When you look at my life,” [Leela] taught me, “don’t look at it beside yours. Look at it beside the life of my mother and her mother and my sisters-in-law who have to take permission to walk down the road ... 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.”When you have your own book of narrative non-fiction coming out soon, it can be demoralising to encounter something as good as Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars – and so, as I read the first few pages of this illuminating book about the life and struggles of a spirited young bar dancer, my admiration was tempered by a sinking feeling of envy. But a couple of chapters in, the admiration had won out. This book is everything one might have expected after reading Sonia’s outstanding journalistic features on bar dancers and domestic workers (links to some of those old profiles here).
I’m referring to the author by her first name in this post because this isn’t a formal review and because I know Sonia quite well – but also because “Sonia” or “Sonia-ji” is an integral character in this book. She’s a friend and confidante to Leela, and what I admired most was how Sonia maintains the reporter’s distance and records incidents with a seemingly cool eye while also allowing us to see how close she is to this girl and her story. Beautiful Thing has all the vitality that you’d expect from a really good novel, in the way it brings alive Leela’s world – the Mira Road building she lives in, populated by bar dancers; the Night Lovers bar where she works; the overcrowded red-light district of Kamatipura; even a hill shrine where Sonia accompanies her – and the people who move in and out of it. It has a dramatic arc too: the 2005 ban on dance bars brings a swift end to Leela’s hard-won (if ambiguous) “azaadi”, putting her and many other uneducated girls in a position of dependence and potential exploitation, and raising some very pointed questions about the nature of moral policing and “social cleansing” in a country like India.
I also liked that Sonia has the discernment to completely hand the podium to her characters when required: there are many passages in this book where a lengthy paragraph or two is entirely in quote-marks – Leela, or her beautiful friend Priya or her self-absorbed mother Apsara or someone else, speaking continuously, and the author not interrupting with her own observations (the way a feature writer is usually expected to, to inject “colour” or “detail” into a story). There’s a recognition in these passages - the sign of a secure, confident writer - that what the characters are saying is gripping enough, that it doesn’t need unnecessary embellishing.
At the Delhi launch of Beautiful Thing, Sonia mentioned that one thing she always wanted to do as a writer was to explore every possible side of a character’s personality – to present the complete person, as far as possible. “I didn’t want to depict a bar-girl as being only a victim, or a customer as being only exploitative.” This book’s world is a multi-dimensional one and Leela is a bundle of contradictions: we see her as feisty and independent at times, emotionally vulnerable at other times; sweet-natured on the one hand, caustic on the other; telling herself that she’s the “luckiest girl in the world” because her (married) lover is taking her to Lonavla for a weekend, while secretly terrified that he’ll leave without her because she hasn’t finished packing.
Compelling as she is, though, one is never allowed to forget that hers is only one of thousands of similar stories, and the book doesn’t provide any false comfort. As a character offhandedly says near the end, “Leela may want something else. But who will permit Leela what she wants?” The question is unanswerable, even though the final image is that of a brave, smiling girl, looking her destiny firmly in the eye.