Women in India conventionally fall into one of two categories: those born into “good” families, and those who aren’t. Beautiful Thing, Sonia Faleiro’s brilliant investigative foray into the dance bars of Mumbai (or Bombay, as the author prefers), is both a coming together of those categories and a blurring of them. When Faleiro was researching the book she lived in the “Manhattan of Bombay” — the southern part of the city — definitely the right side of the tracks. Many of the bar dancers she interviewed were poor, uneducated young women who were either sold by a blood relative or raped by one, before running away to Bombay to make their own destiny. For a book that’s so short, Faleiro manages to pack a lot in: pimps, gangsters, transvestites, cops and madams. But its most outstanding quality to my eye is the window it offers on the widespread sexual repression that exists in India today, and the murky middle-class morality that rules it.
Meet Leela, Faleiro’s protagonist: “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. If my mother talks to a man who isn’t her son, brother or cousin, she will hear the sound of my father’s hand across her face, feel fists against her breasts. But you’ve seen me with men? If I don’t want to talk I say, ‘Get lost, Oye!’ And they do.”
Leela is the highest-paid dancer at Night Lovers, one of the many dance bars on Bombay’s Mira Road. She is 19, with a heart-shaped face and a foul mouth. Partial to Royal Challenge whisky, padded bras and kleptomania, Leela won’t abide anyone “being bore.” Her motto is: “Kustomer is cunt.” Leela and her best friend, the beautiful Priya, think that because they make money dancing for men, they have something their mothers never had: freedom. But theirs is a curious kind of emancipation. They dream of being housewives and mothers even though they know no decent man will have them as they aren’t “good” girls. Despite all the horrors they’ve been subjected to in their lives, they’re still suckers for a happy Bollywood ending. They fantasize that one day a “hensum” man from a “bijniss family” will walk into the bar, fall instantly in love and say: “Your past is your past!”
Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars
By Sonia Faleiro
Faleiro conducted hundreds of interviews over the five years she spent researching and writing about the world of dance bars, but the main subject of her narrative is Leela, and rightly so. Leela is an ideal character: witty, sharp, generous with her memories, and amazingly devoid of self-pity. It is Leela who helps Faleiro navigate the nuanced hierarchy of the sex trade: from the waiters at the Silent Bars who only give hand jobs, to the floating sex workers and call girls, to the massage parlor girls advertised on flyers and telephone poles. Among them the bar dancer reigns supreme, because selling sex is not her primary occupation; dancing is. The bar dancer is not a stripper or a lap dancer. She takes as her cue the courtesan, who charms and titillates in reward for money. Although the bar dancer’s clothes may be revealing, they are no more scandalous than those of Bollywood’s latest “item girl,” with her plummeting cleavage and raunchy moves. Sex, if it happens, takes place outside the establishment, at the bar dancer’s own discretion.