October Issue 2012
Book Review: Beautiful Thing
By Saman Shamsie | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 10 years ago
Sonia Faliero’s Beautiful Thing is a fast-paced and gripping story about Leela, a Bombay bar dancer. The story is narrated through the eyes of Sonia, a reporter who is working on a story about Leela and the world she inhabits. She has, in the process, become good friends with Leela, who trusts her implicitly. The story is often reported so it seems like a piece of journalistic writing, but there is also a narrative that unfurls as the reader is drawn into the book.
The book starts in January 2005 and goes up to September 2005, when Bombay’s dance bars are shut down by the government and the dancers are forced to look for employment elsewhere. The main body of the book, though, is set in the time leading up to the ban. Faleiro does not try to soften the harsh reality of Bombay’s underworld. While the spunky Leela comes across as independent, glamorous and full of nakhra, she is at the end of the day a dancer who does “galat kaam — have sex with strangers…” All the barwalis dream of a husband. They hope and pray fervently that someone will fall in love with them and take them away from all of this. Or that they may be “discovered” and make it big in Bollywood. They also know that dreams mostly don’t come true. All they have to do is look around at other dancers to see that marriage is not on the cards. “And it is not because we are used goods,” says Priya firmly. “Is there a single girl in this day and age who can remain a virgin until she marries? It’s because of our reputation. Men hear of it and want us only for sex and money.”
Still the bar dancers have it relatively easy compared to the hijras, the third sex comprising feminine souls trapped in masculine bodies. They work in brothels and continually get raped or beaten simply because they exist. Leela has a hijra friend called Masti and, through her, Sonia is able to write about hijras and brothels. She also talks to pimps, brothel owners, bar owners and Baby, an NGO worker who educates and tests women for sexually transmitted diseases and HIV. One of the bar girls, Ameena, has contracted HIV.
A full spectrum of Bombay’s underworld is portrayed in the book, revealing a sort of hierarchy that exists in this line of business or ‘bijness‘ as it is pronounced by the characters in the book.
The language in the book is often quite salty as neither men nor women refrain from using the foulest of language. Faleiro also does not hold back on the background of the characters she writes about. They are what they are because they were left with no other options. Most have suffered rape and violence in the their childhood. Many are still in their childhood. Leela is 19 years old and has been dancing since she was 13. Her father wanted her to take off her clothes for movies at age 13. When she refused, he handed her over to the police so they could have their way with her. She ran away from home and finally found her way into Night Lovers — a Bombay bar where customers stuffed her bra with money. Like all other bar dancers she takes gutka, which has already affected her once pearly white teeth. Gutka keeps the weight down — but at the cost of her teeth, which turn orange as they start to rot.
Beautiful Thing is a relatively slim book, but it is filled with a lot of detail. The women in the book are especially independent and likeable characters. They have strong relationships with other women in the field. They are protective of one another and have a strong sense of loyalty in a world where men often discard one woman for another. After the the bars are shut down, the beautiful Priya is offered a job in Dubai and makes it clear that she will not take it up if her best friend Leela does not get the same offer.
There is an uplifting element to the book as these women are survivors, with a certain zest for life. They love parties and presents from men and it is rare to see them pulled down. Life offers them many knocks, but they always bounce back. A very enjoyable and unusual read.
This review was originally published in the October issue under the headline “Bombay Dreams.”