Article published on August 15, 2011.
Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing offers an insightful and unique glimpse into Bombay’s seedy underworld. This reportage-style non-fiction debut opens up a world previously hidden and often unimaginable. It follows the life and struggles of Leela, a stunning, intelligent and charismatic bar dancer with a unique story to tell. Leela introduces Sonia to a world of glamour, sex, violence, prostitution and pimps. Graphic and intimate accounts are told with honesty and accuracy and we discover not only Leela’s secrets but also the secrets of her friends, ‘kustomers’ and close companions.
Leela’s life is that of many who end up in the ‘line’. Prostituted by her father, she fled to Bombay as a young teenager, determined to build a new life for herself she finds a job as a bar dancer in ‘Night Lovers’ and with her exceptional beauty and stubborn optimism, she quickly becomes the bar’s best-paid dancer. Leela is not shy in divulging her attitude towards her ‘kustomers’, her manager with whom she is having an affair and her best friend Priya, who she describes as ‘the most beautiful women she has ever seen’.
Faleiro uncovers intimate details surrounding the girls’ lives within the dance bars. It is clear that both Leela and Priya are not shy when it comes to expressing themselves. Both girls give honest and open accounts of their relationships and their aspirations. They both long for a wealthy, honest and unmarried customer to fall in love with them and take them away from the dance bars for good. But both Leela and Priya also know the industry well. They know that their dancing career will not last forever. They know their looks will fade and they know exactly what this would mean for their future. Many bar dancers end up as brothel madams.
From dancing, both Leela and Priya are not just able to live independently, they are also able to support their families and close friends. That is until the government decided to crack down on the dance bar scene and eventually banned them on the grounds that they encouraged immorality and corruption. Leela and Priya were left jobless and had to find new ways of supporting themselves, forcing them both into prostitution.
This captivating and intensely gritty report offers an alternative view of Indian women. The abused girls have found companionship, self-confidence, strength and independence and an unshakable sense of resilience.
I found Beautiful Thing to be an intensively addictive read. Faleiro develops a close bond with the characters and lets you right in with her. The fact that nothing is left unspoken and no detail is deemed too graphic enables the reader to fully engage with the reality of the scene and why the girls do what they do. Although many parts of the book are shocking, sad and somewhat unsettling, there is also a strong sense of the girls fighting spirit, friendship and humour to balance this. I particularly enjoyed how Faleiro depicted the girls’ vulnerability and youth underneath their brave façade. “Fresh-faced Leela wore young girls’ clothes”. The fact that Leela’s favourite restaurant is McDonald’s and that she longs for a fairytale romance adds a childlike persona to the feisty and confident image she portrays to the outside world.
The book would appeal to anyone interested in the strength of women and how they can overcome obstacles and have the drive and determination to build new lives for themselves on their own terms. It also highlights issues of morality and makes you re-evaluate your own thoughts and feelings regarding the sex industry and its most vulnerable workers.
Beautiful Thing depicts a darker side of Bombay. Looking past Bollywood and its glitz and glamour fakery, this book draws you into a new world and doesn’t really let you out.
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