Truly Beautiful

The Jaipur Literature Festival 2011 was more than just a festival for me. It was a celebration of ingenious minds. And it gave me an opportunity to know many wondrous authors and writers of the country. Amongst them all, I prominently grew a certain fondness for Sonia Faleiro. And it’s not because we share the same name. It was the kind of substance she brought with her – her second book (and her first non-fiction offering) “Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars”. When she read an excerpt out of the book, was I hooked or was I really hooked! I knew I had to grab a copy (an author signed one at that) to read Leela’s story. And oh! What a fine read it is! We scheduled an interview with Sonia but due to time constrains we were only allowed a couple of questions.

But before we get to that, in case you don’t really know much about her – read on.

An award-winning Indian reporter and writer, Sonia Faleiro was born in Goa. She  grew up in New Delhi where she studied History at St. Stephen’s College, and went on  to do her master’s degree from the University of Edinburgh. Staying away from  home, her melancholy reflected in her first book- The Girl that created waves and  went on to become a bestseller. Her second book -Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret  World of Bombay’s Dance Bars is a work of narrative non-fiction, based on five years  of research in Bombay’s dance bars.
Beautiful Thing has been described as ‘brilliant and unforgettable, a book by a writer who is one of the best of her generation’. It was Time Out magazine’s ‘Subcontinental Book of the Year, 2010’ and ‘CNN’s Mumbai Book of the Year’. Beautiful Thing is being translated into several languages and would be published in Australia, UK, and USA. A recipient of a CNN Young Journalist Award (2006), as well as of awards from the Ratan Tata Trust, the Oxford Cambridge Society of India, and the British Council’s D’Souza Trust, Sonia has reported for India Today and Tehelka magazines, and is currently a contributing editor to Vogue (India). Her reportage includes numerous reports on India’s sex-workers, on Bombay’s bar dancers, a six-part series on India’s domestic workers, and extensive writings on the suicides of farmers in Vidarbha.

Sonia Faleiro has contributed to several anthologies, viz. AIDS Sutra: Hidden Stories from India; First Proof; The Fiction Collection; Reflected in Water: Writings on Goa. She now lives in San Francisco.

And as for our “quick” interaction with the author, here’s it.

What was it about Leela that she took centre stage in your book? Is it true that most of the bar dancers have a (sort of) similar story?

I was introduced to Leela in 2005 at a dance bar in South Bombay. Although several bar dancers were present, she immediately grabbed my attention. She was an electric spark with a great sense of humor and enviable self-confidence. I had some idea of the background most bar dancers came from and so I knew it was very likely Leela had suffered poverty and other deprivations, that she had possibly been abused and perhaps been forced into the dance bar by avaricious family members. That she was, despite that, genuinely happy and optimistic and was clearly enjoying her life intrigued me. I hadn’t and in fact wouldn’t meet another bar dancer like her. And yes, while it’s true that more often than not bar dancers emerge from similar situations of deprivation it is what Leela strove to make of her life that marked her as different and very special. I always knew I would write about Leela, but it was the ban against bar dancing that was proposed in May that year that put her story in context.

As a journalist writing a non-fiction account of a bar dancer’s life, was it easy to be detached and not get emotionally involved in Leela’s life?

Leela knew that I was writing about her and that anything she, or anyone around her said, unless I was told otherwise, might make it into the story. So our relationship was from the onset a professional one between a reporter and subject. That said, it isn’t easy and perhaps even desirable for a relationship in which one spends hours, days and nights in the company of another person to remain formal and detached. I was very moved and troubled, by the things I saw, and there were occasions on which I wanted to intervene. But Leela was an adult who made her decisions deliberately.  After the ban she lost her job and almost all her money, and as readers of Beautiful Thing will know my numerous attempts to help her—by offering to find her a job in an NGO, for example—were met with derision. Leela was the commander in chief of her own life and her independence was one of the things I admired most about her.

Reader’s Question:It is said that journalism is literature in a hurry. Both as a journalist and a novelist, what are your thoughts about this? Do you agree? (Submitted by Adilah Ismail)

My novel The Girl (Penguin, 2006), took two years to write. Beautiful Thing took five. The research that I put into it, and the innumerable number of drafts that I wrote in search for the perfect narrative structure for Leela’s story required as much time and attention as would any well crafted novel. Unlike general non-fiction, the specific genre of narrative non-fiction attempts to combine the rigor of research with the craft of fiction, and binding as it does two genres it is, to my mind, even more demanding than fiction. Some of the best examples of narrative non-fiction, all of which are at once gripping, cinematic and novelistic while also maintaining fidelity to facts are Adrian Nicole Le Blanc’s Random Family, Tracy Kidder’s Among Schoolchildren, and more recently Isabelle Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Sons.

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