Long after you have finished reading, “Beautiful Thing” by Sonia Faleiro, you are left with a lot of questions: What is the future of Leela now? What happened to her? How is she doing? And if an author through a work of non-fiction (so dark and real) can manage to evoke those questions, then I will say Kudos to her and the book.
So various authors have used the so-called Interviewing Technique and written books about them – Suketu Mehta did that with Maximum City – and somewhere in the book he too mentioned the dancers of the city, to Truman Capote while he went half-crazy writing In Cold Blood and almost fell in love, to John Berendt while writing Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. They were all trying to understand the business of life and managed brilliantly in chronicling the same.
Sonia Faleiro immersed five years of her life in Mira Road (which is on the outskirts of Mumbai City), shadowing the life of Leela – a bar dancer. She got a firsthand visibility of conversations between their pimps and them, their lives, how they entered the profession, their small joys and the trials and tribulations.
The start of the book is enough to keep you sustained and glued throughout, with Leela’s line:
“My story is the best you will ever hear. The best, understand? Now come closer. Closer! Okay, ready?”
And thus starts the book – carefully written, not mincing words at any given point (not even with the expletives), and writing exactly the way she has seen things – raw, stark and bitter. So here is Leela, the bar dancer Sonia familiarized herself with. Leela is young, not so nubile and at the top of her profession when the story opens. There is a complex hierarchy system when it comes to professions such as these and the reader is made aware of them, right at the onset.
There are the destitute prostitutes who come right at the bottom of the pile, to the brothel girls – a notch above, the call girls and the massage parlour girls; and of course right at the top of the booty are the bar dancers in their glittering world.
Faleiro then moves on to picking up places and people in Leela’s life – from her best friend Priya – another bar dancer – who is as nonchalant as they come and that is also because she is so “bootiful” and has many “kushtomers” to Masti the stunning and confident Hijra to the parents of the bar girls who sometimes also watch their own daughters getting de-virginized so to say. And then to take a detached view and talk about how the Bombay government closed down the dance bars, condemning most of these women to indignities, dangers and insecurities of “dhanda”. Her perspective, always respectful to the subjects of her story, allows this to be a story of and about Bombay’s women—a massive, and refreshing, change from the masculine world of the gangs we’ve been offered by previous Bombay chroniclers.
I have often wondered how was she able to write without getting emotionally involved with them – I was incorrect. The story is sensitive – there had to be an emotional connect. Faleiro tells a story that is beguiling, warm, funny, tender and absolutely heart-breaking in parts. It makes you wonder about the lives that we chose to ignore and pretend they don’t exist, because they are not a part of our social framework. Come closer and see – view things differently. Open the doors of perception and you will be surprised as to what lurks beneath.
This is an honest book and that’s why it reaches out. Beautiful Thing is one of the best books I have read this year and would highly recommend it to one and all.
Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars; Faleiro, Sonia; Penguin/Hamish Hamilton; Rs. 450; 216 Pages;