March Book of the Month: “Beautiful Thing” by Sonia Faleiro
Fact: There are women in India who dance for money. Fact: There are women in India who have sex for money. Fact: There are women in India who make their livelihood off of lusty men, and these women are less downtrodden than you would think.
At least, this is what Sonia Faleiro would have you believe in her intimate exposé of the secret world of Bombay’s nightclubs, “Beautiful Thing.” A massively detailed account of the life and times of a bar dancer named Leela, Beautiful Thing provides a vantage point from which to peek into a world unseen–or unnoticed–by outsiders. Behind the metaphorical curtain, however, lurks an underworld infested with all the expected ills of a sex-ridden society. Disease, violence, misogyny, abuse, self-abuse, drugs and drink run rampant.
For Leela the bar dancer, though, life is not desolate. As long as she performs, she is kept well, enjoying everything from fancy food to cell phones. What she craves–and what all bar dancers crave–is romantic love. Not the empty, meaningless, paid-for love she doles out on her threadbare mattress; not the false love her bar manager gives because she is the most lucrative performer at Night Lovers. Leela wants someone to come home to, someone to hold her, someone to need her.
As history and her story show, such a life is nearly impossible for Leela to achieve. As a bar dancer, she is comfortable. But when her bar closes down or her looks go, she is back on the street, too proud to work in a salon, too unqualified to do anything else but prostitute herself. For Leela, when things are good, she can be happy. When things are bad, she has to be desperate.
Leela is a surprising character, considering that her parents sold her and she continued to do so for money. At the top of her game, Leela is in control. Men are her puppets, catering to her every whim, and any obligation she has to bar manager is not so different than the typical boss-employee relationship (the underlying threat of physical violence notwithstanding). Faleiro was lucky to find a woman so willing to talk about and share her experiences. While statistics could have told a similar story, they would have produced a line drawing; with Leela’s voice, the tale becomes a painting.
Beautiful Thing is powerful because it challenges the notion that bar dancers are necessarily worse off than women in other lowly positions. As Leela proves, there is an element of control in a bar dancer’s career that does not exist in that of a sex worker nor a servant. A conversation I had while reading this book questioned whether cleaning toilets is a better career than dancing for money. I argue that it may not be, and I believe Leela, at the height of her career, would agree.
Amina Elahi is Divanee.com’s Managing Editor. Check out her blog, where she posts words and images that make her think.