(Published in the Business Standard, November 2010.)

Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars
Sonia Faleiro
Penguin/ Hamish Hamilton,
Rs 450, 216 pages

In Maximum City, Suketu Mehta’s 2005 blockbuster about Bombay, he writes about his relationship with a bar dancer who grew to confide all of the details of her life to him, from the nature of her clients to her habit of cutting herself when in extreme emotion. “What is sex after such vast intimate knowledge?” Mehta wrote, in a particularly revelatory line.

From Truman Capote to John Berendt to Suketu Mehta and Sonia Faleiro, part of the lure of non-fiction is, inevitably, just this: the vast intimate knowledge of another human being that no other form or act can offer. That knowledge, for the best non-fiction writers, is usually pressed into service of something that goes far beyond the ordinary voyeurism of the journalist; at its best, it can be an attempt to understand the rich, confusing business of life itself.

As Maximum City made its explosive impact in 2005, another young writer was finding her voice, and her subject, in the world of Bombay’s dance bars. Sonia Faleiro would spend the next five years immersed in the seedy but subtly empowering atmosphere of the bars in Mira Road, listening to the conversations of dalals and bar girls, clients (chamar chors and Bada Dons), hijras and brothel owners.

“My story is the best you will ever hear. The best, understand? Now come close. Closer! Okay, ready?”

Beautiful Thing sets the pace right from the epigraph, and from its first, searing chapter. Here is Leela, the bar dancer whose life Faleiro faithfully shadowed for years, wearing her client’s boxer shorts as she admires herself in the mirror, young, beautiful, confident, an “alone girl” who demands gifts of money, clothes, jewellery and oddly, vegetables, from the clients who are dazzled by her courtesan’s turn at the bar. “Our often one-sided relationship may be characterized thus: I called Leela. She ‘missed-called’ me,” writes Faleiro, setting the boundaries early on. Her interest in the lives of the bar girls, from Leela to the unbelievably beautiful queen of nakhra, Priya, will always be one-sided, unreciprocated.

Leela, when the story opens, is at the top of her profession, and her profession is at the top of the complex hierarchy that governs sex workers in Bombay. There are destitute prostitutes, the bottom-feeders; brothel girls, a step above; call girls and massage parlour girls; and right at the top, in the glittering tinsel light of the bars, the bar dancers. Leela’s story is not a simple one, and to tell it, Faleiro turns herself into the proverbial camera, the invisible, omniscient writer whose only job is to record what happens.

“When you look at my life, 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…,” Leela tells her. “But you’ve seen me with men? If I don’t want to talk I say, “Get lost oye!” And they do. And if I want a gift or feel like “non-wedge”, I just have to tell them and they give me what I want, no questions. ..I make money and money gives me something my mother never had. Azaadi. Freedom.”

Leela’s story is as harsh and brutal as the story of hundreds of other women in India. Faleiro chronicles their lives through hers; the casual rapes by family members or the police, the limited possibilities of finding respectable, paying work in Bombay’s brutally crowded, busy streets. In 2005, the dance bars offered a kind of halfway house for women who didn’t have to do “galat kaam” unless they were so inclined, and who weren’t subjected to the darker cruelties of being trafficked into the sex trade. Working in the dance bars gave them respectability—many, as in Leela’s case, received an anxious, obsessive love and respect from the families who depended on their earnings. They had, too, a kind of freedom—the freedom to pick and choose their clients, to flirt, to fight over a particularly fancy “Kushtomer”, and the freedom to spend their money as they saw fit.

As with John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing reads like great fiction—from Masti, the stunningly confident hijra, to Priya, the narcissist in love with her own impossible beauty, to Apsara, Leela’s grasping, selfish mother, the cast of characters here are unforgettable. And Faleiro does a brilliant job of blending reportage with the moving, saddening story she has to tell—in a fit of misplaced politicking and morality, the Bombay government closed down the dance bars, condemning most of these women to the 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.

Beautiful Thing is marred slightly by Faleiro’s obsession with accents—by the fourth repetition of “bootiful” and the third of “kushtomer”, the reader might wish that she had exercised less Kiplingesque fidelity. Nor should one expect objectivity; Faleiro makes it quite clear that her sympathies lie with the women in this trade, and her fascination with their independence can cloud her judgment. But these are minor quibbles.

Because the truth is that Beautiful Thing is one of the books we’ve been waiting for in contemporary India—a non-fiction debut of astonishing integrity and sensitivity, where Faleiro tells a story that is beguiling, incredibly funny in parts, and absolutely heart-breaking. This is without question a brilliant, unforgettable book by a writer who is one of the best of her generation. Beautiful Thing is one of the best books of the year; and is one of the most gripping and honest books written about Bombay in a very long while.