With Beautiful Thing, journalist and novelist Sonia Faleiro gives readers a dark peek into the world of Bombay dance bars. Through the eyes of the young Leela, an amazingly resilient and warm 19-year-old dancer, we meet an array of young women who work as dancers and prostitutes in the red light district. They are abused, they are destitute, but they are wickedly funny and optimistic, discussing their hopes for their futures in the same breath as they describe the horrors of the present.
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It is dark material, and yet despair never, or rarely, overtakes the reader. Despite the physical danger the women find themselves in, the pain and heartbreak, and the lives of violence and poverty they came to the city to escape, Faleiro keeps the book on a human plane. It is bearable, because Faleiro portrays these women not as victims, but as regular people doing the best they can under deplorable circumstances. She has faith, and so the reader has faith.
I talked with Faleiro about gaining the trust of an underworld, and why a former novelist approached her subject through a nonfiction filter.
Can you tell us a bit of the background to this book? What made you interested in portraying the lives of the Bombay dancers? And once you decided on the project, how did you meet the women and gain their confidence?
I’ve been a journalist since I was 21. I started out writing feature stories because what I really wanted to become was a novelist, and I thought it would be good practice. When I was about 26, farmers in the district of Vidarbha, which is in the state of Maharashtra where Beautiful Thing takes place, were committing suicide at the rate of one every 12 hours because of an inability to repay debts. Many of these debts were less than $200.
Although similar suicides had been taking place since the early 1990s, the newly rapid death rate caught the attention of the media, and we were inundated with stories on the subject. Reading the newspaper one morning I realized that despite all the press, I still didn’t know what was going on. I felt what was missing was a narrative that was engaging, because unless you engage you can’t understand. And without understanding there’s no empathy, which is what kick-starts the conversation that ultimately leads to change.
Once I identified what to me was the problem I went to Vidarbha and wrote a story about the families of debt victims. What that trip taught me was that even in great sadness people don’t want to be perceived or represented as only sad. They want to be represented as who they are, as complete human beings who despite their deprivations, have as much of a zest for life and are as eager to embrace joy and pleasures as anyone else.
In 2005, I caught a news report about bar dancers in Bombay. I was intrigued by what I saw, particularly in the contrast between the bright vivacity of the girls and what was clearly a dark, sometimes dangerous, environment for them to be in. I spoke with a source, and he invited me to his dance bar to meet some dancers. One of the girls was Leela.
I don’t know what she thought of me. She humored me, I think, because I was as foreign to her as she was to me. And my persistence flattered her. At the same time I didn’t pressure her. I made sure my presence was not a burden. I’m patient, but not pushy. My pleasure in her company was obvious. Eventually she accepted me and opened up. And because she trusted me, so did almost everyone else in her inner circle.
I wanted to talk a little about the tone of the book. Because there is some really gruesome and some really despairing material in this book, and yet the tone itself manages to carry it along. It doesn't wallow. How, when working with some seriously dark material at times, did you keep from despairing, or keep from turning your prose into a diatribe?
There’s a scene in the book set in a brothel in Kamathipura, Bombay’s red light district. Kamathipura, like any Bombay neighborhood, is dusty and crowded; some of the brothels have cages.
So there I was, attending a birthday party for a hijra [transgender] brothel madam. She and all the hijras were dressed to the nines in embroidered silks and costume jewelry, their hair was up and their makeup on thick. They looked gorgeous, and the air was really festive.
But just a few minutes before the party was to start the hijras got into a fight with a low-level cop who was trying to extract a bribe from them, and in the kerfuffle he slapped one of the hijras. Her blouse flew open and the paper napkins she’d stuffed into her bra flew out. There was immediate silence. Then she started crying, and the hijras started to close in on the cop, and she was edged out of the group to suffer her humiliation in a corner. It was very painful to watch.
When the cop made his escape, the hijras took me into the brothel and it was this massive building with two tiny windows, giant stairways from which hung swathes of spider webs, there was hardly any furniture in any one of the dozen rooms, and the bathrooms were open spaces with a couple of holes in the ground. It was dark and cold, and this backdrop made the beauty of the hijras and their painstaking attempt to make something happy of the occasion, very poignant.
I remember when I returned home early the next morning calling a friend and saying, “I can’t do this, I really can’t.” It’s painful to watch, but it’s particularly so when you see the courage and optimism of the hijras and their determination not to submit to the cruelty of society.
Situations like these, where I felt overwhelmed and rendered helpless by the events that were unfolding before me occurred repeatedly. But I was clear, from the onset, that this was Leela’s story, and because it was written primarily from her point of view, it would have to see the world the way she did.
And she didn’t see the world as antagonistic to her well being, and she didn’t see herself as a victim. Then again, while this is Leela’s story it’s also the story of hundreds of thousands of women like her, so I didn’t want to sensationalize it. And that’s what I wanted to do with Beautiful Thing.
I've talked to other journalists who complain about the same thing you do, the inability to create empathy in the journalistic format. The requirement for facts and information creates a sort of emotional barrier. Did you ever think about writing Beautiful Thing as a novel instead, especially since you had to hide identity and personal details, given that they were working illegally?
That’s why I love narrative nonfiction. It takes reportage to another level through the medium of the story. Social reportage in particular allows for great character profiles, for description and detail and the intimacy that draws the reader into the lives of other people.
I’ve great respect for fiction. But Leela’s story if fictionalized would have been diluted—it would have been anyone’s story and yet no one’s. So many traumas crammed into 19 years seems an impossibility.
But it isn’t, it’s all too real, and that’s the difference between a reader being stunned by Leela’s story and then putting the book away, and a reader being stunned by Leela’s story and before putting the book away thinking about how her life relates to theirs, how her lack of privilege and the resultant violations of her human rights are somehow connected to their privilege, and how the same society can create two such disparate products—a woman like Leela, and a reader in a position to buy a book about a woman like Leela and to read it at leisure. Essentially what this book says is, “This is who we are. And this is what we do to each other.”
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.