Beautiful Thing: Portrait of a Bombay Bar Dancer

Sonia Faleiro

Beautiful Thing: Portrait of a Bombay Bar Dancer
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Beautiful Thing: Portrait of a Bombay Bar Dancer

Sonia Faleiro

When Sonia Faleiro set out to report on Bombay’s bar dancers, she thought she knew what she would find: downtrodden, voiceless women, the helpless victims of predictable poverty. Instead she meets Leela: nineteen, charismatic and fearlessly outspoken, Leela has been dancing in Bombay’s bars since she was thirteen. With her sharp wit and stubborn optimism, she is the best-paid dancer in a bar on the notorious Mira Road. Leela has a ‘husband’ (who is already married), a few lovers whose names she can’t remember, an insufferable mother camping out in her flat, and an adored best friend, Priya - the most beautiful woman she has ever seen. But when an ambitious politician shuts down the city’s bars, Leela is forced into the most precarious kind of sex work and must trade her proud independence for mere survival. Beautiful Thing is the vivid, intimate portrait of a young woman fleeing abuse and poverty to build a life on her own terms, in a city equally bent on reinventing itself.

Review

Sonia Faleiro’s background as both a novelist and a journalist come together in this remarkable story about 19-year-old ‘Leela’, who lives and works in a Bombay suburb with a notorious dance bar scene. Faleiro spent five years getting to know Leela and many other characters in this world. As a result, this is a wonderfully detailed account; the lyrical simplicity of the prose reveals an accomplished novelist. The dialogue is often intertwined with Hindi slang, which brilliantly conveys the individual personalities of those she meets. It also had the interesting (not unwelcome) effect of positioning me as an outsider looking in, eavesdropping on a world that I could hardly begin to comprehend. I continued to be surprised by the dancers’ stories of violence, self-harm and rape. Every bar dancer Leela knows has either been sold by a blood relative or raped by one. Leela herself ran away from her village at age 13 after her father had sold her to the local police for sex.

Bombay itself has a strong presence; Faleiro describes the city as an ‘open wound’ and vividly evokes sound, smell and colour. Especially memorable is a trip she takes with Leela and her friends to Haji Malang, a shrine that has particular spiritual importance to Bombay’s hijars (men who dress as women). The steep climb to reach the shrine, the description of other pilgrims and the wild partying afterwards, are unforgettable. I kept expecting broad conclusions about gender and poverty, but Faleiro avoids this. Her total immersion in this world doesn’t lead to simplistic judgment; the individuals speak for themselves. The reader is ultimately left to their own devices, a refreshing quality in this type of study. Beautiful Thing is complex, confusing, funny and horrific – and often all of these together within the space of one page.

Kara Nicholson is from Readings Carlton.

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