Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars, by Sonia Faleiro

If America is the land of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps to climb the ladder of social and financial success all the way to our nation’s ideal version of material security and happiness, India, where class divisions are formalized in a caste system, is the land of no boots at all. Where you are born, you tend to stay. Even if you physically move to another part of the country, it is nearly impossible to change your station in life. Leela, the heroine of Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars, was born into poverty, suffered physical and sexual abuse, and was forced into prostitution at the hands of her stepfather. Sonia Faleiro, who writes about India for The New York Times, met Leela while searching Bombay for a story to tell. The genius of the book, a work of journalistic nonfiction that was originally published in India and the United Kingdom in 2010 by Penguin, is that it reads like a novel. Facts and statistics are woven into the prose carefully, as needed. But as Lord Byron wrote, “Truth is always strange; Stranger than fiction.”

Leela’s life has been one horror piled upon the next, over and over, until it is a wonder that she is able to speak and smile and get through each day. At night, she works at a dance bar called Night Lovers, because ruined women have little choice but to make money using their bodies. Leela’s childhood experiences are so graphic and traumatic that for the first few chapters, a reader might interpret Leela as a fictional character, but she is a real person, though Faleiro changed her name to protect her identity. It’s not uncommon for people to dismiss the most severe reports of abuse and degradation as lies, because it is easier to believe a victim is lying or exaggerating for attention—or, if what she says is true, that she deserved it—than to face the grim truth about the vile ways human beings treat each other and the ways in which we adapt in order to survive.

The horrors Leela has been through are hardly unique. Her story is typical of Bombay’s sex workers. She introduces Faleiro to her friend Anita, who “had two sons by two different men. ‘Or was it four different men?’ [Anita] said, with some confusion of how these things work. ... Her elder son, Sridhar, turned sixteen and one monsoon night he said to Anita in a voice as flat as water undisturbed: ‘Khat pe chal.’ Get on the bed ... He raped his mother.” Leela tells Faleiro that if she surveyed all the bar dancers living in her building, she would find that all of them had either “been sold by a blood relative or raped by one.” Faleiro learns that mothers are just as likely as fathers to sell their daughters for sex. We meet Apsara, Leela’s neurotic, selfish, domineering mother, whom Leela openly hates; however, Leela lets Apsara live in her apartment because she respects that her mother left Leela’s abusive stepfather. We also meet Leela’s best friend, Priya, a dancer at Night Lovers with no time for sorrow or tact, though she believes that love is destiny.

Using Leela’s connections, Faleiro delves into the world of brothels, madams, and prostitutes—including hirjas, transgendered prostitutes whose stories of childhood abuse are, if possible, even more savage than those of many of the female sex workers. Faleiro attends a famous madam’s birthday party and meets Maya, a hirja who tells her she was born in a brothel, raped from the earliest time she can remember, and on her own by the age of 10, at which point she decided that if men were going to rape her anyway, she should at least get paid for it so she could eat.

There are lighthearted moments in Beautiful Thing, as when Leela and Priya talk about Bombay film stars they admire, or when they get stoned on marijuana on the way to a party, or when Leela giggles as she and Faleiro overhear a morning romp between a madam named Masti and an unseen visitor in a hotel room they are sharing. Leela sometimes drinks to excess, sometimes cuts herself, is prone to kleptomania, and is the mistress of a married man. Her way with words reveals a tough girl—she is only 19—who refuses to let the world repress her sense of humor and her zest for life. She is street-smart and bordering on philosophically wise yet ever-hopeful that someday she will be taken care of. “Don’t worry,” she says at the end of the book, as she prepares to board a plane to Dubai, where (she believes) she has a contract to dance at a bar. “I'll be in touch, God promise. Accha, I’ll send you a postcard. I’ll go to Wild Wadi ... I’ll go to Jumeirah Beach! I’ll do shopping, so much shopping I’ll do! I’ll eat gold!”

Black Cat, Grove/Atlantic, 225 pages


This review originally appeared in Pasatiempo on 03/30/2012