My first realization that Azaad Bazaar was super popular was when a stranger who I just added on my Facebook profile from Dubai asked me, “You hang at Azaad Bazaar. How cool is that!? Can you describe it for me?”
I tried to explain to her on a chat window how funky coloured egg trays that separate the outside seating of Azaad Bazaar. Or how when you open the door to walk in, the multi-coloured lamp on the window and the wall filled with comments from visitors and the jazz music selection welcomes you. I tried to draw for her how the shelves are lined with eclectic stuff – from yummy flavoured bath soaps to interesting bags/clutches and cushions on the center table and the recurring rainbow theme that runs through the store –with pride bearing earrings, belts and hats at regular intervals– in subtle ways . Or how smart alecky 377 tees, Bollywood boxers and a changing room all manage to fit in very cosily. Or tell her that my favourite corner is the one that houses lesbian photo-frames, gay books and magazines! Or that streaming lights, hanging photo-frames from the ceiling, an event-advice wall promoting other queer projects and a pride flag gives the walls and the ceiling a funky vibe?
But then, I realized that Azaad Bazaar, housed in Mumbai’s suburban Bandra is not about shopping alone. Tagged as ‘India’s first LGBT store’, but for regulars at the store and I, it’s also about finding a space to be! I’ve found myself spending hours chilling in the chairs outside with friends and sipping coffee (on their fabulous honour system) or meeting a new queer face every time I pop by the store. I’ve seen random strangers walk in with questions about looking for the perfect something to jazz up their outfit for a pajama party and share their angst over how they look, their hair and their love life! I’ve come in to find common friends get advice, support from everyone as they came out to family and dealt with the aftermath within its walls.
Given the lack of gay bars and queer friendly spaces in the city, the five chairs-stools outside Azaad Bazaar and the many ash trays could very well be the cool hangout of the queer. As umpteen rounds of chai, coffee, and yummy hot-chocolate get savoured, food always seems to always be dropping in along with regular customers. And the comfy vibe – I’ve seen patrons been politely been told to not smoke up outside the premises—comes in handy! Debates outside the store are always exciting – ranging from the random (“If you were stuck on an island, which movies would you take?”) to the current (“Do you really the power of the pink rupee exists!”). What’s also truly exciting and subtly done, is that the store doesn’t cater to the female or male queer fraternity alone, but to both in equal measure – allowing truly the divide between the gay men and the women to be wiped out!
Perhaps, a large credit to the easy-vibe of the place goes to the owners Sabina and Simran who seem happy to play many roles with ease. They range from store owner, friend, listener, advisor, debator, quick-fixers, foodies, and sometimes just mere observers allowing many to share their space. And while the occasional in-store promo email does come your way talking of their wares, they seem largely happy to let you browse, pick or just merely hangout at the store.
As for me, I am sold: they stock my favourite fix of erotica compilations from Queer Ink, heart-shaped rose soaps, Italian Nescafe, funky headgear for a perfect theme party. And yes, creating a space so subtly to hang in on an ordinary day where I can totally enjoy being gay!