By Sonia Faleiro
Though a piece of non-fiction, “Beautiful Thing: Inside the secret world of Bombay’s dance bars” by Sonia Faleiro, flows more like a well-narrated (contemporary-fiction) story. Having heard Sonia read an excerpt during the Jaipur literature Festival, 2011, I could almost visualize the entire narration as I read the book.
Crisp and neat prose, jelled with prolific slang used by the characters, the story explores the world of dance bars and the women who work in it.
The first half of the book tells the story about bar dancers and the second half deals with the effect of the ban imposed on Bombay’s dance bars, by the government.
The life of dance bar girls is told through the story of Leela (a bar dancer), her family, her past, her friends from the same profession, her customers, dance bar owners, the underworld, the policemen, the eunuchs, the pimps, the health hazards, and other flesh trade businesses affiliated with it all makes for a deep and compelling read.
Leela comes across as a very colorful/vibrant person. She is young, beautiful, self centered, contemptuous, sharp-tongued, and a calculative character who demands gifts of money, clothes, jewellery and oddly, vegetables, from her customers, and lures them with her sighs, pouts, smiles and other such charming tricks. In search of love, a normal traditional Indian wedding and a normal life, the girls end up falling for treacherous men who con them for money and sex.
Then comes in the ambitious politician who, rides on a wave of false morality and, bans dance bars in Bombay, in August 2005, rendering more than 75,000 dance bar girls unemployed.
Life changes for Leela and the others in the most unexpected way.
The harsh and brutal reality of fathers raping their daughters, selling them to dance bar owners for money, a son raping his (prostitute) mom, a mother stealing from her own daughter, the grim tale of domestic violence, the ugly truth masked by pretty faces, is well portrayed by Sonia. The language is lucid, simple and real with a mix of Hinglish and the colorful jargon used blatantly by the characters.
Characters like Masti, the stunningly confident hijra (eunuch) accepted by his/her family; Priya, Leela’s (best) friend in love with her own beauty; Apsara, Leela’s selfish “simple” mother; Shetty, the owner of the dance bar; Gazala, a brothel madam who is a eunuch; and a Dubai-based fixer who claims to be Abu Salem’s right hand man, are unforgettable. The life of all these people in Mira Road and Kamathipura evoke emotions that seemed unstirred for so long.
Capturing the disconnected events as they appear in the lives of the dance bar girls that she befriended, Sonia highlights tiny but significant details of relationships, friendship, feelings, love, longings, independence, poverty, desperation and the bitter truth of the dark side of Bombay.
The story, beguiling, warm, funny in bits, sensitive for most of it, is absolutely heart-breaking. It shows the hardened lives of bar dancers who’ve been used and abused to endless limits. It gives the reader a whole new perspective about the lives of bar dancers and circumstances that led them to a fate – definitely not by choice, for most. At a point, dance bars seem to be a boon for these girls that save them from the endless exploitation they (otherwise) face every day.
Sonia put in five years of her life, researching for Beautiful Thing and following Leela. And it was totally worth it!
You grow to care for Leela. The sad, moving fate to which she and the others are pushed to makes the reader think and question the “morality” of society at large.
It depicts a part of society that we pretend is invisible, since it doesn’t concern us. Sonia Faleiro brings it out in the open, revealing the true nature of “men” – who move from one bed to another, from one woman to another, to satisfy their own needs. And women (like Leela) end up resorting to alcohol and false promises of happiness and normal life.
As rightly described: “Beautiful Thing, one of the most original works of non-fiction from India in years, is a vivid and intimate portrait of one reporter’s journey into the dark, pulsating and ultimately damaged soul of Bombay.”