Monday, 14 February 2011
"Beautiful Thing: Inside The Secret world of Bombay’s Dance Bars" by Sonia Faleiro – Book Review
Most Mumbaikars know what a dance bar is. Some of the male connoisseurs living in Mumbai will even know what’s to be found inside one. Until August 2005, dance bars had young women dance to catchy Bollywood songs, with male customers, fortified with booze and mini-bites, cheering them on and throwing currency notes at the ones who caught their fancy. Many pretty girls from all over India, usually from impoverished backgrounds and with little education, made good money dancing at such bars. After a sanctimonious politician banned, on dubious moral grounds, dancing in ‘eating places or permit rooms or beer bars – all synonyms for dance bars – that were rated three stars or less,’ thousands of such dancers went out of business.
Beautiful Thing is a work of non-fiction, which, in neat and nice prose, inseparably intertwined with the barwali’s slang, explores the world of dance bars and the women who work in such dance bars. Sonia Faleiro, a reporter who at one time was based in Mumbai, has done something which very few journalists or writers have done before. Dancers at dance bars are not exactly easy to befriend, nor are they open about their lives. Faleiro has not only befriended a few dancers, their friends and families and got them all talking, but has also done extensive research into the wiring behind dance bars, their owners, their customers, the underworld which controls them, the policemen who take protection money from their owners. Affiliated businesses such as brothels, illegal ‘discos’ where girls dance half-naked, beer parlours where patrons get hand-jobs from women not good enough for the brothel, and the like can also be found under Faleiro’s canvass. Altogether, one gets a vivid picture of a large cross-section the flesh-trade that goes on in Mumbai.
The picture painted by Faleiro may be vivid, but it’s not pretty. In fact, it is downright grim. Faleiro tells us the story of the dance bars through dancing girl Leela, her family and her friends. It’s a tale of beatings and self-abuse, where families sell their daughters to pimps and bar owners so that they may be fed, one where prostitutes are raped by their own sons, girls are raped by their cousins and mothers steal from their daughters who work as bar dancers. At times, I found the going so tough I tried to tell myself that Faleiro must have got some of her stories wrong. I mean, isn’t it very much possible that some of the women whom Faleiro spoke with embellished their stories? I don’t know and I wish someone would tell me that some of the stories which Faleiro tells us are untrue or made up. However, when Faleiro tells us that for bar dancers ‘tears are the indulgences of those who haven’t suffered enough,’ the words ring undoubtedly true.
Amidst the gritty tales of the bar dancers and others in that line of business, Faleiro’s bar dancer emerges as a very interesting creature. Unbelievably self-centred and not particularly altruistic, the bar dancer is out to cheat her customers with her sighs and pouts, her tears and smiles, wiles and guiles. She treats herself to the best food and drink and clothes. And footwear of course. Though a cunning animal in certain respects, the bar dancer is taken for a ride by so many people. Because she wants to be loved or better still, have a traditional Indian wedding and a normal married life, there are professional scamsters who make the bar girl fall in love and take off with her money without much ado. There are customers who manage to lure the dancer from the safety of her bar, fete her and them dump her when they lose interest. When the bar girl actually falls in love and gets married or even lives in with someone, it is usually with a good-for-nothing man who beats her routinely and lives off her earnings. Last, but not the least, the bar girl’s family members think nothing of treating her as an endless source of money, though they hadn’t exactly pampered her when she was young, before the money started to come in.
When the ban on dancing in bars came into effect, the government (as may be expected) did little to rehabilitate the thousands of dancers who were deprived of their livelihood, along with many more support staff and hangers on. Does Faleiro’s Leela turn to a more respectable profession or does she sink deeper into the mire? Do please read this very good book, which takes a surprising turn in the last two dozen pages, to find out for yourselves.