Over the past couple of years, I have been re-acquainting myself with the city where I grew up — Bombay (Mumbai, as it is now known) — through literature. I have been reading both fiction (e.g. ‘Tales From Firozsha Baag‘ by Rohinton Mistry; ‘Bombay Stories‘ by Saadat Hasan Manto; ‘Love and Longing in Bombay‘ by Vikram Chandra) and non-fiction (e.g. ‘Maximum City‘ by Suketu Mehta; ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers‘ by Katherine Boo; ‘Beautiful Thing‘ by Sonia Faleiro). Interestingly, all these books are set during different timeframes across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. And, the one thing I can say for sure is that the city they have revealed has been, alternatingly, familiar and strange. While the neighborhoods, languages, customs, and kinds of people have been familiar, the lives have been a revelation. Mostly, this is because, as I have described before, I lived a rather sheltered life. But, also, this is because Bombay continues to be one of those baffling cities that defies definition and continues to re-invent itself — there are as many Bombays as you would like there to be.
Sonia Faleiro’s ‘Beautiful Thing‘ is a slim non-fiction volume about Mumbai’s dance bars in the early 2000s. This literary reportage took Faleiro, as she mentions in her afterword, five years of hundreds of interviews with many people involved the dance bar ecosystem: the dancers, owners, cops, pimps, customers, mothers, gangsters, transvestites, madams, and so on.
Before I go further, a quick introduction to those unfamiliar with Bombay’s dance bars. Unlike strip clubs of the West, these bars involve covered women dancing to Bollywood/IndiPop music for money and, officially at least, not offering any other services. That said, of course, many bar dancers are involved in unofficial sex work also. These bars started in the state of Maharashtra in the 1980s. In early-2005, a legal ban was imposed on such places by the Maharashtra government on the basis of “youth corruption”. There was a lot of political kerfuffle over this in the ensuing years. Hundreds of thousands of people, across the entire dance bar ecosystem (from dancers to tailors to beauty salon employees) were displaced from their livelihoods. The government, too, lost revenue from the various permits and licenses that such places maintained. The courtroom-and-politics drama continued to play out till late-2015, when, finally, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that dance bars could reopen but that licensing authorities had the discretion to govern what they considered “indecent”.
Back to the book. The main characters are: bar dancer Leela; her best friend, Priya; and Leela’s mother, Apsara. These three may well be several real-life characters amalgamated rather cleverly and smoothly into three for narrative purposes. Mostly though, our main protagonist is Leela, whose life we follow from a small-town childhood, where she is sold for sex by her own parents, to her escape to the city of dreams to become a bar dancer and, when the state government of the time legally bans dance bars, to the inevitable career of sex worker.
Throughout this journey, Faleiro gives us Leela’s thoughts, memories, opinions, and reactions in a rather colorful and colloquial voice. We are quickly drawn into Leela’s world, seeing the good, the bad, and the ugly through her eyes, and particularly in terms of the class hierarchy of sex workers in Mumbai. The most important things for this child-woman, who continues to be exploited by almost everyone she encounters, are her independence and her emancipation — at least to the extent that she perceives them as such. For the sake of this hard-won freedom, she is wilfully blind to the constant lies of her customers, her bar manager, and even her friends and cohorts. And, though a part of her knows that there will never be another life for her, she continues to dream of a knight in shining armor (or, as she imagines him: a “bijniss” man), who will take her away from it all and make her his wife.
It is impossible not to feel both a helpless pity and a jarring frustration towards Leela. And, Faleiro manages to skillfully maintain this kind of tension throughout the narrative with several other characters who walk on and off stage. Some of these are memorably-rendered, for example, Tinkoo, the boy-pimp, who tries to “help” Priya and Leela after an opportunistic politician manages to get all the dance bars shut down.
Compared with Suketu Mehta’s ‘Maximum City‘, which also, for a section of the book, follows the life of a bar dancer, Faleiro’s book gives a lot more detail. And, where Mehta appears, through his narrative voice, to be half in love with his bar dancer, Faleiro maintains a fairly neutral narrative voice throughout. Yet, on a personal level, I could not help being affected deeply by the stories of all the people here and some of their joys and sorrows stayed with me long after I closed the book. Despite everything, and whether they were banding together or fighting each other, the one thing they did not lack was a passion for taking their world head-on. Even the world-weary Apsara, after appearing infuriatingly passive throughout the book, turns a surprising corner in the end and takes charge of her own destiny, inasmuch as she is able to do so.
Now, I did have some issues with this book, ranging from petty to serious. Let’s start with the small stuff. The constant use of “kustomer” for “customer” was annoying. Phonetically, they sound the same, so there is no possible reason for this substitution. Then, there were the jumping points of view, sometimes within the same scene. And, these jumps were not just between the characters in the story — often, Faleiro’s own authorial point of view interjected to comment on something. For me, this was a bit jarring. I don’t mind multiple points of view in storytelling, but I prefer to follow some rules and not confuse the reader. In terms of prose style, Faleiro had occasional bits of lyricism when describing a landscape or a seascape. But, for me, somehow, these felt a bit overwrought and forced in to break up the monotony of too much telling versus showing, or too much dialogue versus narration.
The biggest question I had throughout was how Faleiro managed to get such no-holds-barred access to the people she was talking with. Having lived in India, I am aware of how tightly-knit and suspicious these communities tend to be of outsiders, and particularly those in the news media. True, as a woman, she was, likely, trusted more by the women she was talking to. Then again, Faleiro is also from the other side of the tracks, class-wise, and that tends to be another big barrier. It would have been helpful to know more, perhaps in the afterword, about how she gained this level of access.
Finally, I wish the book had included perspectives from others within or in the periphery of the dance bar ecosystem: for example, the customers’ wives; the politicians who were involved in the dance bar ban (especially given Faleiro’s own ties to politics); other media folks who were also writing similar stories for the daily press at the time; the NGO folks working hard within the dance bar community, who only got brief mentions.
Despite my personal concerns above, this is a book not to be missed if you are a Mumbai fan. It offers a fascinating look at this notorious and infamous aspect of Mumbai, warts and all. And, it leaves you wondering and wanting to know more. A part of me wants a sequel that picks up with Leela in Dubai as the book ends with her planning to go there to try her luck next. I doubt that will happen as Faleiro is actively engaged with other topics and themes, some of which may well yield more interesting writing from her in the coming years. So, let’s watch this space.