In the non-fiction Beautiful Thing, Sonia Faleiro offers up a rare and fascinating account of Bombay’s dance bars through a raw, honest and, at times, heart wrenching story of Leela, the protagonist who is a bar dancer. Faleiro follows the life of Leela and a cast of characters from Leela’s family, her dancer friends, lovers, clients, dalals (pimps), and hijras (eunuchs).The author, a journalist, spent five years researching the murky world of dance bars.
In Bombay’s dance bars young females dance to the latest Bollywood item numbers, offer drinks and one-night-stands to men from all walks of life: the underworld don, the hit man, the poor college student out to charm his first love and the middle aged pot-bellied salaried husband out for a night away from wife, home, and creditors. Bar dancers like Leela often come from small town India, searching for a way out of poverty, abuse or just a sheer need for survival. Some are taken in by brothel madams who, Faleiro recounts, often scope out bus stands and train stations for seemingly hapless girls from far away villages. Some of these women, often illiterate, find themselves working in dance bars if they are lucky or ending up in brothels.
This tale unfolds with Leela fleeing her tiny home town at the tender age of 13 to escape sexual abuse from her father’s cop buddies. Her mother, a mute spectator to her father’s shenanigans, also suffers violent abuse. But Leela, displaying remarkable maturity at her young age realizes that her fate would be no better than her mother’s were she to stay in the village. So she flees. After working at a brothel for a few months, Leela finds herself at a dance bar. Not conventionally beautiful, Leela manages to catch the eye of Shetty, the bar owner, and begins a relationship with him.
Faleiro takes pains to explain that while dance bars do not explicity promote prostitution or sex work, dancers often end up finding steady “clients” among the men who frequent the bars. But Leela claims to have never done this galat kaam (sex work), when in fact she often has. In the murky hierarchy of the sex industry, the street walkers or the floating sex workers occupy the lowest rung, followed by brothel workers, followed by call girls—women who claim to be college graduates from respectable families. Bar dancers are at the highest echelon in this hierarchy, and as Leela states “When some people saw Leela, they saw a dhandhewali, working girl. But when she saw herself-in the mirror that hung behind her bedroom door … she saw a bar dancer.”
Faleiro describes the silent bars, where men order not just a drink but also the female waiter who brings it to them. To Leela, who claims never to have participated in galat kaam, the silent bar workers are as low in the pecking order as the street walkers. But, bar dancers do not have to sell sex. That they do so is purely incidental.
The prose is free-flowing and often poetic. Faleiro hooks the reader in early on when she writes, “When they took her virginity from her, cursing that she’d knotted the drawstring of her salwar like it was a sack of atta she was saving for winter, all she saw were the peepal trees of the [police] station compound. Their leaves were crowded together … to gossip and wonder at her shame.”
When we get to know Leela she is at the pinnacle of her career—clients showering her with gifts, her pockets literally overrun with cash (she even stashes some inside shoes) and a steady partner. But then things begin to unravel. Dance bars in Bombay are coming under increasing scrutiny and the state begins shutting them down. Shetty, her partner moves on.
Leela, like the many hundreds of women who have been suddenly left without a job, tries out other things before she and her friend find a benefactor from Dubai who promises luxuries, wealth and much happiness if the women would dance at Dubai’s night clubs.
Faleiro never hears from Leela again. What will happen to her we wonder. Will she make it big and return home with gold, wealth and much happiness or will she become yet another statistic?
For all the beautiful prose, one minor flaw in the author’s style is the excessive dependence on local accents and argot. Too many Kustomers, dirty-dirty and onomatopoeic references appear jarring to readers unfamiliar with the sub-continental English and Hindi.
Faleiro, whose first book was a novel titled The Girl (2006), has received much accolade for what critics have hailed as amongst the best non-fiction writing to come out of India in recent years. Beautiful Thing is as much a story about Bombay as it is about Leela and as such merits being ranked amongst the best in contemporary literary journalism from India.
Girija Sankar lives in Atlanta and works in international development. Her writings can be found in a variety of online and print publications.