Book Review: Beautiful Thing

November 8, 2010 7:42 am by

In 2005, Leela worked in a dance bar in Mira Road. She didn’t know she would lose her livelihood in July that year after the Maharashtra government banned dance bars. She was 19 years old at the time, which made her younger than 20-something author Sonia Faleiro. Yet between the two of them, it is Leela who seems like the more weathered woman. In this world, made up mostly of Mira Road and Kamathipura, Faleiro is the ingénue. Leela, as voiced by Faleiro in Beautiful Thing, is witty, sharp, calculating and a mature survivor. But she’s also capricious, indulging in what seems like ridiculous behaviour until you remind yourself that Leela’s just a teenager. She’s supposed to have whims and the occasional tantrum. It just so happens that she gets to work out her teen age in a very adult terrain.

Mumbai’s dance bars were a combination of the city’s darkest secrets: the underworld, the underage, the underbelly. Faleiro entered this world as a reporter and Beautiful Thing shows off her journalistic skills superbly. The subtitle reads, “Inside the secret world of Bombay’s dance bars.” Some of what Faleiro presents certainly is secret but most of it is made up of a poverty and desperation that most actively avoid and are quick to judge high-handedly when forced to confront it. As a first person narrator who makes her presence felt only occasionally, Faleiro presents what is revealed to her without judgement or heavy-handed emotion. She has collected a wonderful set of characters to act as our guides in Beautiful Thing. Aside from Leela, there’s Aunty, who runs a brothel in Aksa Beach; Masti, a rare example of a hijra accepted by her family; Shetty, the owner of a dance bar; Priya, Leela’s friend; Apsara, Leela’s mother; and a Dubai-based fixer who claims to be Abu Salem’s right hand man.

Well-paced, sharply-observed and full of respectful curiosity, Beautiful Thing is difficult to put down. Within a few pages, Faleiro makes you care enough for Leela to want to know how her story unfolds and ends. We only wish she had added a line to tell us where Leela is in 2010 and whether their friendship survived, although we appreciate the hope and dread contained in the open-ended last chapter.

Beautiful Thing is an attempt to show the ghetto of desperation inhabited by girls like Leela from the perspective of an insider. It’s terrible, mesmerising and works according to simple, brutal laws: pay the cop, obey the manager, fuck the rich guy over while you can. Rape and self-mutilation are treated lightly; everyone goes through it. Strength and power are fleeting, no matter whether you’re a hafta-collecting cop, a hijra or dance bar owner. And there’s no way out for the women. Men move on, to other business and mistresses. Leela and her tribe must make do with alcohol, the promises of pimps and fixers, and their dreams of happy endings.

Beautiful Thing by Sonia Faleiro, Penguin Rs450.