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In 2005, there were 1,500 dance bars in Bombay, so called because they employed women to dance to popular music. Bar dancers could earn a lot of money compared to women in other traditional female jobs outside the sex industry, such as cleaners. Many of them also slept with men for money, but because her job was dancing not sex, a bar dancer could also see herself as infinitely superior to sex workers, whether street prostitutes, those working in brothels or call girls.
Despite the book's subtitle, Beautiful Thing is largely the story of one dancer, Leela, through the eyes of Faleiro who met and befriended her in 2005, shortly before the government shut down and outlawed the dance bars. It is non-fiction but is constructed like a novel, with a variety of interesting characters and a plot, as Leela must deal with a number of changes in her life. Faleiro has changed the names of nearly all the people who appear in the book to protect their identities and their many confidences in her.
Leela was the best paid dancer at the bar where she worked, and at first sight might have seemed to be a glamorous, successful young woman having a lot of fun. However, the story as told by Faleiro is a much darker, sadder one. At 19, Leela had been working as a bar dancer for 6 years already, after running away from home, where her father had sold her to the local police as a sexual plaything. Her story is all too typical, according to Faleiro.
Leela as a real life character is interesting. She has had a tough life, is barely educated and can seem quite shallow, yet at the same time she is obviously bright and resourceful and has managed to find a way to escape her father. I was impressed when reading her story by the extent to which Leela and others in the book were happy to open up to the author.
Faleiro introduces the reader to some of the other women in Leela's life, including her mother Apsara who arrives one day for an extended stay, and her best friend Priya. The 'story' of the book unfolds through a series of conversations. There are also men, such as Shetty, Leela's boss and lover (as well as a married father).
Later in 2005, a change in the law outlawed Bombay's dance bars and many closed down - Leela lost her job and had to look for a new way of making a living.
I often worry that books about sex workers may be exploitative and voyeuristic, but this doesn't feel like that. Faleiro seems to be concerned with telling her subjects' stories, bringing their situation to life, and this is the story of a human being who happens to be in that line of work. The book is about Leela's day to day life, not about her erotic dancing or her other ways of earning a living. It is often shocking, not for descriptions of sex work, but for its accounts of exploitation.
Faleiro has a gift for empathy and engagement with her subjects which makes her writing really compelling. This book is also beautifully written, moving and thought provoking. I shut the book wanting to know what has become of Leela, her hopes and dreams. I also look forward to future writing by Sonia Faleiro.
My copy of this is a Canongate trade paperback. I don't like this format much normally, they're often very large and clunky to carry and to read, but this one, like many Canongate trade paperbacks, is a lovely example of good design - it is a sensible size with nicer than average paper, and it is a pleasure to hold, touch and look at, and not too big. Its RRP is £12.99 but it is currently on sale at Amazon for half that, at £6.42, or you can get the Kindle version for £5.41. The mass market paperback comes out in March this year but a pre order costs rather more than that at the moment.
This review first appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk
~Yes sir, she can boogie~
'Beautiful Thing - Inside the Secret World of Bombay's Dance Bars' by Indian writer and journalist Sonia Faleiro is a remarkable documentary account of a few years in the life of Leela, a dancer in a Mumbai dance bar, her friends, her clients and her co-workers. It's a life set firmly on the wrong side of the tracks which reveals the power of friendship, honour and companionship which often belies the sordid surroundings. Even more remarkable is the friendship between Leela and the writer which offers Faleiro an opportunity to go where few writers would be able to and at considerable risk to her own health and personal safety.
I've been aware of the shady world of the Mumbai dance bars since I was in Mumbai in 2005 on a business trip at the time of the crackdown which is described in the book. The local papers were full of the news of the closure of the dance bars and I asked a local colleague what it was all about. He blushed and, being a respectable Kerala Christian, explained to me that they were bars where men go to have a few drinks and watch ladies dancing but that they were not strip joints or pole-dancing places (in so much as he had any idea what those were like either). The bars had been accused of encouraging immorality and a local politician had sensed there might be a few votes at stake and had sent in the police to shut them down. I was fascinated but didn't like to push my colleague further for fear of embarrassing him - so when I heard that a book had been written about the dance bar world, I wanted to read it to fill the gaps in the Swiss-cheese of my knowledge.
They say you should never judge a book by its cover but when that cover carries endorsements by William Dalrymple, Kiran Desai and Gregory David Roberts, Indiaphiles will realise that this is something very special and readers should sit up and take notice. For those scratching their heads and saying 'who?' Dalrymple is probably the best known contemporary commentator on India (with the possible exception of Mark Tully), Desai won the Booker Prize a few years ago for 'The Inheritance of Loss' and is the daughter of the multiply nominated Anita Desai, and Roberts wrote, in my humble opinion, the greatest block buster novel about India of recent years - the mighty Shantaram.
I read a lot of books about India and have clocked up a lot of non-fiction about the country recently and whilst it's almost always interesting, some of the books can be heavy going and can take some determination to get through. The only hard thing about 'Beautiful Thing' will be putting it down once you've started. For a difficult story in a bleak setting which deals with exploitation of many kinds it's a remarkably easy read that flows like a novel rather than non-fiction.
~It's not all about arranged marriages and protecting your family honour~
Sitting on our western perches, the image we have of women in India is usually that there's little more important in life than a girl's virginity and the drive of her parents to make a good marriage. What 'Beautiful Thing' shows us is that Indian life isn't all about virginity, dowry and respectability. Leela's father took her virginity when she was still a child before later sharing her with other men in the family. Faced with such a life, she ran away to the city. It's no wonder we learn she's a hard, coldly-calculating woman who knows her own value and how to exploit her 'kustomers'. She calls her boss at the dance bar her 'husband' and is monogamous to him and magnanimous in turning a blind eye to his relationship with his wife. By contrast the parents of her even more beautiful friend and fellow dancer Priya valued her virginity highly - so much so that they sold it to the highest bidder for a considerable sum of money, thus ruining any chance of a good marriage but pocketing a lot of money and saving themselves the trouble of a dowry. Is it any wonder that dressing in pretty clothes and performing Bollywood dance routines for a bunch of men paying over the odds for drinks must have seemed like a sanctuary? When the clubs were closed down and the girls lost their relative safety and security, it doesn't take long for their lives to turn considerably more dangerous and sordid.
We learn that life in the dance bars gives the most beautiful and popular girls a wealth that's beyond the dreams of the prostitutes out in the slums and a relative respectability that enables them to be courted by clients who spoil them rotten in return (initially) for little more than a bit of flirting and hand holding. A girl can exploit a lovesick married man who's never known beauty and exoticism in his sedate arranged marriage every bit as much as she herself is being exploited. There's nothing modern about these arrangements - India has a long history of courtesan-ship - women providing entertainment and romantic distraction for men with money. Dancing girls are dancing girls - regardless of the time in history and the story is thus simultaneously very modern and somewhat timeless.
~Honky Tonk Women~
The money brings the girls little benefit though because they can only live in certain areas of the city where the neighbours will accept their career choices and they spend like crazy. One might suppose they'd earn to send money back to their families - until you remember what those families did to drive them to the city. Priya has a legal husband, a man she loves who bleeds her dry and cheats on her with other dance bar girls, impressed by how far one girl will go to self-mutilate as testimony to her love. On the other hand, when the looks start to fade and the reliance on cheap drugs to keep them slender takes away their looks, there's only one direction the girls will be heading and that's downhill towards running or working in the brothels. The top girls dream of an assignment in the Middle East, of being sent to Dubai to dance for wealthy Arabs and take on the status of 'temporary wife' which allows their clients to stay within the letter, if not the spirit, of Sharia Law.
~Even the darkest clouds have silver linings~
Beautiful Thing is not entirely and unrelentingly miserable. There are moments - few and far between - when the story lifts your spirits. There's the story of one of Leela's friends, a hijra (transsexual) whose parents realised their only way to keep the son they love was to accept his choices. He and his parents seem to represent the only family in the book who are not utterly dysfunctional. The bar dancers and the less fortunate hijras take great comfort from this tiny evidence that family relationships can work and love can conquer even the most extreme of life choices. The book is an eye-opener of the most fascinating type - a rare and privileged opportunity to take a tour of not just the demi-monde of Mumbai but, after the bars close down and times get hard, the real hard graft of the unsafe streets and brothels of the city.
I am absolutely awestruck by the research that went into this book which is Sonia Faleiro's first full length work of non-fiction. To throw yourself into the underworld, court the friendship of fascinating but dangerous people, follow them wherever they go without apparent concern for your safety, and to do all that as a young woman from out of town, is nothing short of remarkable. Even more so, to do it by choice makes me say "Hats off to Faleiro"- she's an astonishingly brave woman. I really hope that we don't have to wait five years for her next book. I fear that the market for non-fiction of this type outside India is surely rather small and the use of a lot of local language (often but not always) translated or explained, will alienate many readers, but I hope that enough will accept that it's a small price to pay for a book that's truly one of a kind.
Beautiful Thing - Inside the Secret World of Bombay's Dance Bars
by Sonia Faleiro
Published by Canongate Books, August 2011
With thanks to Canongate for providing a review copy via curiousbookfans.co.uk
If anyone is interested, I did an interview with Sonia Faleiro over on the curiousbookfans site - pop over and have a read. http://www.curiousbookfans.co.uk/2011/creative/8263/qa-with-sonia-faleiro