Suketu Mehta, in his 2004 non-fiction chronicle, Maximum City, writes that for him, Mumbai’s dance bars represented “the intersection of everything that makes the city fascinating: money, sex, love, death and show business”. It’s when you get closer, much closer, that you see the grime under the glitter, the tarnish beneath the tinsel. This is what Sonia Faleiro shows us in Beautiful Thing, her exploration of the subculture of Mumbai’s dance bars.
It’s a book that’s taken five years to research and write, involving, among other things, interviews with bar owners, customers, waiters, sex workers, hijras, brothel madams, gangsters, policemen, NGO workers and of course the dancers and their families. Such preparatory labour is worn lightly; this is a readable, riveting piece of work.
Faleiro’s technique – as is also the case with the best writers of narrative non-fiction – is not to render her subjects in an impersonal, fly-on-the-wall manner. She strikes up friendships with and reacts to the drama in the lives of the people she writes about, witnessing their ups and downs at first hand. She is, then, a character in her own right throughout this work, sharing joys and sorrows, lending a helping hand and keeping tabs when necessary.
Beautiful Thing primarily tells the story of Leela, who, as the book opens, is a bar dancer in an establishment called Night Lovers on Mira Road. Through repeated meetings, Faleiro weaves for us her story: teenage abuse, an uncaring parent, arrival in Mumbai from Meerut, finding a haven of sorts – not to mention the ability to earn money – in a dance bar, and her relationships with the men in the life, not least of which is one Shetty, owner of Night Lovers. “Leela was a free spirit,” writes Faleiro. “She lived by her own moral code, she followed no religious text…she was clearly no saint. But her flaws made her human; even her inconsistencies were beguiling.”
We’re also told of Priya, Leela’s closest friend, who shares a similar background and fate. Both hold on to their shaky sense of identity by shopping, drinking, relationships and trying to wrap men besotted by them around their fingers. In another trait they have in common with the bar dancer Monalisa whom Suketu Mehta wrote about, they sometimes resort to cutting themselves in a futile attempt to create self-worth.
Faleiro’s task is to make Leela and Priya’s milieu come alive and she does so expertly, walking the line between the hard-bitten and the naïve, in a manner that is unsentimental yet caring. Tales of the bar dancers' lovers, incipient pimps, gangsters and others in their ken are also narrated, showing us their points of view to round out the stories of Leela and Priya. In this manner, Faleiro delineates “the truth about a world that fascinated me, intimidated me, and as I came to know it better, left me feeling frustrated and helpless.”
Pulling no punches, she records the coarse language, sexual politics and status markers of their world. One example of the last aspect is the hierarchy of ladies of the night: at the bottom, those who work in ’silent bars’ for hand-jobs; above them, women in brothels; then, the ‘call girls’; and at the top, the bar dancers, “because selling sex was not their primary occupation”.
Two set pieces, in particular, are remarkable: a visit to Kamathipura, the city’s red-light district to attend a celebration of hijras; and a trip to the shrine of Haji Malang with Leela, rendering her awestruck with its chaotic sights and sounds.
The first part of the book is set in January 2005, when there were about 1,500 dance bars in the city, and tells of what, in retrospect, must have seemed a halcyon time for the bar dancers. The second section, set in September of the same year, is grimmer, detailing their fates after the short-sighted governmental decision to shut down the bars without examining the consequences or providing suitable alternatives to the affected. Inevitably, Leela and Priya spiral into petty prostitution, forced sex, penury and desperation.
These, then, are characters that come to life for us on the page, evoking pity and terror. Ultimately, as one observer puts it, “It's always the same with these girls - a horror film!” (No, not Chandni Bar.) More starkly, and more to the point, their fates are revealed in the words of another character: “We can pretend all we want, but ultimately the world sees us, why, our parents see us, as pieces of meat they can buy and sell, meat they can consume, meat they can throw away when it starts to stink”.
Joseph Conrad once famously wrote of his fiction, "My task, which I am trying to achieve, is by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel -- it is, before all, to make you see." That task is exactly what Sonia Faleiro has admirably executed.