Publisher: Penguin House, India
Published 27 OCT 2010
In 2005, as part of a "Morality Drive", the government of Maharashtra (India) banned bars from featuring dancing girls. As a result of the edict some 75,000 girls lost their jobs. The government accused the bars of being "brothels" and the girls of prostituting themselves, however, in realitywhile the girls did sell sex, they didn't do so inside the bars. On the bar premises the girls always danced fully-dressed and customers were never allowed to solicit the girls while they were working. They could watch them dance and throw money at them, but that was all. If the girl did want to service a customer she was to do it outside the bar premises and in her own time.
The ban, instead of being a move for the good, actually deprived the women (many of them single mothers or victims of rape)
of a regular job, one in which they felt protected, and threw them into the clutches of unscrupulous brothel owners or pimps. Some ended up having to walk the sidewalks alone, with no protection - a surefire way of getting raped, kidnapped or even killed.
I'll be honest, like most people, when I read about the ban I wasn't too perturbed as I bought into the "reasons" given for shutting
down the bar, but I had always wondered about these dancers - who were they? Where did they come from? Why did they choose such a career? Did they ever fall in love? Get married?
So when I read Sonia Falerio had written a book on these bargirls, I knew it would satiate my curiosity and I asked my sister to send me a copy from India ( I don't think the book has had its US release yet).
Leela, the protagonist of Faleiro's book "Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay's Dance Bars", like most of the other bar girls, had been sold to the local policemen for sex by her own father when she was only 13. Uneducated and young she many have been, but she was smart and she soon
figured out that for as long as she stayed in her father's house her body
would be his to do with as he pleased. Since she had already been "defiled" she reasoned she could continue with the same occupation but keep her
earnings for herself and so she ran away from home and
ultimately made her way into one of Bombay's famous dance bars.
Again, at the bar she lived by her wits, she befriended the bar owner and enjoyed quite a cushy means of existence thanks to him. As long as she made money for the bar and kept an eye on the other girls, he was preparedto turn a blind eye while she solicited the occasional customer outside of the bar. The relationship seemed to suit them both
But after the ban came into force, even her bar-owner boyfriend could do nothing to save Leela who was 19 at the time and she soon found herself on the streets and at the mercy of people who exploited her. This continued
until she was able to get to a shelter.
As I read the book, I kept looking for Leela to curse her fate..I kept waiting to hear her cuss her mother and father for the predicament she found herself in, but I don't think I ever saw her do that, infact, she was a great believer in destiny:
"Bad luck is in my blood. It is true what they say - destiny us as strong as iron, it is tougher than steel;
nothing can change what is written for you"
Perhaps that is what purged her of any bitterness and gave her the will to go on. Also, a lot of the bar dancers came from families that has always been
involved in the business of dubious entertainment - like street dancers or acrobats, trapeze artists in the circus, dancers at private parties and so on,
so in Leela's mind, she actually believed she had done quite well for herself.
I kept reading to see if the book would reveal what Leela wanted for her future for while all the girls hope to get a good man/boyfriend who will be their ticket out of that profession, the truth is, few ever get away.
In the end, the most lofty goal a dancing girl can have is getting a job at a Mujra bar in Dubai where she can hope to make more money and receive more gifts. Youth is highly prized in this industry and once the girls
reach their prime (early 20's perhaps) many will move on from dancing to keeping dancers (if they have saved up enough money), or if they have a daughter they will probably introduce her to the profession and live off her earnings!
"Beautiful Thing" puts a very human face on a profession most of us wouldn't touch with a disinfected bargepole. Sure, these girls are seducers, liars, cheats, addicts and everything else we have read about them in the media,
but this book helps us see why they are that way.
Most have been sexually abused as children and exploited beyond belief as young adults and, as a result, have developed these coping mechanisms to ensure they don't get hurt over and over again. The book also reveals to the reader how much crime and corruption envelope the industry
and how close the link between bargirls and the underworld dons are.
Faleiro gives centre stage to her subject Leela, unobtrusively asking questions of her and letting her speak - hallmark of a good reporter. The novel has a lot of dialogue and I enjoyed the author's reproduction
of Leela's Bombay vernacular full of bawdy wit, cuss words and a rough tenderness that may make some readers blush!
In order to write this book Faleiro had to spend a lot of time, not only with Leela and her friends but also with the other groups that make up this industry, like the hijras (eunuchs), the pimps, brothel owners, bar owners, men who frequented the bars and last, but not least, the thugs that bought and sold these girls to the various bars and clubs - I salute her for being so brave!
Even though this is a book is a work of non-fiction, it is a breezy read and in this day of "India Shining", where never a day goes by without reading a newspaper article wax lyrical about India's booming economy, this book is a good reminder of those sections of society which have been totally left out of India's economic miracle.