’s policies, with Dilip Kumar calling the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act ‘bakwaas’ because it indulges the lazy. (He elaborates on this the next morning at breakfast. ‘Who are the people who don’t want to work?’ he asks from beneath his INDIA cap, and answers his own question by counting off the indolent classes on two fingers: ‘Chamaar aur Musalmaan.’)
At the restaurant, the Hindus wait outside wearily while the Muslims take lunch. Bobur is fed separately by the staff, and judging by his familiarity with them he comes here often with tourists and is likely incentivized to do so. While waiting outside, Paras, to kill time, asks a taxi-driver about the prospects for boom-boom in Samarkand. The prospects are unbelievably great. The taxi-driver, in his broken English, says he can arrange for boom-boom all right. ‘What you like? 16 years, 17 years, 18 years?’ How much? ‘25 dollars, 30 dollars.’ Paras is goggle-eyed and wishes he’d known about this earlier. He and another Gujarati start making hectic plans to skip post-lunch sightseeing and instead squeeze in some boom-boom between now and the train’s departure. But these plans are forgotten when Paras falls in love.
She’s a young woman in a pink dress sipping cocktails with her friend in the outdoor section of the restaurant. Paras can’t stop looking at her, but he can’t muster up the courage to go talk to her either. The rest of us pass time by egging him on. Finally he goes up to their table, sits there for a minute, and returns. They speak no English at all, so there’s nothing to be said. After an hour spent eating, Bobur and the Muslims emerge content from the restaurant. We pile into the van, but Paras has asked Bobur to interpret for him, and they head off to the girls’ table. The rest of us sit in the van and watch Paras’s translated wooing from afar. The diabetic Muslim, now energized, says to his cohort, pointedly and loud enough for the whole van to hear: ‘Kyon, ab der nahi ho rahi? (Well, now aren’t we getting late)?’ Paras returns triumphant. She’s willing to go on a date with him in the evening. He can call her through Bobur and decide where to meet. But this will also mean that Paras will have to book a room in Samarkand and return by himself the next day. His Gujarati friends refuse to stay with him; he asks me, but I too say no. I ask him what his problem is with staying alone – anyway, if all goes well he’ll have the girl for company. ‘Foreign country hai yaar, dar lagta hai. (It’s a foreign country, so one feels scared.)’
We have time to visit just one more site, and it’s to be the Registan, the main public square of Samarkand during the reign of Timur and his successors. What remains today is the tile-patterned expanse of the square bounded off on three sides by madrassas. One of the madrassas was built in the fifteenth century by Timur’s grandson Ulugh Beg; the other two came in the seventeenth century. Each of these madrassas evokes awe with its size, elegance of form and density of ornamentation, but to stand in the middle of the square surrounded by three all at once is outright swoon-inducing. Towering gateways, minarets, cupolas and arches are all covered in coloured ceramic, most of it in vivid shades of blue. The motifs and inscriptions are intricate enough to be admirable on a teacup, but at this scale they are near miraculous. It seems no exaggeration to say there’s nothing quite like it in the world. The Registan is a kind of Mecca of Islamic architecture. Timur’s military conquests took him far and wide and slaughtered far too many, but he brought back with him the best craftsmen and builders from wherever he went, and the eventual results of that confluence are the glistening blue wonders of Timurid Samarkand.
We make a hasty stop at a market to buy dry fruits and silks, and head to the railway station. Paras, after much introspection and discussion, decides not to take the risk of staying on in Samarkand. But its women, both professional and amateur, have made a mark on him. ‘Next time I’m coming straight here,’ he says.
Samarkand’s history is ridiculously rich and varied: people have lived here for at least three and a half millennia, with a city being established in 700 BC; it’s been ruled by Persians, Greeks, Turkics, Chinese and Russians; several larger-than-life figures in world history have been here—Alexander, Gengis Khan, Timur; it’s had Zoroastrians, Buddhists and Nestorian Christians before becoming largely Islamic; and it’s been an important staging post on the Silk Road, the network of trade routes that connected China with Europe until the fifteenth century. Our day in the most glorious city of Transoxiana has largely been spent waiting for people while they eat, pray or love, and we’ve left most of its riches unexplored. If there’s a next time I’m coming straight here too.
There are perhaps five people in our entire tour group who are not here for boom-boom. I’m one of them, and I have to admit this whenever someone in the group wants to compare notes about how we’re enjoying. One of the cool sardars asks me, ‘Aap gay ho kya? Are you gay?’ More poetically, someone else asks, ‘Mandir tak aaye, par pooja nahin ki? (Came till the temple, but did not worship?)’ I joke that maybe my temples are elsewhere, to which he says, ‘Woh toh sabke hain. (That everyone has.)’
I begin to feel, as the tour comes to an end, that despite all the fuss about boom-boom, maybe the group doesn’t really enjoy it very much. Take Rajesh: one night he isn’t happy because he’s been sent the wrong girl; on the next night he’s in a sex worker’s apartment 15 km from the hotel and unable to have a good time because he’s worried about safety. On the last night when someone asks if he’s getting a girl, he just says, ‘No, I’m bored.’ (Instead we go to a nightclub where, between lap-dances, he tells me he doesn’t approve of this sort of place: ‘Sex is good. Sexuality is bad.’) Or take Paras, who has no equal in the group when it comes to describing his experiences in queasy detail. He tells me that the sex workers here wear female condoms and get the man to wear a condom. Unable to help myself I ask him what that’s like, and he says, ‘It’s okay. A little noisy,’—which does not sound like much fun at all. When he falls in love with the girl in pink in Samarkand he outright denounces paid sex and tells me that just taking a girl out to dinner on one’s own merits is far better than boom-boom with a sex-worker. Right at the beginning of the tour, even as the bus pulled out of the airport, Jabir told us about the show he organizes—naked women, fondling allowed, no boom-boom. When he found no takers, he’d said, presumably from past experience, ‘Never mind. You’ll all get bored of boom-boom in a couple of days. Then you can go for this.’ This turns out to be exactly what happens.
I also come to suspect that there’s a thrill that comes from exercising power over another that may be as or more enjoyable than the boom-boom itself. The delight on the faces of men as a girl dances for them is no doubt owing to some erotic self-validation, but also at the fact that the taunting clutch of currency notes in their hand gives them the power to acquire that validation at will. (This power dynamic is well-understood in dance-bars in India, where a feudal component is serviced as well: all the men working in these bars—the doormen, the waiters —in return for tips will affect a cowering smarminess intended to make the most hapless patron feel like Timur himself.) The pinnacle of power I’d guess is at the moment of selecting a girl from a fawning line-up, which might render the subsequent boom-boom somewhat anti-climactic. Unless there’s a chance to throw one’s weight around there too. Returning to the department of queasy details, Paras boasts over breakfast one morning of how he asserted himself in the night. He’d paid a night manager for a ‘two-shot’ session with a woman who, after the first shot regretted her inability to go through with the second because she’d run out of condoms. Paras suspected she was shirking work and so he adopted a severe tone and asked her to call the night manager right now, upon which she found some condoms and readied herself for round two. Is the human element to be considered here at all, or does the situation have the same contractual obligations of, say, a tour program that promises two non-veg snacks during a gala dinner and delivers only one? How do you go on to have sex with a woman who’s clearly indicated she’s unwilling, unless you don’t see her as a person at all, or unless the very fact that she doesn’t have a say is part of what’s driving you?
At a nightclub I go to with Paras and Rajesh, there are about a dozen minimally clad women in impossible heels who take turns with the pole in the middle and stalk the room giving lap dances. At one point in the evening there’s a cry from a table near ours and I turn to see a woman fly briefly through the air and crash to the floor. For some reason, the man she was straddling has thrown her off him. His table is at the edge of a slightly elevated section of the floor, making her fall all the more dramatic. She clambers back up onto her heels, looking at the man in disbelief. Gone is her strut, her inviting smile. It’s a tired, frightened girl who totters away weeping. There are bouncers around but they say nothing to the man (who, burly and impassive, may well be some sort of alpha night manager). If this can happen in public, how vulnerable must women be behind a locked door with a stranger.
Jabir is defensive when I ask him how Uzbekistan became a destination for sex tourists. He largely holds the tourists responsible. He says he’s interested in showing people around his country, but they only care for one thing. According to him there aren’t even that many women involved in sex work. He says, ‘There are maybe around a hundred girls in Tashkent. Everyone comes here, fucks the same girls and goes back.’ That sounds like a considerable understatement. There must be that number of sex workers from the former USSR in Delhi or Mumbai alone. The textbook explanation holds that the dissolution of the USSR created economic uncertainty in which many young women found it hard to support themselves, and ended up in different parts of the world as sex workers.
Why come all the way to Uzbekistan when it’s easily possible to find women from the region in India? There are reasons of pragmatism, of course—there’s no one who might recognize you here, and the country’s relatively cheap. Beyond that, these four or five days are an opportunity to let oneself go. Here there are no responsibilities of family or work. The proscriptions of home are absent, so you can drink and smoke as much as you want. Everyone’s a young man once again, giggling at adolescent jokes. There’s the sex of course, but here it goes beyond simply servicing the libido. There is a jubilant revelling in sex and an air of constant bawdiness that can only come from the working out of things long pent-up. Here you can unburden yourself completely. You can enjoy.
It’s the last gala dinner of the tour. The girls have left; the notes have been swept off the floor. But the group continues to dance in a small clearing in the restaurant. For the first time on the tour, it’s only men. Every- one’s drunk and there’s a lightness, a playfulness in the air. Someone grabs Kakaji and mock-slow-dances with him; Don rushes for his money-bag and showers notes on them. Sharmaji is skipping with his arms in the air. The sardars are a joy to watch, especially the oldest of them, a man with a long white beard who’s making rhythmic quotation marks in the air with eyes shut in intense concentration. One of the cool sardars dances up to my table and motions to me to join them. ‘No one will ask you tomorrow. Get up,’ he says firmly. Soon I’m flailing about amidst expressions of delight at seeing me on my feet for the first time. Tomorrow we will leave Tashkent and return to our regular lives, but for now—we are enjoying.
—Excerpted from If It’s Monday It Must Be Madurai: A Conducted Tour of India by Srinath Perur, with permission from Penguin Books India. Published under Penguin Viking, the book will release in December 2013