It is after dark in Ahmedabad. Two young jocks with half-shaved heads standing in front of the city’s trendiest café, Mocha, pointed their cellphones at themselves and pouted for pretty selfies. As soon as these were uploaded to their Facebook accounts, their job was done: To look as cool as they could online, because off in the real world, things have completely fallen apart.
The last vestige of cool in a no-alcohol city were its hookah bars, the next best alternative to an actual beer. But on December 15, the good times vanished in a puff of smoke, or in the form of an ordinance from the state government that imposed a blanket ban on hookah bars.
“It’s 200 times more unhealthy than cigarettes, it’s addictive and it’s corrupting our college going youth,” declared Pradipsinh Jadeja, the state’s home minister. While he may be right about the toxic smoke, he may as well have handed out chastity belts and chains while he was at it, because for many of the selfie junkies at Mocha, there is an inescapable connection between sex and smokes.
Of the 70-odd hookah bars now banned in Ahmedabad, the names tell you the Freudian links between the two: Hellish, Lucifer Lounge, Arabian Nights, Marakeesh – in other words, places that Satan visits in all his dark glory.
The purple pink setting or black and red walls of a hookah parlour – depending on the bar owner’s particular fascinations – suggest that the hookah bar is the perfect setting for two mates to meet and pass on the message that some making out may be in the offing. A feat that is hard enough to achieve when you are young, hormonal, and meeting someone you barely know through a dating app. The friendly but brightly-lit Cafe Coffee Day outlets, Havmor Ice cream parlours or the friendly neighbourhood chai and vada pao stalls that populate the city are lovely, but for this precise objective, not entirely appropriate. The swirls of pink smoke rising from bright green or purple chillums, the soft dreamy sound of Arijit Singh singing “Nashe Si Chadh Gayi”, enticing you to intoxicate yourself, have disappeared, and with them, so has the last of the city’s easy-going vibe.
Inside Mocha, at a low, pop art-infused table, 12 young people sat poring over a large bowl of chocolate ice cream, lamenting at the demise of their favourite hook-up joint in the city, Marakeesh. “It was the only legal thing,” said 21-year-old Sarika, who did not wish to be identified by her last name.
The table was full of young people who, until recently, had to struggle with their parents just to be able to hang out outside, after work or coaching classes. In the last two decades, parenting has increasingly begun to take its cues from the moral police on television – televangelists and soaps. In a city with almost no anonymity, darkened hookah bars, were a legitimate escape. This was one of the few public spaces where you could be loud, suggestive, and yet non-committal.
That is, until the ban struck. Just like that, from cool smoked-up conversations, Sarika and gang were reduced to sharing chocolate ice cream. “The state cannot tell us what we can or cannot do because we’re adults,” she said, miffed. That last word – adults, had a particularly sour sting to it, given that this was a table packed with recently turned adults, with no place to show off their newly legal status.
With a little prodding, one of Sarika’s friends said out loud the word that made them all miss hookah bars: flirting. In a hookah bar, it was much easier to ask a stranger out and deal with the traumatic possibility of rejection, because the dark setting, air filled with wisps of Kiwi-flavoured smoke, were great allies. Especially when your private space is not private, and the aunty next door knows exactly how long you have stayed out and what time you came home last night.
Outside the cafe, Shreya and her friend Aishwariya stood smoking. They looked older and wiser than the 20-year-old ice-cream eaters. They did not frequent hookah bars, they said, but it was the messaging embedded in the ban that they had a problem with. Why should the city have a say in what you drink or smoke, and where?
“They’re banning hookah bars, not hookahs,” Aishwariya clarified. Its reputation as the City of Bans has given Ahmedabad a split personality – alcohol prohibition in Gujarat, for instance, has fuelled a vast and flourishing bootlegging trade.
Bans do make you more deviant, Shreya agreed. The simple act of buying cigarettes marks you out as a sinner in most cities in India if you are a woman, but in Ahmedabad, the city turns into an oppressor. “It’s not just the guy selling you smokes who stares at you open-mouthed,” Shreya said, “but a whole crowd comes to watch.”
If you are a woman and a smoker, you are looking for a space where you can just sit and be. With the more eclectic spaces being banned in Ahmedabad, Shreya said she finds herself constantly looking for new spaces, where she can relax without a hundred eyes on her.
One person who does not have to look too far is the 22-year-old Yatharth Shah. Sporting a beard not trim enough to suggest an affiliation to our prime minister, or long enough to be a Karl Marx fan, Shah’s facial hair and his politics land smack in the middle. Shah is also nonchalant about the hookah ban, a result of living among Ahmedabad’s wealthy elites: his friends and he can afford to do what they like in the privacy of their homes.
This sub-culture of deviance, he conceded, is precisely the result of the various bans on everything a young person wants. “We’re anarchists,” he said, proudly. “I don’t drink and smoke in my own home, but there are ‘Houses’...” he added, grinning. There are parents who do allow young people to experiment, and parents like Shah’s, who are fine looking the other way, as long as Shah does not bring any of his experiments home.
“How much can you crusade against the city?” said Yatharth. “ You just find loopholes and do what you want. That’s basically a very Ahmedabadi thing.”
In another part of the city, Vinay Brambhatt is counting his cash: 30 lakh, invested a year and a half ago in setting up Lucifer Lounge. He has recovered half the cost, but now, Lucifer is going to have to mutate into some sort of Lalaji-friendly neighbourhood restaurant. New investment. No inviting smoky interiors.
At yet another cafe, 22-year-old entrepreneur Yash Trivedy had flown down from Lucknow to be with his girlfriend, Shreya, so they could celebrate their six-month anniversary as a couple. They are both smokers, but this is only possible in permissive places like certain cafés and hookah bars, away from the prying eyes of their families. They said they wished the city had “more non-judgemental places to hang out in”.
For the moment, it seems, Ahmedabad’s young and restless will have to rein in their lust for smoke and the courtships that play out in rooms filled with smoke and mirrors. With hookah bars out of the equation, the only intoxicant that remains is the internet. No one can stop you from uploading pictures of yourself with a tight T-shirt and a can of beer on dating apps like Tinder – even if both the beer and biceps are photoshopped.