Monday, September 12, 2011

Beautiful Thing: Inside The Secret World of Bombay's Dance Bars by Sonia Faleiro


Publisher:  Penguin House, India
Genre:       Non-Fiction
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 reality 
 while 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 prepared
to 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 reporterThe 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.  


Lotus Reads said...

Not sure why parts of my review are highlighted in white???

karmic said...

Hi Lotus, I think the highlighted text maybe due to you having some embedded HTML in the text.
I did find a copy of her book on Amazon so maybe it had it's North American debut?
Thank you for highlighting thru your review the somewhat hidden stories of the women who work as bar dancing girls.
I have not read this book but the topic seems familiar. Wonder if I have come across this thru Sonia's reporting?
I could be wrong.
I do have a question.. Did Leela or some of the other women save enough money on the side to consider going in for education as a way out or as a means to a different job after their careers ended?
Did the author ask any of the women if they considered them owning other women as a way of perpetuating the cycle?
Also while Leela did not curse herself or anyone else, she did show the acceptance of her fate, do you think it is fatalism of sorts? Or is it me just being an armchair expert? :-)
And you make a great point about how certain things are getting lost amidst the enthusiasm over India's rise.
Every visit to India reminds me of both her amazing rise and the fact that it is not a ride that lifts all boats.
Liked your review and thank you for writing this and a thank you to the author Ms. Faleiro for bringIn out the stories of these women.

ImageNations said...

It is rather unfortunate that development always leave something behind and that in highly developed countries such underground life of sex, crime, drugs, thrive. It's really unfortunate.

In fact I would have had the same thought if this edict has been released here in Ghana but reading the book shows that prostitution wouldn't go away because the government bans bargirls. However, turning them away has all the negative economic effects to the individuals as has been mentioned. Allowing them to thrive also means that a part of the economy - drugs, sex, crime, etc - would also boom. Some countries have tackled this by legalising prostitution. But as to whether it has solved the problem, I am yet to read any study on that. This would be a great book to read, especially knowing that it is non-fiction and worth the read. Yes, and this shocked me. Leela's father sold her to policemen? When I read that part, I thought I was reading fiction.

Lotus Reads said...

Hellloo Sanj and thanks for your feedback and interest. Perhaps the book has been published in the US then, I was pretty sure the launch was scheduled for March'12 but I could be wrong!

The topic is familiar, especially if you've read my reviews of "Dancing Girls of Lahore" by Louise Brown or even "Black Sisters' Street" which deals with sex workers. Or, as you say, you may have read some articles by Sonia Faleiro on the same subject.

No, funnily enough, I never heard Leela express the desire to educate herself (I know at one point she had enough money to do so if she wanted), but I think when you are in that line and are used to seeing money come in so easily, you perhaps mistakenly believe your looks and figure will always open doors for you. Sadly, beauty is ephemeral and the short working lives of these dance girls is testament to that.

About buying other women...yes..that's common enough, sometimes it's all they can do when they retire as they don't have the qualifications to do anything else!

Leela was fatalistic, sure and it reminded me of how characteristically Indian that can be! :)

Thanks, Sanj, for the comment and the questions.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Nana, great to see you again and to read your comments! Yes, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, isn't it? It is true her father sold her to the local policemen when she had just attained puberty. Reminded me a little of "Memoirs of a Geisha", where the virginity of young girls were auctioned (with the knowledge of their parents) to the highest bidder. Guess this kind of thing has been going on for centuries in this particular line of work.

Yes, I was thinking about legalized prostitution too and if that helps the girl or hampers her. One would hope that if this is legal the girl would have a safe place from where she can work and secondly, if she is being exploited and physically hurt she has somewhere to take her complaints to.

karmic said...

Thank you Lotus for your response. Makes sense now I think I probably read similar storied from your other reviews, and maybe a Faleiro article some where.
You may be right as to why education was never mentioned by Leela.

ImageNations said...

@Lotus Reads: Yes the comparison is there. I mean with Memoirs of a Geisha. One book that keeps coming back after years of reading.

The Bride said...

I'm not a fan of non-fiction but I read this book (because I follow sonia's blog) and loved it. My mum was hooked too and didn't think it would be her kind of book.

One of the things the book made clear for me was how the usual middle-class solutions such as education are simplistic and don't really play out as a panacea in real life. This is a country where Master's degree holders are unemployed. The most viable alternative career for girls like Leela - even with a bit of education - is as domestic helpers or maybe factory workers. There was a study last year by one of the women's groups that revealed that a large number of women in prostitution had tried domestic work, found that it sucks (low paid and very hard work) and opted for prostitution.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi again Bride and thanks for the insights! Yes, from what I read, Leela and her friends were making decent money...judging from their spending habits I'd say more than the average office-going girl and much more than a domestic help. It's no wonder then that working in a factory or as a help wasn't at all appealing. I guess what the girls neglected to take into account was how short-lived this career is and how they have virtually nothing to fall back on when they're done.

This is narrative journalism at its best, I hope Sonia will do more such books!

Leela Soma said...

Your review of Sonia's book has laid bare the oldest profession in the world in all its ugly as well as its tender aspects. Young Faleiro has been brave to venture into this seedy side and write a book on this difficult subject.

I remember being outside a huge ashram which was teeming with beggars outside and despite attempts to get them into the ashram and offered a decent but simple life in return for ordinary jobs there were few takers. Many claimed that they could earn more from begging from the rich people who came visit the ashram. Generations of deprivation cannot be rectified with simple solutions. I thank you for the review Angie and allowing us a peep into the world of Leela. I've ordered the book.

Lotus Reads said...

Leela, thank you for your great comment! Faleiro is a great reporter with a lovely narrative style. I truly enjoyed "Beautiful Thing" and I think you will too.

How true about the beggars, Leela. Having to live in the ashram would guarantee three warm meals but it would mean giving up their independence and also, as you say, they make more money from begging. Guess people will almost always go where there is quick money to be made, even if the prospects are short term.

Gita Madhu said...

Type entry on notepad first then export to blog.
There was a story in the Blaft Anathology of Tamil Pulp Fiction that was about prostitutes-I rather liked it although it was quite filmy -pulp fiction is pulp fiction after all!

Indu said...

That was a great review of an excellent book, Lotus. I liked your observation about Leela's belief in destiny. I kept thinking that Lela would find something or the other and escape from her life, but at the conclusion of the book it struck me that this was after all, real life and not fiction where a happy ending could be created.

BTW, your travelogues of Paris and Spain are lovely!

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Gita!!! I did try that and I continue to get these annoying white highlights! Haven't read any pulp fiction as yet,but I certainly don't mind trying! I do love the Tamil Pulp fiction covers though!!! :))

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Indu! So happy you visited my blog, thank you. Yes, Leela was almost fatalistic in her outlook. "Que Sera Sera"...I don't think it ever occurred to her that, had she tried to change some aspects of her life, she may have surprised herself!