Gurgaon, India: In a smoky nightclub on the third floor of the Sahara Mall, blowing off steam to the thudding bass line of a Bollywood dance mix, are the inhabitants of the new India – the sales representatives and software developers and call-center cubicle dwellers, all of them dancing giddily, hands flung in the air.
Amid the din, it is almost possible to miss the half-dozen strongmen circulating slowly among them, watching from the edges for any signs of trouble.
Look closely and it becomes clear that the bouncers are all of a single physical type, their chests and biceps built like the front bumper of an SUV. If they look like cousins, it is because they are. A startling number of them share a family name, Tanwar, and when the nightclubs close, many will return to the same nearby village, a place where women walk down dusty lanes with their faces obscured by a cloth, balancing stacks of dried cow dung on their heads, much as their ancestors did three centuries ago.
There are few places in India where historical periods slam into each other quite so forcefully as they do on the outer edges of Delhi. The musclemen from the village of Fatehpur Beri are the descendants of the original inhabitants of the city, a genetic line that fortified itself over the course of centuries as they defended their village against waves of invaders on their way to the seat of empire.
The sons and grandsons of cow and goat herders, they were born in an outpost surrounded on all sides by croplands. As Fatehpur Beri was swallowed by the expanding city, its spartan strongmen continued to train in the traditional way, stripping down to loincloths and wrestling in a circle of mud. But they were forced to look for a new line of work.
“There is an element of the warrior in the Tanwars,” said Ankur Tanwar, who opened the village’s first gym about a decade ago. “We fought with the Muslim invaders. We fought with the Britishers.
“Much has changed in the last 20 years,” he added with a thoughtful pause. “We never thought we would be working in bars.”
The man who says he led the Tanwars into the security business is Vijay Tanwar – known as Vijay Pehalwan, or Vijay the Wrestler – and he has a handshake like a carpenter’s clamp. As a boy, he was put under the tutelage of the village wrestling coach, a barrel-chested Brahmin who communicates largely in parables from the Hindu epics. His students are put on an ultrahigh protein vegetarian diet consisting of dried fruit, clarified butter (during training, a wrestler can eat a pound at a sitting) and gallons of fresh milk.
Tanwar grew up expecting to raise goats, but in 1996, a restaurateur approached him asking for “strong boys” to stand at the door of his new establishment. The scene was particularly shocking for men from villages like Fatehpur Beri and neighboring Asola, places so conservative that adult women do not leave the house without permission from their husband or mother-in-law.
“Initially, it was very difficult for us to see – this new tradition of drinking alcohol, the nonvegetarian food and the girls,” he said. “We are simple people. We do not have much money.” He shrugged, thinking it over. “Now I feel that they are the rich people, they have the right to have fun.”
Among their co-workers, the bouncers are famous for their discipline. “There is something in their genes,” said Bishar Singh, 29, who was working the door at a club called Prison. “They don’t drink. They don’t smoke at all.”
Back on the outskirts of Fatehpur Beri, drinking sweet, milky tea out of tiny cups, older men nod in recognition; that is what their family, members of a subgroup of the Gujjar caste, is known for. Omprakash Tanwar related a local legend dating to the mid-19th century, when two British men passing on horseback made rude remarks to village women harvesting a field of mustard. Outraged, the village men are said to have pulled the foreigners off their horses, yoked them to a plow and forced them to plow the field. When British reinforcements arrived, the story goes, they surrounded the village and shot all the young men they found.
“This is in our DNA – to fight for our homes and the honor of our women,” Omprakash Tanwar said. “Because we have a tradition of protecting women, we do the same at the clubs.”
Delhi’s encroachment has brought a rush of money, and some change, to the village. As fields were snapped up for luxury residential compounds and malls, residents found that their land was skyrocketing in value.
Local police say nearly all of the district’s violent crime is related to property disputes between relatives – “hitting with iron rods, bones are broken, a lot of bloodshed,” as one official put it. Lately, he added, it seems “there is a gap of many generations between father and son.”
Women, however, still live under severe restrictions. Marriages are arranged by families, and many women abide by purdah, obscuring their faces with a cloth in the presence of men other than their husbands. Unmarried women are not allowed to own cellphones; young women in college may be given the right to use them, but are expected to hand them over to their brothers or fathers when arriving home.
The nightclubs where their husbands work are impossibly distant, though Priyanka Harsana, 25, overcome by curiosity, once peeked into one when her husband took her shopping at the Sahara Mall.
“My first feeling was, something about this is not right,” she said. “Oh my God, I thought how scared I would be if someone saw me here.”
The village men, asked what they would do if their daughters showed up at a nightclub, looked blank, then burst into laughter, exclaiming, “Shock! Punishment! Not possible!”
Vijay Tanwar, the bouncer entrepreneur, now manages a company called Storm Group, placing a contingent of around 50 village strongmen with restaurants, hotels, hospitals and politicians running for office.
The market, he said, only continues to grow. “As the money increases, the crime increases,” he said. “And as the crime increases, our business increases.”
One measure of his success is that, though his two sons have been wrestling since the age of 8, he hopes they will be part of the first generation of his family to work desk jobs. He looked on proudly as the elder son, a broad-shouldered boy named Kunal, answered a few questions in halting English and confessed with a shy smile that he would like someday to become an accountant.