Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars. Sonia Faleiro. Hamish Hamilton. Pp 216. Rs. 450.
The precise point at which Sonia Faleiro hooked me was a couple of pages into the first chapter, when she describes her protagonist Leela’s evident disinterest in the author’s life: ‘Leela wanted only to be heard. And the best way to accomplish that, she knew, was not to change the subject if the subject was her. So our often one-sided relationship may be characterized thus: I called Leela. She ‘missed-called’ me.’
The relationship between Leela and Faleiro may be one-sided but it is far from being an exploitative one; in fact, it comes across as a genuine friendship that manages to bridge the uncountable barriers of class, experience and expectation. This must have something to do with Faleiro being a woman and one, furthermore, whose primary interest in Leela is not transactional. Just as a counterpoint, I am reminded of the documentary film I Am the Very Beautiful by Shyamal Karmakar, where the filmmaker’s more personal relationship with Ranu Das, the bar singer protagonist, is more troubling and the filmmaker’s position more invidious.
Faleiro’s position as friend and observer whose intentions are never suspect, opens out the narrative in directions other than the nature of relationships between writers of non-fiction and their subjects, with extraordinary results. The book ranges far to provide background while being tethered to the personal narratives of its subject and her friends.
In one chapter, Faleiro sketches a brief history of Kamatipura while recounting a visit to the place to celebrate the birthday of Gazala, a brothel madam. While there, the cops come to demand bribes of the hijras and a fight ensues. Priya, Leela’s closest friend, who tolerates Faleiro for Leela’s sake, and whose interactions with the author are frequently prickly, watches the author and this is how Faleiro reports it: ‘“You wanted to know us better, Sonia,” she said, sardonically. “Come, come. Have your fun. Take foto,” she taunted.’
This willingness to put herself in the path of a subject’s scorn gives Faleiro herself a vulnerability that enriches her narrative: it is difficult to know someone else while keeping oneself safe from being understood in turn.
With a novelist’s skill, Faleiro shows Leela and her friends in their several moods – comic, feisty, despairing and indomitable – while never letting it be forgotten that it’s a brutal world she describes. Girls are raped, sold and abused in every way imaginable. They escape into a world that appears to offer them some measure of control over their own lives, some semblance of independence. But they’re aware that this independence and control is chimerical and temporary, depending as it does on their youth and beauty, on the favours of the men who surround them – the bar owners, the police, the landlordss and the gangsters – and they make the best of it.
If the ‘best of it’ is a determination to take every customer for what she can get from him, it’s an attitude that does not shock either the author or the reader. Because the reverse of this apparent manipulativeness is the desperation and insecurity that shadows the lives of these women; the marks of self-mutilation they leave on their bodies a testament to the difficulty of enduring their lives day after day.
Divided into two parts, Faleiro’s book begins in January 2005 and comes to an end nine months later, in September of that year, when the Maharashtra government’s decision to ban bar dancers on the grounds of morality, changed everything for these women, who thus far had considered themselves a cut above sex-workers, masseuses and others in ‘the line’ (a portmanteau word that suggests not just ‘profession’ but also gives a flavour of the adaptive properties of the English language).
In this second section, things become much darker for Leela and her friends. The spectre of HIV looms as many of them are forced to become sex-workers to make a living. Dubai is the promised land that could make things better for Leela and Priya, but the reader, just like the author, is skeptical –we recognise it for the mirage it is likely to be. Yet, Leela’s courage compels from the reader the same admiration, empathy and respect the author gives her.
If there is one thing this book could have done without, it is the unnecessarily eye-catching blurb on the front cover. Once you open the book, though, you’re in safe hands.
This review appeared in today's New Indian Express.