16 August 2011

Beautiful Thing

An edited version of this review appeared in The Asian Review of Books.

Note: I received an "uncorrected proof copy" of the book intended for review purposes only. All quotations are from this copy and may have been altered in subsequent editions.

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.