A book review by Rachel K. Paulose
Sonia Faleiro’s nonfictional account of the Bombay dance bar underworld, “Beautiful Thing,” is a book about a world devoid of any moral compass. Unfortunately, Faleiro, who spent five years researching and writing this book, seems to lose her compass somewhere along this journey as well. Although the only beautiful thing about her book is her frequently artistic prose, Faleiro tells a story about a seedy underworld too often falsely glamorized.
The book begins with Faleiro befriending “bar dancer” Leela and convincing the uber-secretive Leela to open a window into her life. Faleiro, a journalist by training, uses Leela’s experiences to write an article for her paper which is summarily rejected as not “newsworthy.” Persisting, Faleiro stays with Leela and produces “Beautiful Thing.” Leela’s sad story anchors the book, although other bar dancers, prostitutes, hijras (transgender eunuchs), pimps, johns, corrupt police, and various family members make guest appearances.
As a child, Leela is sold as a prostitute by her parents. Leela’s first abusers are the local police. With no legitimate authority to turn to for justice, Leela runs away to Bombay determined to chart her own course.
Leela takes up work as a bar dancer at Night Lovers on Mira Road, and incredibly, still sends her earnings to her abusive family. She takes up with the bar owner, Purshottam Shetty, a married man who also provides her flat. She also prostitutes herself, generally with customers who take a fancy to her after seeing her perform at Night Lovers.
Leela bribes the police to avert their eyes, consorts with gangsters who offer protection, and socializes only with other social outcasts. The neighbors, also all bar dancers, leave her be.
As an “alone” girl who fears blackmail, Leela keeps no bank account, paper records, or photographs of herself or others. She earns money and spends it recklessly, in this as in many things, with no thought for her own future.
Leela’s already unhappy life takes a dramatic turn for the worse when her adopted city passes the Bombay Police Act of 2005, outlawing dance performances in low-grade establishments. Out of business, Shetty unceremoniously dumps Leela. Leela and her best friend and fellow bar dancer Priya drift in search of money.
A well-meaning community organizer tries to convince Leela and Priya to work as clerks, cooks, or beauticians. The women, admittedly too materialistic to be satisfied with the modest wages paid to such workers, flatly reject these suggestions. Instead, they give themselves completely to prostitution, with dire results.
Although Faleiro’s book is an important work that depicts much of the ugliness of Leela’s world, Faleiro accepts without challenge Leela’s spirited but often delusional take on her own state. Leela shows no insight as to the destructive downward spiral of her own being, the people around her who contribute to her demise, or larger societal forces that she asserts control her lot in life.
Leela has no real sense of what self worth is. When the community organizer suggests a legitimate line of work, Leela scoffs, “Is that what she thinks I’m worth?” Acknowledging “wanting things, more things, ‘bootiful’ things,” Leela has convinced herself that the possession of things define her worth. Ironically, it is the community organizer who indeed understands Leela’s true and valuable worth.
Leela has no comprehension of what freedom means. She claims, “I make money and money gives me something my mother never had. Azaadi. Freedom.” But Leela is dependent on those who exploit her to provide her sustenance, shelter, and the security the police will not give. Her money, such as it is, has not provided her the freedom she claims she “crave[s].”
Leela believes her choices are inevitable, the result of a destiny that pits impoverished women against men who would only use them. Men, says Leela, “lived to profit off the women in their lives,” and Leela says she cannot “change what was destined for me.” But change has been offered her, and Leela has rejected it.
In some ways, nevertheless, the reader may understand that perhaps Leela needs to believe her self-deception, simply to retain the spirit to survive in indescribably horrific circumstances. Leela is calamitously myopic, but Faleiro is, on occasion, willfully blind.
Faleiro opines that Indian laws proscribing sexual trafficking, such as the Bombay Police Act and the Immoral Traffic Act, condemn the “arguably indefinable subject of morality.” This moral ambiguity does at times impact the credibility of Faleiro’s book.
As Faleiro injects herself into the story as something more than a disinterested narrator, the reader cannot escape her disconcerting assessments. She concludes one not atypical passage by excusing the depredations of Leela’s mother and her ilk:
“In the world of the dance bar, a mother could be convinced to rent her daughter out for twenty-five hundred rupees and something irresponsibly enticinga TV perhaps, the first six months of cable paid for. . . . But whatever mother did, and by God she did some shameless things, it was, I knew, almost always because she wasn’t permitted by virtue of her sex and class or her status as a financial dependant, to have a say in the things that mattered. Fathers on the other hand had no excuse.”
Oppression is no less wrong because the oppressor may herself be bound by unfair practices. To suggest that a mother may be excused for selling her daughter into sexual bondage in exchange for mere trinkets is not a reasonable leap of logic. It is a leap off the cliff into the abyss, where civilization succumbs to lowest common denominator immorality.
Faleiro’s moral ambiguity infects even her lexicon, most disturbingly in her use of the antiseptic term “sex worker,” in place of the word “prostitute.” As many human rights organizations have repeatedly emphasized in condemning the label “sex worker,” in no meaningful sense of the word is prostitution “work.”
According to Apne Aap Women Worldwide Trust, the average life span of an Indian prostitute is thirty-five years, and no wonder. Prostitutes daily face the dangers of extortion, kidnapping, violence, and deadly diseases including AIDS. Nothing belongs to them: not their wages, not their bodies, not even their freedom. This is not work. This is slavery.
The tragedy of Faleiro’s confusion is that her own book dramatically demonstrates why her terminology is inapt. At the end of the book, only Faleiro seems shocked that Leela’s latest pimp declares outright his ownership over Leela’s very body.
Words matter. Language robbed of truth is useless as a form of communication. In a time when the most repressive regime on the planet labels itself a “People’s Republic,” and pedophiles possess the temerity to depict themselves as “minor attracted persons,” writers should reject the machinations of those who manipulate language to further an agenda.
Faleiro’s lack of clarity, most especially because she purports to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, is a disappointment in a book that thus sheds only a dim light on the plight of a cruelly marginalized segment of society.