Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay's Dance Bars
by Sonia Faleiro
NOTA DE LEITURA
A autora tem um nome português. Nasceu em Goa, mas não consta que tivesse ascendentes portugueses. Os seus antepassados, porém, ter-se-iam a certa altura convertido ao catolicismo. A adopção de um sobrenome português significaria isso mesmo.
O livro está muito bem escrito, em estilo muito vivo. Sente-se que não é obra da fantasia da autora, mas que, pelo contrário, ela partiu de uma realidade em que imergiu durante algum tempo.
Tive alguma dificuldade com o Inglês da Índia em que ela escreve e ainda mais com as frases em Hindi. A autora tem a preocupação de dar o significado dessas frases, mas parece-me que nem sempre isso acontece.
Tive também problemas em identificar qual o tema principal do livro na ideia da autora: será a vida de Leela? Mas a história dela é inconclusiva: que lhe aconteceu depois da partida para o Dubai?
Ou será que o tema principal é a proibição dos dance bars em Bombaim? Nesse caso, gostaríamos de saber qual o verdadeiro motivo por que os políticos decidiram a proibição que atirou centenas de mulheres para a prostituição, certamente muito mais imoral e degradante do que a vida dos dance bars.
Provavelmente, não seria nem uma coisa nem outra, mas apenas a descrição dos problemas da vida das mulheres indianas destituídas de meios económicos, nos subúrbios de Bombaim e nisso o livro é brilhante.
A autora narra a vida de Leela com paixão e prende muito o leitor; ficamos a conhecer com exactidão o seu carácter e o seu modo de pensar. Outros personagens muito fortes são Manohar, o pai, e Ameena, a prostituta com Sida.
Mais irregular o desenho da personagem de Priya e do seu carácter. E Baby, que aparece a pgs. 126, fica praticamente desconhecida do leitor.
Também acho muito rápida e menos explicada a transformação da mãe de Leela, Apsara.
February 29, 2012
Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars
By Sonia Faleiro
225 pages. Black Cat. $15.
Leela, the young exotic dancer at the center of “Beautiful Thing,” is a genius of vulgarity. In this intimate and valuable book of literary reportage by Sonia Faleiro nearly every word out of Leela’s mouth is spit like a cartoon hornet. Few of these sentences, alas, are publishable here.
Nineteen when Ms. Faleiro met her, Leela was the highest paid bar dancer in a seedy Mumbai club called Night Lovers. She wore an “imported-padded” bra and had butterscotch streaks in her long hair; she sneered at most of the men who paid to watch her. When they’d toss small denomination rupee notes, she’d mock them: “Is this all you think I’m worth? Why shouldn’t I commit suicide? Why shouldn’t I stick my head into an oven?”
Leela’s way with a dirty phrase seems to infect Ms. Faleiro, a gifted young Indian-born writer who is previously the author of a novel called “The Girl” (2006). Her language, like dots of colored light pinging from a smudgy mirrored ball, casts an intoxicating if unsettling glow.
About one aggressive man at Night Lovers, the author observes: “Leela’s customer stank of vodka-chicken-onion-chili-lemon and clearly he was no hi-fi-super-badiya-tiptop type. He had no upbringing.” Plenty of Ms. Faleiro’s best sentences are unpublishable too.
“Beautiful Thing” is a book about Mumbai’s notorious sex industry, and the news it brings about young women’s lives will break your heart several times over. Most are from small villages. Most were raped repeatedly when young, often by relatives. Many were sold to other men.
Leela ran away to Mumbai when she was 13, after her father tried to film her nude and in suggestive poses, hoping she could be a porn actress. When she protested, he had her arrested, and she was raped by policemen. She fled from the general horror inflicted on India’s poor young women, in search of a better life.
Dancing at Night Lovers was, socially and financially, a step up for her. Bar dancers ranked above other sex workers, Ms. Faleiro explains, “because selling sex wasn’t a bar dancer’s primary occupation and because when she did sell sex she did so quietly and most often under her own covers.”
What Leela wants, Leela rarely gets. She dreams of a Bollywood career, and of a good marriage. She’s forced instead to live by her taut body and her even-more-taut wits. “She squeezed the men in her life like they were lemons,” Ms. Faleiro writes, “and once she was through, she discarded them like rinds.”
Leela is aware of the limited but genuine power she wields. “They think I dance for them,” she declares of her customers. “But really, they dance for me.”
Ms. Faleiro’s book has a resonance that belies its compact size. She focuses on only a few characters: Leela, some of her dancer friends and Shetty, the wily owner of Night Lovers. If “Beautiful Thing” were to be made into a film, Shetty would be played by whomever is the current Bollywood equivalent of Paul Giamatti.
With a few strokes Ms. Faleiro conjures a world, and it is mostly a world of hurt and confusion. She spent five years researching and writing this book, and its lessons are presented frankly. “Poverty eventually made criminals of everyone,” she writes of the women and the shady men in their milieu. Noting Mumbai’s unforgiving nature, she says, “Naïveté was fair prey and beauty unguarded deserved what it got.”
In another writer’s hands Leela’s story might have become an op-ed tract. But Ms. Faleiro’s book is not a dirge. For one thing Leela is simply too quirky and alive on the page. She might be wealthy from the tips she makes, but the author catches her in unguarded moments.
“She loved not paying for her pleasures,” Ms. Faleiro writes. “After the dance bar closed for the night, Leela would waltz from table to table helping herself to half-smoked cigarettes. She would press her cherry-red lips to abandoned beer bottles.”
There’s a feminist spark in Ms. Faleiro’s portrayal of these women. One who was raped repeatedly before the age of 10 says to her, “I decided that if this was going to keep happening to me, then at least I should profit from it, I should eat from it.”
Leela urges the author not to pity her. “When you look at my life, don’t look at it beside yours,” she implores. “Look at it beside the life of my mother and her mother and my sisters-in-law who have to take permission to walk down the road.”
This story can’t end well, and of course it does not. The dance club closes; Leela vanishes into prostitution while the author searches for her. Ultimately Leela loses a tooth in a beating, and she and a friend leave to work in Dubai at the urging of a gangster. You hate to think where she is at this moment.
This book, by its end, seems to have taken something out of Ms. Faleiro. You get the sense she’d like to close with even a hint of optimism, but that’s hard to muster. Instead she quotes the gangster, Sharma, who explains that Leela will probably someday preside over a small brothel herself.
Sharma issues a line that will ring in your ears. “She will sell her daughter, even if she is her only child, her only family, because her mother sold her, and who is her daughter to deserve better?”
Leela, were she to read “Beautiful Thing,” would probably spark up a cigarette and tell us where to stuff our horror and pity. She’d agree with the dancers who declared, within the author’s earshot, “Tears are the indulgences of those who haven’t suffered enough.”
Friday 29 July 2011
A riveting exposé lays bare the murky morality that dictates life for women in India
Women in India conventionally fall into one of two categories: those born into "good" families, and those who aren't. Beautiful Thing, Sonia Faleiro's brilliant investigative foray into the dance bars of Mumbai (or Bombay, as the author prefers), is both a coming together of those categories and a blurring of them. When Faleiro was researching the book she lived in the "Manhattan of Bombay" – the southern part of the city – definitely the right side of the tracks. Many of the bar dancers she interviewed were poor, uneducated young women who were either sold by a blood relative or raped by one, before running away to Bombay to make their own destiny. For a book that's so short, Faleiro manages to pack a lot in: pimps, gangsters, transvestites, cops and madams. But its most outstanding quality to my eye is the window it offers on the widespread sexual repression that exists in India today, and the murky middle-class morality that rules it.
Meet Leela, Faleiro's protagonist: "When you look at my life, don't look at it beside yours. Look at it beside the life of my mother and her mother and my sisters-in-law who have to take permission to walk down the road. If my mother talks to a man who isn't her son, brother or cousin, she will hear the sound of my father's hand across her face, feel fists against her breasts. But you've seen me with men? If I don't want to talk I say, 'Get lost, Oye!' And they do."
Leela is the highest-paid dancer at Night Lovers, one of the many dance bars on Bombay's Mira Road. She is 19, with a heart-shaped face and a foul mouth. Partial to Royal Challenge whisky, padded bras and kleptomania, Leela won't abide anyone "being bore". Her motto is: "Kustomer is cunt." Leela and her best friend, the beautiful Priya, think that because they make money dancing for men, they have something their mothers never had: freedom. But theirs is a curious kind of emancipation. They dream of being housewives and mothers even though they know no decent man will have them as they aren't "good" girls. Despite all the horrors they've been subjected to in their lives, they're still suckers for a happy Bollywood ending. They fantasise that one day a "hensum" man from a "bijniss family" will walk into the bar, fall instantly in love and say: "Your past is your past!"
Faleiro conducted hundreds of interviews over the five years she spent researching and writing about the world of dance bars, but the main subject of her narrative is Leela, and rightly so. Leela is an ideal character: witty, sharp, generous with her memories, and amazingly devoid of self-pity. It is Leela who helps Faleiro navigate the nuanced hierarchy of the sex trade: from the waiters at the Silent Bars who only give hand jobs, to the floating sex workers and call girls, to the massage parlour girls advertised on flyers and telephone poles. Among them the bar dancer reigns supreme, because selling sex is not her primary occupation; dancing is. The bar dancer is not a stripper or a lap dancer. She takes as her cue the courtesan, who charms and titillates in reward for money. Although the bar dancer's clothes may be revealing, they are no more scandalous than those of Bollywood's latest "item girl", with her plummeting cleavage and raunchy moves. Sex, if it happens, takes place outside the establishment, at the bar dancer's own discretion.
Faleiro shadows Leela and her friends to birthday parties and trips to the HIV clinic. She meets their clients and lovers, is privy to their secrets and tribulations. She even receives relationship advice from them: "Men want better than real life." For the most part, she's a subdued presence in her own book, recording lives and conversations with great sensitivity, allaying somewhat the reader's voyeuristic guilt. Occasionally, she passes judgment – on Leela's mother, Apsara, for instance: "Her idea of beauty was a plate of bhajjias or a new ball of wool." Or on the proprietor of Night Lovers: "Shetty thought soft toys stylish and he saw nothing peculiar about a man his age driving a car with a dancing chimp and a back window full of candy-coloured playthings."
Throughout, Faleiro maintains a wonderful ear for dialogue and a tone that is almost pitch-perfect, jarring only when she injects bar-girl-ese such as "bootiful" and "bijness" into her narrative. The real triumph of Beautiful Thing is how Faleiro dismantles the grand tradition of marriage in India, exposing it for what it is – a form of slavery for a large percentage of women who are bound to their husbands for food and the roofs over their heads, but rarely ever for love. Between the hypocrisy of the middle-class Maharashtrian housewives who let the local pimp and his girls in as soon as her husband leaves for work so they can use her premises in exchange for pin money, and the many middle-class men who offer false promises of marriage when they are already married, the voices of the marginalised are what ring most true in this book. "To be held," Priya says, "even in the arms of a thief, is worth something."
In August 2005, Faleiro writes, there were murmurings of a ban on Bombay's dance bars. By August 2005, an act was implemented, which prohibited dance performances in eating houses, permit rooms and beer bars, effectively forcing 75,000 bar dancers into unemployment or prostitution. The official reason for the closures was that places like Night Lovers were "dens of criminals… likely to deprave the public morality". Dance performances in luxury hotels, though, continued uninterrupted, implying that the poor aren't entitled to the same fantasies as the rich, or the same moral code. The current situation of Bombay's dance bars is unclear. The ban was repealed by the high court in 2006 on the grounds that it violated the dancers' right to equality and the freedom to practise their profession. This judgment was appealed against by the state government in the supreme court, which issued a stay order. Recent news seems to suggest that the bars are making a comeback, subject to heavy policing and licence fees. Either way, the fate of bar dancers remains perilous.
Beautiful Thing is not an easy book to read. It will take you through dark, disturbing places without offering any real solutions for negotiating those territories. In a sense, this is the great limitation of nonfiction, which has the power to entice you with the truth, but lacks the ability to help you transcend it. Ultimately, you're left with the uncomfortable knowledge that when you close the covers of this book, you have the freedom to carry on with your own life, leaving the characters trapped in the contradictions of theirs.
Tishani Doshi is the author of The Pleasure Seekers (Bloomsbury)
Published: 24 July 2011
Beautiful Thing by Sonia Faleiro
A tour de force of reportage that follows a Dickensian cast of characters through the seamy world of Bombay’s neon-lit dance bars
Films such as Slumdog Millionaire have made us superficially familiar with the dark side of Bombay. Now a new book arrives to inform us that we don’t really know the half of it. In Bombay some 9m people — more than half the city’s population — live in slums.
Beautiful Thing is the gritty documentary to Slumdog’s fairy tale, a harrowing and heart-breaking account of those forced to turn to the hidden world of Bombay’s dance bars in order to find food and shelter.
The hierarchies of the sex industry are as complex as the Indian caste system. The lower orders are the waitresses in the so-called “silent bars” who offer customers hand relief to go with the beer and nuts.
Above them are the brothel prostitutes ruled by fearsome madams in every category of establishment from Falkland Road shanties to Juhu beach villas. More elevated are the five-star girls who waft past the doormen of luxury hotels to loiter by the pool with a drink, a bikini and a copy of Hello. But looking down on them all are the bar dancers.
Over the past 30 years there has been an explosion of dance bars in Bombay; their exponential increase has exceeded even the Indian economy’s much-vaunted 8% growth rate. In 1984 there were only 24 dance bars in Bombay. By 2005 there were 1,500.
Bar dancing is the Indian equivalent of lap dancing, without the nudity or the lap. The dance girls — who need to offer more than a passing facsimile of Bollywood beauty — perform on a low stage for customers who throw them money. Occasionally they will drink with the customers, in order to entice yet more money from them. No bar dancer will admit to sleeping with the customers but the bar’s big spenders usually manage to buy their way into a favoured dancer’s bed. Stories such as that of the con man Abdul Karim Telgi, rumoured to have lavished more than £100,000 on a bar dancer, keep their dreams alive.
When Sonia Faleiro, an award-winning reporter and novelist, accepted a magazine assignment for an article on Bombay’s dance bars, she thought she knew what to expect — voiceless women, exploited, oppressed, trapped in Bombay’s dark underbelly. What she found was Leela, outspoken, indomitable and fiercely independent. Drawn into Leela’s orbit, Faleiro stayed to write a book, spending the next five years exploring the neon-lit world of the Night Lovers bar and its cocky denizens, determined to live life on their own terms. “I don’t dance for men,” Leela says, “they dance for me.”
As a child Leela had watched her father, an alcoholic schizophrenic, beat and rape her mother. When she hit puberty it was her turn. Unable to force her to feature in his pornographic videos, he sold her to the local police who took turns to rape her. At the age of 13, she decided it was time she took control of her own life. Stealing money, she took a train to Bombay, the city that promises salvation for millions of rural Indians. After a brief stint in a child brothel, she escaped through a window, and made her way to Night Lovers, a dance bar.
The cast of characters in Beautiful Thing is Dickensian, as is the teeming, shabby world of slums and brothels and bars through which they struggle to navigate a course. Faleiro sketches them and their world with wisdom, empathy and an unerring eye for the details, the vulnerabilities and the asides that illuminate character. There is the one person Leela loves, the arrogant, childish Priya, with her filmstar looks and her tragic marriage to a customer. There is Shetty, bar owner and Leela’s “husband”, a martyr to threatening gangsters, avaricious police, temperamental dancers and chronic constipation. There is the small-time hood Tinkoo, abandoned by the age of eight, apeing the male icons of Bollywood, too soft-centred to be a proper pimp but aware there is only one sure-fire business: the business of women.
There are the hijras, the transsexuals, whose wild parties invariably end in tears or fights. There are the gangsters, suave, charming, deadly. There are comic Falstaffian turns such as Aunty, an elderly madam dressed like a Cabbage Patch Kid, tending the gardens around her picture-postcard cottages, while her girls are giving blowjobs to the customers in the bedrooms. There is Ameena, dying of Aids, because she cannot afford the 90p for child care while she is in hospital. There is Apsara, fat, passive, dependent, who in late life suddenly manages to transform herself from victim to pampered and feared madam. It is an opportunity only made possible by stealing money from her own daughter — Leela.
Beautiful, capricious, charismatic and blessed with a stubborn optimism that is both a blessing and a curse, Leela is the ultimate survivor. The tragedy at the heart of this book is that the only strategies for survival available to her are corrosive and ultimately ruinous. To an educated middle-class writer such as Faleiro, the dance bar, with its cloying “kustomers” and its sexual compromises, does not look much like Leela’s longed-for independence. But all things are relative. Do not compare my life to yours, Leela warns. Compare it to the life of my mother.
In 2005, Bombay’s dance bars were closed by an ambitious Maharashtrian politician who deemed them “likely to deprave the public morality”. Overnight, 75,000 bar dancers were out of work. Night Lovers closed, Shetty went back to his wife, the gangsters began plotting ways to make money from this new prohibition and Leela faced penury. The trajectory that took her from abused village girl to bar dancer, her bra stuffed with 100-rupee notes, had reached its zenith and began the long descent back to earth. When Leela suddenly disappears, Faleiro goes in search of her, following her faint trail through the nether world of low-rent prostitution that makes Night Lovers look like the Tiller Girls.
Faleiro’s prose can sometimes be a trifle choppy and her copy editors should have been more alert. Hindi is sprinkled rather too liberally throughout the text for a non-Indian to follow with ease. But these are minor complaints in what is a tour de force of reportage, whose depth, insight and resonance make it the equal of the best fiction. It is Faleiro’s great achievement that she has portrayed the tragedy of this world without a shred of sentimentality. In this she has done justice to her characters for whom sentimentality — like romance, love and honesty — are luxuries they can rarely afford. “Tears,” the dancers say, “are the indulgence of those who haven’t suffered enough.”
By book’s end Leela has caught hold of another life buoy of dubious reliability. She has met a gangster who offers to arrange employment for her in a dance bar in Dubai. Faleiro sees her off at the airport. The indomitable Leela seems smaller, diminished; Faleiro has reason to believe she might have contracted HIV. Leela asks her to look into her eyes. She asks her if she sees any fear. Faleiro admits that she does not, that in the frightening world of Bombay’s sex industry she has never seen Leela afraid. This is Leela’s only triumph: her own unquenchable spirit.
Corruption in Bombay’s dance bars was endemic, with the biggest culprits often being the police, who demanded regular protection money (‘hafta’). Shetty, the owner of the dance bar in which Leela worked, paid this hafta, but also built a concealed room at the back, so that, warned about forthcoming raids, he could quickly hustle his girls out of sight. The police weren’t always so accommodating, though. When one inspector decided he needed a new set of furniture, he sent his men to Shetty’s to ‘borrow’ what he wanted. ‘It went without saying that these borrowed items were never returned,’ explains Faleiro.
Friday, 29 July 2011
Beauty and Mumbai's beastly trade
By Nick Duerden
Sonia Faleiro was simply in search of a story she could sink her teeth into. A campaigning reporter on a number of Indian newspapers, the 33-year-old from Goa adhered to one overriding credo: "To convey information about people we know nothing of." And so, when she came across a small news item about dance bars in Mumbai, dens of iniquity in which disadvantaged young women were used and abused by the city's elite, she knew that here was something worth delving into.
"I met with one of the girls, Leela," she says, "a 19-year-old who had no doubt suffered [as a child, her father sent her out to be gang-raped by the police] but who, since arriving [in Mumbai], was so alive, and so optimistic."
Faleiro spent several months shadowing this engagingly self-dramatising heroine, convinced that she was worthy of far more than a mere article. The result, six years after they first met, is Beautiful Thing, a book that throws the doors open on Mumbai's sex trade.
"I never actually thought people would read it," she says, still shocked at its bestseller status in India, "but I did think its message was important: this is who we are as Indians; this is what we do to one another."
After a Mumbai ban on dance bars was introduced in 2005, Leela left for Dubai, after which the two lost touch. She has so far failed to resurface.
Friday, 19 August 2011
Beautiful Thing, By Sonia Faleiro, Canongate
Reviewed by Anita Sethi
Leela has velvety mauve-coloured eyes, butterscotch streaked hair and considers herself "a wonder not unlike the Taj Mahal of Agra city bathed in moonlight". Like the Taj Mahal, people pay to look at her beauty - but the architecture of this bar dancer's life is far more uncertain. In this tour de force of heartrending reportage, Sonia Faleiro shows the ugly brutality which has torn away the foundations of so many lives, revealing the core of a rotten societal infrastructure.
Leela's shocking story is at the heart of this excellent investigative study of Bombay's dance bars, which blends rigorous journalistic research with the narrative skills of a novelist. Faleiro depicts effects as well as excavating causes, painting a vivid portrait of the daily – and nightly – life of a dancer, as well as the factors leading Leela into that life in the first place, and showing why Bombay's dance bars were wiped out. With tight focus and pacing, she is adept at conjuring the brutal backstory of these lives. Here are those who are betrayed by the very people who are supposed to protect them, raped by parents and police, forsaken by care-givers and the authorities.
Leela arrives in Bombay as a poor, barely educated runaway, fleeing a horrific family life. But, for all its advantages, the city "could be toxic, no less than an open wound". It is this woundedness that Faleiro unflinchingly X-rays. Her talent for depicting lives lived in extremities of suffering was evident in her memorable story in the anthology Aids Sutra. Her first novel, The Girl, had a suicide at its heart.
Faleiro offers a searing depiction of trauma: "the extreme nature of these experiences - adult, violent, sexual and highly stressful - created a lonely and lasting trauma that made bar dancers constantly vulnerable". While it is difficult for the dancers to deal with their managers, boyfriends and customers in their own circle, the judgment of outsiders amplifies their pain.
Beautiful Thing devastatingly shows how a human being can be objectified. Faleiro explores what it means to be human at all, and the line between an inanimate object and a sentient human being in such pain that they would paradoxically wound their own selves to escape it. Leela drinks when she feels thwarted and, when the euphoria dies down, cuts herself. "Above all, the cutting was an expression of the girls' fear of what would happen to them if they didn't marry".
When the girls are "frustrated with the limited possibilities of their lives" in Bombay's Mira Road, they escape to the red-light district of Kamathipura; but escape in this world only leads to further forms of entrapment. Faleiro compassionately captures the yearning for a more humane existence and the resilience of the human spirit. Among these lives lived on the margins of society, voices usually unheard echo defiantly.
San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, April 22, 2012
'Beautiful Thing,' by Sonia Faleiro: review
Sonia Faleiro's "Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay's Dance Bars" is an excellent, painstaking and often painful investigation of Mumbai's seedier nightclubs.
The book reminded me of another powerful portrait of Mumbai's underbelly: Suketu Mehta's "Maximum City."
But where Mehta captivates his readers by taking us along on a whirlwind ride through the sprawling, risky, kaleidoscopic city that symbolizes the Indian dream for far too many doomed dreamers, Faleiro - who grew up in India and now lives in San Francisco - chooses to pinpoint her focus: one street, one profession. Her keen eye makes this tiny slice of Mumbai crackle with life and longing. Ultimately, however, it is Faleiro's intimate, compassionate yet clear-eyed portrayal of Leela, the spirited bar dancer whose fortunes she follows through five years, that makes "Beautiful Thing" indelible.
With her fake-mauve eyes and butterscotch-streaked hair, her fancy padded bra and her hard, square nails "that came in use when the dance floor got too crowded for her liking," Leela surprises us constantly. Her backstory is heartbreaking. She's little more than a child when her father sells her to the local police, who rape her over and over. With the proceeds, her father buys a TV. When he forces her to eat her own vomit, she runs away to the big city, only to be lured into a brothel and forced to have sex under threat of having her face scarred with acid.
But Leela refuses to be reduced to what happens to her. Her vivacity and resilience shimmer through the book. Her coarse humor surprises us into nervous laughter. When Faleiro meets her, she is 19 and the highest-paid dancer in Night Lovers; she "squeezes" her customers "like they were lemons"; she makes more money than she can spend and - having no bank account because she has no papers - hides it inside a hollowed-out holy book. The unofficial "wife" of the owner of the nightclub, she cajoles out of him jewelry, money, vacations and bags upon bags of vegetables that rot in her refrigerator. (Leela has a penchant for domesticity, although no talent for it at all.)
She's not one to waste time on sorrow - for herself or the women around her - because she knows it would destroy her. "Don't look at [my life] beside yours," she tells Faleiro pragmatically. "Look at it beside the life of my mother ... who [has] to take permission to walk down the road. ... I make money, and money gives me something my mother never had. Azaadi. Freedom."
But Leela's freedom is a fragile one. She must pay "hafta" to the police, who could at any moment grab her, take her money, slap her around, even use a cattle prod on her. Except on rare occasions, she keeps to Mira Street, where she lives and works; the rest of the city is frightening to her, bahargaon, a foreign country. She carries a piece of glass to protect herself because a girl never knows when a "kustomer" might turn ugly. She dreams of a happy family life but knows that girls like her usually end up with abusive men.
Faleiro's ability to pinpoint the paradoxes that make up a bar dancer's life lends an added depth to the book. No matter how abused she has been by her family, a dancer retains an inexplicable bond with them. "The bulk of Leela's money, and that of every bar dancer, was spent on ... parents and siblings and siblings' spouses and children."
The kind of man a dancer is most attracted to is the gangster, because "he understands that the life he has chosen can be so rich, so fulfilling, bursting with pleasure and with pain, because it is also so brief." The dancer fears that recklessness, but she knows it well.
And dancers are cutters. They cut themselves when the men in their lives mistreat them or turn from them to their wives, because deep within, even the most jaded dancer wants "to be rescued through romantic love." Determined to succeed, they believe they are doomed by a hard destiny.
Leela's life grows darker as the book progresses. Forced out of her job by a law that closes down the dance bars, she must become a prostitute. Her enemies are not only the men she encounters but other desperate dancers as well. She loses a tooth in a fight; she is gang-raped and thrown out on the streets naked; her own mother steals her money and leaves her almost penniless.
At the end of the book, Leela connects with a gangster and leaves India with a "contract" to perform bar dancing in Dubai - a move that might be "a dream come true" - or, as Faleiro fears, a nightmare. In either case, we are left with Leela's voice - irrepressible, inimitable, unforgettable in its lust for life - ringing in our ears: "I'll do shopping, so much shopping I'll do! I'll eat gold!"
Chitra Divakaruni is the author of, most recently, the novel "One Amazing Thing."
Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars
by Sonia Faleiro, 240pp, Canongate
Like all megacities, Bombay (now known officially by its Hindi name Mumbai, but addressed by its Anglicised name in this book), evokes the promise of anonymity and reinvention. Millions of impoverished, hungry and ambitious Indians have been drawn to its crowded tenements with the dream of a better future. The immigrant’s moment of arrival has been celebrated and chronicled in a thousand Hindi movies: a hopeful, confused man or woman, stepping out of the Bombay Central or the Victoria Terminus on to the chaotic street, lugging a former life in a bag, or a briefcase.
The myth of the city, often gleaned from screenings in small-town theatres and black-and-white television sets in remote villages, also warns the potential migrant of the dark side – the Darwinian nature of the promised land.
A much-loved song from the 1956 movie CID goes: “It is a hard place. Watch out. Careful. It is Bombay, my love.”
One of the harder places to build a life in Bombay is a dance bar of the kind that used to operate in the seedier areas of the city, maintaining a blurry relationship with the sex industry. Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing is a meticulous, moving account of the battle for social mobility and personal freedom in Bombay, told through the story of a bar dancer, Leela, and her friends.
Bombay dance bars have been memorably chronicled before, in Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City and in an award-winning Hindi film, Chandini Bar (2001) by Madhur Bhandarkar. Beautiful Thing is the first book-length treatment of the subject and it successfully explores the struggles faced by thousands of women like Leela living in the lower depths of Bombay, without turning them into passive victims.
When Faleiro meets Leela in 2005, she is 19 and dancing in Night Lovers bar on Mira Road. She is in a “marriage” with the bar owner. She occasionally sleeps with a customer after trying to extract the largest price in gifts, cash or dinners at restaurants where she couldn’t pay her own bill. Faleiro draws an excellent portrait of a woman who knows the world is a cruel place and who believes her job is to fool every man and extract what she can from them before surrendering her only asset: her body. Such knowledge, at 19.
The surprise disappears when Leela tells Faleiro of her earlier family life in Meerut, a small town in the north. Her father used to beat her “simple-minded” mother, and “sold” Leela to the local police station at the age of 13, where men in uniform would repeatedly rape her. Her father bought a television set with the money they gave him.
Leela continued to go to school, but found herself ostracised in the classroom, the playground, the ruthless streets of the town. Her father forced her to visit the police station in the evenings. One night, after being forced to eat her own vomit by her father, Leela escaped on a night train to Bombay, and eventually found her way to the dance floor of Night Lovers.
Faleiro ably explains the subculture of the bars, the lives of the bored men who frequent them, the protection rackets run by the Bombay police that allow the dance bars to function.
Above all, she gives us a rich portrait of the desires, vulnerabilities and sheer resilience of Leela and her colleagues. A bar girl cuts her wrist to impress a lover; a rival cuts her breast to show her devotion. It is a hard place, my love.
In 2006, the local government banned the bars on the grounds of immorality. The aftermath was brutal. The bar girls, who could make a thousand rupees a day, ended up on the streets or in the seediest brothels in the city, abused and exploited. Still they fight, to live another day. Faleiro’s protagonist Leela gathers herself together and finds a pimp who will take her and her friend to Dubai, where the money will be better.
In a moving passage, Faleiro recounts her last meeting with Leela, who is about to cross the Arabian Sea: “Leela had lost weight, she was thinner than when we had first met. But she appeared small too, diminished,” Leela asks Faleiro to look carefully at her, to search her face for any signs of fear. “I didn’t have to think twice. No, I said. I don’t think I ever have.”
Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night: A Frontline Memoir of Life, Love and War in Kashmir is published in paperback by HarperPress
Beautiful Thing by Sonia Faleiro
—reviewed by Manasi Subramaniam
(2011-08-13) -- Through peepholes and conversations, Sonia Faleiro grants her reader a piercing insight into Bombay's dance bars, particularly through one beautiful bar dancer called Leela. Beautiful Thing, a work of narrative non-fiction, is a portrait and a chronicle. The book is written in two parts -- one that covers January 2005, a time when dance bars in Bombay were prolific and lucrative, and one that covers September 2005, after the Maharashtra government's abrupt decision, in a misguided attempt at `morality', to shut down its dance bars, suddenly rendering around 75,000 women unemployed.
At the very start of the book, Faleiro deftly tosses her reader straight into what the book subtitles as "the secret world of Bombay's dance bars" without introduction or initiation. It is a subculture that is brutal and glamourous in equal parts -- and glamourous only because, frequented by gangsters, policemen and beautiful women and propelled by sex, alcohol and money, it is a scene so reminiscent of `item number' sequences in Indian cinema.
By Faleiro's account, the industry is simultaneously mercenary and excessive, generous both in reward and punishment. It is a sector that converts a service into a product, objectifying beauty and commodifying sex appeal. Circumscribed by multiple pay-offs, bribes and middlemen, the bar dancer, on whose skill the entire industry thrives, is ultimately only a small part of a composite hierarchical structure. Its nature is directly exploitative, but it is this commerce that allows a girl like Leela to find a profession outside sex work (and often make more money than in professions that are perceivably more `respectable').
Early in the book, Faleiro delivers an incisive and brilliant portrayal of her relationship with Leela: "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." But unmistakably, Sonia Faleiro is Leela's friend. She comes to care for Leela, to respect her and to cherish their layered and unusual, if one-sided, relationship. And while that might make the author a biased storyteller, the reading experience is all the richer for it.
Leela is mired in several complex love-hate relationships -- with her mother, Apsara, who is "fat" and "simple", with her best friend Priya, who is "bootiful", with her lover and employer, Purushottam Shetty, and with her surrogate mother, a beguiling hijra named Masti Muskaan (formerly Krishna). But the people who really fill her days and nights are her "kustomers", the men who desire her and abuse her, who spoil her and cheat her, who chase her and discard her, all in the same breath.
For all her feisty pride and independence, Leela is desperately lonely and dreams of being married or going abroad. She is optimistic and cynical in turns, resigned to her "fate", but determined to make something of herself. She tells Sonia, "Every life has its benefits. I make money and money gives me something my mother never had. Azaadi. Freedom. And if I have to dance for men so I can have it, okay then, I will dance for men." Still, Leela considers herself a "barwali" (bar woman) more than a "dhandewali" (working woman).
In the second part, the book turns murkier. Unemployment, disease and sudden poverty render Leela and her former colleagues more vulnerable than ever before. The new law ruptures Leela's financial independence and her spirit, but never her courage. Faleiro obligingly takes the book to an open end, giving us one last, unforgettable glimpse of Leela's dance with hope and fate -- her nakhra.
Through dance bars, red light districts, bacchanalian pilgrimages, hospital HIV wards and brothels, the book snakes through a Bombay that many have heard of, but few have seen. Faleiro lovingly records these moments with a wisdom endowed by immediacy and memory, unafraid to step into her story as a character, but also unwilling to become central to it. She is rather like that sensitive bartender one always hopes to run into. She listens sympathetically, reserves judgement and mixes that odd cocktail of subjectivity and objectivity.
Faleiro's tone is remarkably confessional -- about everything. Her propensity for detail is nicely complemented by her deeply personal style of storytelling. She has the skill of a novelist, the intimacy of a conversationalist and the scrutinising eye of a journalist. Most of all, she is unfailingly tender.
What proves to be irksome, though, is the jarring patois that she attempts to replicate in direct speech -- "kustomer", "bootiful", "hensum", "bijniss", "wedge" (vegetarian -- it took this reader a few moments to figure this one out!).
The use of pidgin in an otherwise respectful book borders both on kitsch and mockery.
Aside from this, Faleiro manages to steer clear of tawdry sensationalism in this vivid book. It is disturbing, but never uneasy; dramatic, but never shocking. Since much of the world is seen through the author's eyes, her sense of understanding and appreciation is somehow transferred to the reader; we may never fully be able to empathise with Leela, but this knowledge grants us momentary cognition. We are never allowed to transgress from viewer to voyeur, and this, perhaps, is Faleiro's greatest accomplishment.
Mar 19th, 2011
Sonia Faleiro crafts a work of beauty
THE BEAUTY of this work of non-fiction is not the story as such, but the skill of the author who crafted it. The story of the barwali named Leela is not new for it’s been playing out for decades in India’s crowded cities and slums, and even in villages where fathers and mothers are forced to sell their children into prostitution out of desperation and destitution stemming from penury and hunger. What is dramatic about this story is that the journalist Sonia Faleiro, 33, has woven an artistic web to enthral the reader in the underbelly of Bombay’s dance bars, a squalid, sleazy slice of life made attractive and appealing through a prism of narrative realism that transcends mere reportage.
Based on extensive research into the bars and brothels of the city and interviews with sex workers, hijras, bar owners, madams, gangsters, policemen, and the characters documented in the story, this investigative adventure titled Beautiful Thing, Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars is brought to life by the author’s keen powers of observation and description, her talent for assimilating the peculiar lingo and Hindi slang spoken in such places into a narrative that crackles with energy and excitement.
Faleiro follows the life and struggles of her protagonist Leela who arrives in the big city as a teenager from her native village in Meerut and works as a dancer in the bar-restaurant called Night Lovers on Mira Road, owned by her lover Purshottam Shetty, a married man with two children. Bootiful Leela considers herself to be a kalass above the other prostitutes working the streets of Bombay. For her the "kustomer is cunt."
"And so, Leela, seeing no similarities between the bar and the brothel, convinced herself that she had earned the right to sneer at such women, and she did, with primness and pride, even though every one of them, like her, had been hurt and exploited, and often, if not always, she sold sex because she had to," writes Faleiro.
As for her boss Shetty, his chokris are high maintenance. "Some are quite fair-skinned," he says, "not fair like a heroine. But more fair than kustomers. And they have to be kept happy. If I don’t treat them well, they will run off. And if I lose my best girls, I’ll lose my biggest collections. So any time one of them does nautanki, I throw notes at her. No worries then. Why no worries then? Because money is music. Yes or no? Yes! One note, two note, three note, four note … and they dance like it’s a sone ki barsaat! A shower of gold."
Shetty also deals with the police and the local bureaucracy. He pays hafta, runs favours, writes off tabs, even offers women if the women consent, which they always do because it is expected of them. "It’s police-log ka politics," he says, "bureaucracy ka politics."
A bar dancer like Leela is attracted to gangsters for she believes that "men are all gangsters anyway. So why shouldn’t I throw in my lot with a successful one? Gangsters have money. They’re smart-looking. They have tashan, style. What’s not to like? And they’re straight talkers. Fuck me, they say, straight off."
As far as the customers are concerned, they are like a Ramzan goat, destined for slaughter. "And she must wield the knife," Leela tells the author, "that would slit his throat, cut his head off and hang his carcass to drip, drip, drip. Never forget, a bar dancer’s game is lootna, kustomer ko bewakuf banana, to rob, to fool a customer."
As Leela becomes successful and sends money to her parents, her mother Apsara (celestial nymph) joins her in Bombay. She calls her mother fat and very, very simple. Then she finds a friend in another dancer named Priya, who works in another bar Rassbery, also on Mira Road, where Priya meets her ‘husband’ Raj.
The author explores the red light district of Kamatipura, a warren of brothels for men, women and hijras. At the Gazala brothel she attends a birthday party with Leela and Priya, in honour of Gazala, the madam of the hijra brothel. Faleiro describes this party with consummate skill and empathy. Here’s a sample.
"As we sat on the floor eating cake with bendy spoons and sharing bottles of beer, I felt like I was among old friends. Of course, even my oldest friends have never displayed the transfixing curiosity hijras are known for. When they are comfortable with a woman, they sit real close and stroke her hair. They peek into her blouse to inspect the foreignness inside. In any other circumstance I would have left. That night, the pinching and prodding by Maya (hijra) and her friends made me feel on the in. In time, I came also to recognize this communal trait as a compliment. Hijras may call themselves the ‘third sex’ but they want nothing more than to be womanly. Their curiosity about the female form is an example of this naked urge and expressed most unabashedly with people they like, and wish to be like."
In the Bombay suburb of Kalyan is HajI Malang, the shrine of HajI Abdul Rehman Shah Malang, believed to be a 12th century mystic and dervish from Yemen. Each year pilgrims celebrate his Urs, or death anniversary, for ten days. Bombay’s hijras make the annual pilgrimage to the shrine as it has a particular importance to them.
Leela and the author go on this pilgrimage. "Procuring sex, in fact, appeared as important a goal here as the attainment of spirituality," writes Faleiro. "Or perhaps they amounted to the same thing, for as the night deepened, as the aroma of hash swirled in the air and spirits raised voices, confidence and desire, groups splintered into couples, couples who had hours previously been strangers, and they felt each other up in corners. Pushing aside the goats tethered there, they arched their backs against the walls of the communal toilets. All around the shrine, up and down the hill, the chill breeze gossiped of copulation."
In September 2005 Leela loses her job because the Maharashtra government decided to ban the dance bars in establishments rated three stars or less, which included Night Lovers and Rassbery. However, bar dancing was permitted in high-end luxury hotels. The city had a population of 18 million then, of which 50% lived in the slums, a third had no clean drinking water and two million had no toilet facilities. After a period of wandering the slums in search of work, Leela decides to travel to Dubai to peddle her charms, such as they are.
Sonia, born in Goa, the daughter of Eduardo Faleiro, Goa’s NRI commissioner, lives in San Francisco with her American husband Ulrik McKnight. She has accumulated a huge material researching this book, material that she can transform into fiction in the future. A fictionalised story of bar dancers would allow for the creation of deep conflicts among the characters and for enduring human interest.
Ben Antao is a veteran journalist and novelist who lives in Toronto. He has published five novels and several short fiction.
Anuradha Varma May 12, 2011
Leela was a beautiful thing: Sonia Faleiro
As she investigated Mumbai's dance bars as a reporter, Sonia Faleiro met Leela, a beautiful bar dancer, who introduced her to the world she inhabited, filled with sex, love and violence.
The author talks about her journey with Beautiful Thing, her first book of non-fiction.
What prompted Beautiful Thing? And why this title?
I started investigating the world of Mumbai's dance bars in 2005, after a news report on the subject captured my attention. Dance bars are a fascinating Mumbai subculture with a strict hierarchy and rules, and close connections to the world of crime, cops and politicians. They're also a world in which men and women manipulate each other for money, sex, and supposed love, each thinking they've outwitting the other, but in reality all ending up victmized.
I wanted to know more about dance bars and Leela was the perfect guide. She was very smart, and unlike any bar dancer I would meet, keenly aware of how people perceived her. She had a great deal of empathy and despite having being pimped out by her father at an early age, approached life with humour and optimism. I'd originally wanted to write a long profile of Leela, but only a few months after we met, the government ordered dance bars closed and I was there watching as Leela's life started to unravel. It was simply devastating, and I knew the violence of the ban had to be chronicled.
The title is a comment on her customers' perception of Leela. Customers tended to objectify bar dancers, but the relationship wasn't one-sided. Bar dancers saw men as their meal ticket and while they generally wanted to fall in love, marry and become respectable, they were more than willing to string along any number of men until this happened.
What makes Bombay's dance bars and its dancers unique from the rest of the world?
The main difference is that the women are fully, and conservatively, clothed. And the men who come to watch them can do only that. Dance bars that stayed within the law were very careful to maintain a distance between bar dancers and customers, and this benefitted them because customers saw the dancers' as unattainable and were willing to return repeatedly and throw increasing amounts of money on them with the (generally unfulfilled hope) of 'attaining' them.
What is your favourite part of the book?
Any part in which Leela speaks. She has incredible wisdom for her years, and at the same time is very funny and vivacious. She's the sort of woman who the moment she enters a room, owns it.
3 September 2011