Sonia Faleiro’s book Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars was recently launched in Bombay. The book is the story of Leela who was a well known bar dancer in Bombay. It takes the reader through the highs that she lived as a bar dancer and the lows she struggled with after the ban. A fascinating and insightful look into the underworld of Bombay’s dance bars.
We got a chance to meet Sonia Faleiro and ask her a few questions about the book. Here’s a short Q&A with Sonia
Q. The book is a deeply moving account of Leela, as a reader you get totally engrossed in Leela’s story, how did you manage to stay detached from the subject?
My relationship with Leela was that of a reporter and subject. And yet, it was difficult not to be moved by what I saw on a daily basis, not to, at times, feel both hopeless and helpless. I was also staggered by the risks Leela and Priya took. I wasn't detached, but neither could I be involved. I was there to write Leela's story after all, and Leela, as an adult, made her choices for better or worse. That said, readers will be aware of my attempts to help Leela following her loss of employment after the ban.
Q. Did you at any point feel that Leela was unhappy with the way her life was going?
Leela was a very spunky girl with a zest for life. She was unique in that way. She had a sophisticated sense of who she was and who she wasn’t. While she knew that she was a star in the dance bar and her locality she also knew what her standing in the society was. But that never dampened her spirits, she was never resentful. I would say both she and her friend Priya never attempted to try and fit in. They knew who they were, what they were.
In fact, they always felt they were better than the rest and Priya never gave up a chance to mock me about my education, my income, how I dressed and how I looked! They were happy.
Q. How did you meet Leela?
I happened to watch a TV news report about dance bars, and was intrigued by the possibilites of a story. So I got in touch with one of my sources in the bar business and asked that he introduce me to some bar dancers. He did, in his bar in South Bombay, and one of the dancers was Leela.
Q. Are you in touch with Leela?
No we lost touch after she moved to Dubai.
Q. Your book also gives us a brief glimpse of the Hijra community, another marginalized community in our society...
Yes, they're present in a couple of chapters in the book. The episode in the red light district of Kamathipura was perhaps one of the most disturbing for me. It was the birthday of a brothel madam. Although her hijras had dressed beautifully to honour her, in lehenga cholis and elaborate jewellery from Chor Bazaar, their marginalization was obvious: they smelt of food, and their food that day had been a boiled egg, and they smelt also of an embedded perspiration because she wouldn't allow them to bathe more than once every few days. The brothel itself was hot and musty, full of cobwebs, and without any furniture at all, not even a bed to sleep on. Despite their circumstances the brothel's hijras welcomed me with open arms, and treated me like a member of their extended family. It was a profoundly moving experience and a defining moment for me.
Q. What is more satisfying a book on fiction or a non-fiction as a writer?
Definitely non-fiction! Considering I have written both I do not think I will ever be able to write fiction again. While researching for this book I realized that there were just so many untold stories, struggles of people which ought to be heard and I can only do it through what I know best, that is, write about them.
Q. Who are your favourite writers?
Indian writers I enjoy reading are Altaf Tyrewala, Kiran Desai, Anita Desai. They have a firm understanding of the country and its people. I also enjoy Rohinton Mistry and Kalpana Swanithan’s Lalli series!
Adrian Nicole Leblanc is a writer who has influenced my writing too. Her book Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx took more than 10 years to research and write. An excellent piece of work. Philip Gourevitch is another author whose book on Rwanda moved me.