As much as it was part of India’s entertainment industry, if you search our collection of books, there is a high chance you won’t find even one discussing the brassy dance bar subculture in our country. Until now. Journalist Sonia Faleiro has written a nonfiction narrative study about this all but forgotten world in which women may have been brazenly objectified, yet at the same time were given an opportunity to find financial sustenance, glamor, friendships and intimacy on their own terms.
A project which took 5 years to complete; three in research and two writing – Faleiro dives deep into every single facet of what dance bars embodied during its hey days – the sassy dancers, the surrogate manager, simpleton dependent family members, corrupt police officers, violent gangsters and the gaudy bars. The much maligned world is humanized through Faleiro’s friend and central character, Leela; a vivacious dance bar girl, who when studied, you would never guess is only 19 years old. This is a woman who was coerced to ‘grow up’ (by the hands of her abusive father turned abusive pimp) and escaped the clutches of sexual slavery to forge her own destiny in the big city as an adolescent.
The book is objective and descriptive; Sonia Faleiro has put herself in the role of keen observer rather than judge-y commentator – saving us from sanctimonious exposition. At the same time, she is not disconnected or unaffecting; constantly posing sharp questions to her subjects on behalf of her readers. The colloquial language combined with the matter-of-fact composition thrusts you into a world which is as much abrasive as it is tenacious. Much of what is discussed is tough to digest yet this book is awfully tough to put down because through all the murk and exploitation, these women are colourful, funny, adventurous, dauntless and tragic. ‘Beautiful Thing’ maintains a peculiar balance; one that is inquisitive in its descriptions yet remarkably courageous in its characterizations.
It’s been nearly five years since the ban on dance bars was implemented and it would seem these vibrant women have now been consigned to oblivion. The irony is, through the ban it is flagrantly obvious that many of them have now been forced into outright prostitution… ironically, one of the insubstantial reasons dance bars were banned was because it was said to lead to prostitution (a term described as ‘galat kaam’ by Leela and friends in the industry). These girls’ ‘own terms’ have been stripped away and forget the consequences, we couldn’t careless where they stand now – with ‘Beautiful Thing’, we’re given a face and soul to these women, we’re reminded they exist and this is where Faleiro’s book is as special as it is one of a kind.
In an exclusive interview with Flipkart – Sonia Faleiro talks about her book ‘Beautiful Thing’, how she built trust with her muse Leela, the dangers (or not) of being a researcher who is immersed in the murky world of dance bars and more…
An introduction with Sonia Faleiro
How would you describe the kind of writer you are?
I like writing nonfiction. I decided many years ago that is what my career would consist of. I choose to write narrative non-fiction because it’s a style that suits me in terms of what I think is relevant. Living in a country like India, all we talk about is numbers and the politics of the matter; we tend to forget people, the intimate stories of people that lend humanity to a situation, that makes events and incidents memorable – that’s essentially what narrative nonfiction is about. It’s talking about weighty subjects but doing so with the simplicity of a story with intimacy and detail.
How do you choose your subject matter?
It’s clear from my past work that I’m interested in marginalized communities and subcultures. The people who make up these worlds are just so fascinating to me. It delivers a personal pleasure to me to be a part of lives like that. But also at a larger level, I feel these people are a majority not a minority and it’s almost an act of willful stupidity for us to not understand how the greater half lives. We have to understand them if we want to know who we are, what India is and most importantly, critically, if you want to know where we’re going. As much as we admire someone like an Ambani or a Tata, the future of India is the future of its majority.
Why a book on the dance bar culture of India?
It’s one of many fascinating subcultures that truly embodies the spirit, soul and heart of Bombay. To understand Bombay, it’s important to understand what happens on Carmichael Road and Warden Road, but it’s as important to understand how people who profit on and off these streets live. The people who do so, are the people who inhabit what we think of as the margins, but actually are very vibrant and unique cultures of their own. On the one hand they demonstrate the best ideals of what Bombay represents; the freedom, the ability to make the best out of the worst situation, the ability to make tons of money, to find glamor in the grit. On the other hand it also epitomizes the worst of Bombay which is the abuse of women, the violence and the sale of people.
I started my research on dance bars in January of 2005 with the idea of introducing readers to this fascinating subculture… but when the ban took place, which essentially shut down 1500 dance bars across Maharashtra and threw 75000 women out of work, it seemed to me that this was a story that had to be told in greater depth, because you can choose to see the ban as a political act or you can choose to see the ban as an act of violence because it destroyed the lives of young women, of a current generation of young people and I don’t think we’re in a position to do that. It had to be spoken about.
On ‘Beautiful Thing’ and its main character – Leela
What was the symbolic reference in the title of your book? Particularly the use of the word ‘thing’.
I wish it was something I could put into words. Certainly you can tell from the writing in this book, it wasn’t an objectification of women, it wasn’t how I viewed the women and it isn’t even a comment on how other people viewed the women. I guess it’s just something that came into my mind during a particular experience with Leela and her friends.
In this line of work, people do get judged on their appearance, but the beauty of Leela was obviously not her appearance – I think it was just Leela’s incredibly animated personality, her great charm, her ability to push aside bitterness and accept and be optimistic of whatever joys she had. So really, there’s nothing specific, it’s just a phrase that came to my mind spending time with the girls.
What was special about Leela that made her your book’s central character?
I’m always drawn as a reporter to people who exhibit qualities that I sorely lack. Leela was just so loud, so intimidatingly charming, she had such a bright, joyful personality… it was just a pleasure being around her. A lot of women tend to feel diminished in the company of the beautiful, but with Leela, one just felt she had all the qualities Leela displayed. One suddenly felt very good looking, very charming, very funny and always up for a party. I’m a much quieter person, I’m very introverted, but she lit up a room and that’s obviously a cliché, but she truly did. It was like you enter the room and suddenly the disco ball lights up. She was clearly a very unique personality who deserved attention, time and her story to be told.
How was the trust built between you and Leela?
I’m very upfront with people I report about. Leela always knew that she and the people she introduced me to would be written about and she was happy with that. She wanted to tell her story and a rapport was created between us. These things can’t be explained, one is either at ease in somebody’s company or one isn’t and I was in ease in her company as she was in mine. She took me at my word because I was honest with her. She also knew I didn’t judge her; I believe adults should be allowed to make their own choices and they deserve to be respected for whatever those choices are.
Discussing the dance bar subculture and the response of the book…
You dive into a murky world head first; can you tell us about the more dangerous moments you faced during your research period?
I do look after myself. Not because I’m interviewing a certain kind of person, but because I’m a woman in a society which is frankly unsafe for women and takes advantage of the vulnerability of women. Yes I do carry pepper spray, but that’s not a comment on the people I interview, it’s a comment on the society we live in.
Having said that, I must comment on the city of Bombay and that I never felt unsafe. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel unsafe in that I wasn’t aware of the possibility of danger, it was simply that Bombay takes better care of their women. Now obviously these are matters of decree and perhaps matters of chance as well. But more importantly than that, because Leela treated me a certain way, her friends followed suit and I was never inconvenienced, never worried for my safety.
Dance Bar culture is extremely exploitative, at the same time it represents a warped form of empowerment for these women… what are your views?
You know it’s both. Yes, dance bars did exploit young women, but then at the same time we have to understand that somebody like Leela was able to find refuge in the dance bar. She was able to make money, she was able to find a flat for herself, she had a job to go to, she found friends, she found a man with whom she could have some form of a loving relationship. The dance bar took her away from an incredibly abusive family, it saved her from being pimped out by her father to the local cops! It put her in a situation where she could decide for herself if she wanted to be in a relationship with somebody or not.
It gave her a huge degree of independence: independence of her financial situation, independence of choice and at the same time while releasing her from the bonds she was born into, it tied her into further knots, because once she was identified with the dance bar, her reputation was destroyed and became that much harder for her to enter into the mainstream, which is what she eventually wanted.
One cannot grow old in the dance bar; the life of a bar dancer is very limited. At the end of that professional life either you marry or you have the smarts to secure your future financially or you remain in the dance bar in some tragic capacity. Yes it’s both exploitative and yet empowering, but I think it’s always, primarily and in the first instance a place of refuge, whatever it may become later on.
These women are products of a brutally chauvinistic male dominated society. On a larger scale, is India truly devoid of any respectable male figures?
Obviously education has a lot to do with how one gets to live one’s life. Far more than education though, it’s class. Class is something only a great amount of money can buy you out of, and even that in very limited ways. We’re still a society where your destiny is determined by the caste or class you are born into. Beyond a point for the majority of us, born into certain situations particularly of marginalization or poverty, away from urban areas where you know progressive ideas with regards to equality haven’t reached. In situations like that, you are what you are born into.
I do think gender plays a huge role and we should stop pretending that it’s just about marginalized women. Eventually, you can read this book as a book about a bar dancer or as a metaphor for women in India, because I certainly don’t see the kind of equality in terms of the opportunity, in terms of the small everyday choices we’re allowed to make. I just don’t see that equality between men and women.
As an Indian reader one is weathered to the murk and grit in ‘The Beautiful Thing’, living in San Francisco , what was the western response like?
I’ll be really honest with you, to me the only valid response is the Indian response. My agent is American and they appreciated it in the same way people appreciated it here. But if you are an Indian writing about India, the only response should be from Indians. If your story doesn’t strike true with Indians, if Indians read the book and cannot say, ‘This is who we are,’ then you have failed in every possible way. For someone like you to say, ‘You know this is valid,’ then that’s only what matters.
Favourite books and inspirations
Three books that have changed your life and why.
Philip Gourevitch’s book on Rwanda ‘We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families’ – it’s just an incredible piece of reportage on the genocide in Rwanda. It combines personal reportage with work that was already done and in part also a memoir. Just a great balance and ideal example of how one must write about great acts of violence. I’ve learned so much from that book, I re-read it constantly.
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s book on sex, drugs and destitution in the Bronx. It’s a book called ‘Random Family’ and it took about 10 years to research. It discusses big subjects and yet it reads like a film script. It’s so masterfully crafted – you dive in and you never want to get out and that’s astonishing considering the subjects she touches on. That is a book I’m almost embarrassed to say I have two copies of because I’m so paranoid about losing one of them.
I didn’t read these two books while writing ‘Beautiful Thing’ because I’m very worried that I’ll be too influenced by the people I admire, so I tend to change my reading habits while I’m writing.
The third would be a book of photographs. Dayanita Singh’s ‘Myself Mona Ahmed’. It captures her friendship with an aging hijira in Delhi who happens to create her own family, her own bonds of love with a little child she adopts who is later taken away from her. It was the first book I had ever read on the subject and it made it ok for me to be interested in the people I’m interested in. It really is a book that I treasure. It’s a classic that shows you how to deal with marginalized communities. You write about these people or photograph them only if you respect who they are and where they come from. You have to be very clear about what you’re writing about and why.
Any plans to start writing fiction?
I don’t think I’ll write fiction again – maybe in some short form. I like the idea of long-term projects and the research very much. I like the idea of a book being an experience in the research of it. I see ‘Beautiful Thing’ and certainly I’m pleased about how it turned out, but the value of writing this book is not the finished product, the value is in the research and life experience. I am working on a new book of narrative nonfiction and continues my interest in the lives of other people. All my work is pretty simple actually, it answers the very basic question of, ‘How do you live?’ My next book will attempt to answer that question but in a different context.
What are you currently reading?
I just finished ‘Day Scholar’ by Siddharth Chowdhury and I enjoyed that very much. I love any sort of noir writing. Before I left San Francisco, I finished ‘The Passage’ by Justin Cronin… that was so much fun. The book that I’ve just started is called, ‘The Warmth of Other Suns’… again a book of narrative nonfiction, it’s about the great migration of African Americans from the south to the east coast. It’s written by a Pulitzer Prize winner called Isabele Wilkerson. That’s what I’m tackling at the moment.