“In ankhon Ki masti ke mastane hazaaron hain” – Umrao Jaan
Sonia Faleiro’s “Beautiful Thing” is the poignant and evocative story of ‘Leela’ a bar dancer who sells her soul and body in one of the many dance bars across Mumbai. The book is a nonfictional account of the bar dancers of Mumbai who most of us avoid if they crossed our paths. However as you find yourself with the author in the glitzy bars, brothels and hell holes that these women live in you realize how circumstances can rob you of every plausible chance of being an acceptable part of the same society that creates those conditions for you.
The author had written the book with a lot of sensitivity, without trying to dumb down the conditions in which Leela survives. Pimped out by her father, exploited by society and everyone she meets, Leela finally finds her way to the shady world of the dingy night clubs that littered the dangerous streets of Mumbai and becomes a ‘Dhandewaali’ (a term used for a sex worker). She spends her evenings drunk and high dancing away in a bar owned by Shetty who she is having a passionate affair with and hopes will leave his wife and sons to be with her someday.
Her job as a dancer is to entice desperate young, old, horny and lost men to stay for the night. Moving her hips on the sounds of some ‘Dhanchik’ Bollywood number, she teases them with her eyes and does every ploy in the books to get a man to spend money on her. They all stay, but they only till the bar is open. Once the bar is closed, you find Leela in the dark make up room wiping away the frivolities of the night, walking home alone. Some exploit her for her looks, some for her body and some for her love. While all the men she meets are ready to bed, her no one wants to marry her and look after her, and she knows it. But she fights, and how she fights, carrying her heart on her sleeve and her bravado under her makeup, Leela grabs life by its balls and ensures that she is not the only one who is getting the raw end of the deal.
The author also introduces other characters in the story, Leela’s self-obsessed friend Priya, her mother Apsara and Masti the eunuch, who Leela considers as her real mother. Reading about the plight of the Eunuchs, once most respected and now marginalized and traumatized by society was extremely painful. I found myself wincing a few times as I read with horror about what the process of becoming a Eunuchs involves.
I searched my soul many times as I flicked through the book page by page. It made me question my outlook towards these women who were doing the same thing as we did, that was work hard to look after their families every single day. And are shamed, ridiculed and considered beneath us. When we look at it at the end of the day it doesn’t matter whether you are dancing in a bar or working in a shiny corporate office, we all want to fill our bellies and be loved and wanted by those who are in our lives. A fabulous read.