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Among Mumbai's fascinating cast of characters, an eternally intriguing one is the dance bar girl. Regrettably, she has been reduced to a caricature who swings from pitiful victim (filmmaker Madhur Bhandarkar's portrayal in Chandni Bar) to evil temptress (politician RR Patil's version). Both take a moralistic middle-class view, without allowing her to speak for herself. Which is why Sonia Faleiro's book, Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay's Dance Bars is such a relief. It tells the story of Leela and how she glided and gyrated through this diaphanous strobe-lit world that once thrived beneath the bustle of Mumbai. But we hear Leela's voice. No pity. No bias. No judgment. No solutions.
Narrative non-fiction is a wonderful kind of writing that combines solid reporting with beautiful story-telling. It engages the reader in the way the novel does, but without compromising on fact. It came to the fore with writers like Tom Wolfe and David Remnick in the west. In India, despite the staggering number of fabulous stories that are waiting to be told, we have been mostly deprived of good literary nonfiction - a genre which Edward Hume describes as one that combines "the immediacy of journalism and the power of true accounts with the texture, read, drama, emotional punch, point of view and broad themes of a novel".
This is what Faleiro has achieved in her riveting story-telling, as she draws out the relationship between 19-year-old Leela and the dance bar, Night Lovers, with its golden pillars and Medusa heads. The story takes place in Mira Road, a dispiriting suburb of Mumbai where rickshaw drivers double as pimps wearing fake oversized Reebok shoes, and peeling buildings house hordes of women who have been raped at some point by a male relative. The story takes you under Leela's skin: you can peep at the gutka packet stuffed in her bra, taste her favourite 'non-wedge' food, smell her rum and Coke breath. It lets you in on her dreams, especially the repetitive one where she is a happily married housewife living in a 2BHK.
Even more interesting than Leela are some of the side characters - Apsara, the mother who was simultaneously nurturing and exploitative;Masti, the hijra, who was fully accepted by his middle-class parents, and Priya, the bewitchingly beautiful bar dancer who never accepted defeat.
The story is set in the early 2000s, when a proliferation of dance bars actually offered poor, uneducated women, low on options, a lucrative career. Leela came from Meerut, in Uttar Pradesh, and had a ruthlessly violent father who worked in the local cantonment. After she refused to allow him to turn her into a child porn star, she was sent to the cop station, repeatedly raped, ignored by her half-wit mother, and finally joined the hordes of runaways that find themselves lost, yet strangely liberated, on Mumbai's station platforms. In a short period, she turns from victim to someone who lived by her own moral code and could beguile and snap up a man "like a fisherman does a pomfret" ... "even a hi-fi man, your kind of man", she tells Faleiro.
But Leela's story is actually a larger, more important tale about the Indian girl child, whose birth is instantly viewed with disdain in a horrifyingly patriarchal world that continues to thrive outside upper middle class urban India. It reminds you that even in a city like Mumbai, that great leveler, that city of dreams, you can't fight birth. It also chronicles a line of work - "a line that gnawed into you like you were the marrow in a plate of nalli-nehari, and once you had been chewed through and through, spat underfoot" - but also, strangely, offered women a brief moment of freedom.
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