Beautiful Things: Sonia Faleiro

This book review, slightly shortened to fit space constraints, was first published at Elevate Difference, a now-dormant website dedicated to inclusive — and therefore occasionally conflicting — critiques and points of views about political, economic and social justice. I was very fond of Elevate Difference. It provided a space in which liberal activist discourse could shake off its recent burden of ‘niceness’, be hetergeneous, be assertive, be fruitful. I wish I could make it come to life again.

About Faleiro’s Beautiful Things: first, those who haven’t read it, read it. It reads like gritty Bollywood ‘art house’ feels, only classier, infintely better researched, more nuanced, and far more powerful. So not really like Bollywood, but the comparison helps set the tone for the secret world Faleiro explores.

Second, read Faleiro if your brand of feminism — or morality — makes censoring the ‘exploitation’ of consenting women part of its agenda. I find it very amusing — so amusing, in fact, that I can feel the bile rising in my throat — that feminists of a certain kind still think criminalising a woman’s right to have sex with whichever informed and consenting adult she wishes, on whatever terms of exchange they both agree upon, will cleanse society’s soul, ensure their own husband’s fidelity, stop crime, and sterilise their children’s future in one fell swoop. Such activism, or implicit support for it, speaks volumes about our attitudes towards our gender and our individual sexuality, and none of it flattering.

Violence Against Women Awareness Month October 2011Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars

By Sonia Faleiro

Penguin Books, 2010

Beautiful Thing is an eponymous title. It is journalist Sonia Faleiro’s first book, about the dancers and not-so-secret prostitutes of the ‘dance bars’ of suburban Bombay (Mumbai). These now-illegal establishments offered the tripartite pleasures of alcohol, enticing women, and Bollywood music. Their dancers were ‘bootiful’ young girls, sometimes in their initial teenage years, and well aware that their ‘booty’—pun unintended—is what defines them, and keeps them fed and clothed.

But this free-market beauty of Faleiro’s informants, and the women in their lives—mothers, daughters, sisters, wives of their lovers, their hijra (male-to-female intersex, transsexual or transgender) friends—is also what dehumanises them into things. Beautiful things. Things that entertain, things to watch, things to make money with, things to rape, things to give as gifts, things to show off, things to have sex with, things that produce meals, things to punch when the world tightens the screws.

And their eternal tragedy is that their beauty fades, usually by the grand old age of thirty, but their essential thingness, their perceived worthlessness as anything other than beautiful and sexually available women, remains.

And yet Faleiro’s informants are neither cowering nor desolate, nor are they subaltern heroines, stiff-upper-lipping the world. Her guide to ‘the secret world of Bombay’s dance bars’, Leela, came to Bombay at fourteen, to escape her abusive father’s pimping. More infuriating than him selling her virginity to local policemen for a gang-rape at the station, she said, was his refusal to give her the money her rape-rights had earned. Bombay was far better. She could get money just for dancing, relative freedom to choose ‘kustomers’, and pretty things from men who admired her. She could even have weekends at expensive resorts with them. Although the bar owner took the greater share of the money men threw at her in appreciation, she made enough to live in luxury. If she was forced to ‘go’ with a patron, he was usually a mafia boss, and there was both privilege and profit in sleeping with them.

The histories of the other dancers are riffs on the same general theme. They come from poor families with too many mouths to feed, and too little money to do it with. They were prostituted from puberty, and the injustice of being the broke and beaten breadwinner — shamed and abused for their work, yet not allowed to touch the money it earned — nagged them till they decided to start working for themselves in the big city. In their first months off the train, several were tricked or forced into brothels, in conditions harsher than home. But most escaped—Leela by jumping out of a window—and found their way to a dance bar. For all the politically-motivated moral outrage directed at these ostensible destroyers of marriages and feminine virtue, the bar dancers of Bombay were amongst the tiny minority of poor, illiterate victims of violent abuse who managed to win a measure of independence and happiness without institutional intervention, and no social capital apart from their ‘bootiful’ faces.

In fact, if one manages to look past the scene-stealing women, Beautiful Thing is a chronicle of total institutional failure. From ‘family’, ‘marriage’ and ‘community’, to the state legislature for banning their ‘immoral’ profession (in open defiance of their Constitutional right to live and work without prejudice), to law-keepers who extort, rape and get free blowjobs from this suddenly-unemployed or illegally-employed demography, these women have been let down by every institutional holy cow. The only place that lends them space—at a price—is the underground nexus of police, politicians and the mafia that supposedly ‘really’ runs Bombay. And even then it is a faceless, substitutable existence, amongst a steady influx of fresher, younger girls.

Yet, despite the horror, anger, frustration, pity and even guilty relief that one might feel about the dancers [there, but for the grace of god…], their defining moment comes, fittingly, at the end. Leela, having lost family to independence, independence to morality, home to poverty, savings to her thieving mother, and friends to the destruction of her little world, is about to be smuggled to Dubai without a passport, ripe for every kind of abuse and exploitation imaginable. One would have imagined her nervous, devastated, terrified. Yet, when Faleiro’s nervousness about her imminent departure shows, Leela points to her own smiling face, and asks: “Do you see fear?”

And Faleiro has to admit, she doesn’t.

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5 comments

  1. They are the really unskilled labourers. No legislation can make the supply disappear since the demand is real and massive. May be someone can give them pension schemes and training+jobs after early retirement like armypeople. For coming generations of street walkers the street work could become strictly a second source of income.

    • I would, in fact, argue some of them are *very* skilled workers.

      The crux of the bar-dancers — and other sex workers’ — chief problem lies in society’s refusal to acknowledge this informal but thriving sector of economy as legitimate work. With the exception of the highly subjective moral one, prostitution fits all possible requirement for an activity to be labelled ‘work’. Ironically, however, as long as such benevolent ‘morality’ has ascendance, prostitution will continue to be a space for violence and exploitation of every social group except non-heterosexual men.

      • prostitution will continue to be a space for violence and exploitation of every social group except non-heterosexual men

        Can you explain the sentence, please? Why are heterosexual men exploited there and why aren’t gay men exploited in prostitution?

        • I’m afraid you’ve misread the sentence, el. That’s precisely the opposite of what I said. In terms of trends and patterns, every social group *except* heterosexual men are exploited and abused in this space.

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