“Beautiful Thing” is a poignant book by Sonia Faleiro on the lives of bar-dancers in Mumbai, based on research done by the author over a period of five years. The book tells the story of Leela, a beautiful nineteen year old girl who works as a dancer in a dance-bar in Mumbai called “Night Lovers”. It traces her life as a much-exploited young teenager from Meerut who manages to escape from her home only to become a bar-dancer in Mumbai. There she earns good money, achieves independence and is fussed over by a steady stream of men.
The book is brutally frank and surprisingly intimate, a result of the author being close to her subject and winning her confidence, having followed her subject almost everywhere and having directly interacted with her friends, customers and what passed for her family. Only a woman could have done justice to this subject and it shows in the empathetic tone of the narrative. At the same time, it was remarkably courageous of a woman to spend time in dance-bars, in brothels, in seedy lodges, in the company of petty criminals and not-so-petty ones, with lecherous customers of the girls, etc.
Even though the book is a work of non-fiction, it has a narrative and a cast of characters that rival those in good fiction - it even has a cliff-hanger of an ending, where we are left wondering what becomes of Leela who has taken a big leap of faith. There is beautiful and young Leela who is at the peak of her profession as a bar-dancer at the beginning of the book and has a steady relationship with the (married) owner of the dance-bar. There is the extremely beautiful and somewhat-narcissistic Priya who is Leela's best friend and a bar-dancer as well. There is Leela's submissive mother Apsara who decides to move in with her, much to her irritation. There is Leela's abusive and drunk father Manohar, who regularly beats his wife and in an instance of spite gets the police to repeatedly rape his barely-teenaged daughter. There is Leela's adopted mother Masti who presents the rare case of a eunuch accepted by her family. And so on. The epigraph for the book, quoting Leela, aptly reads:
“My story is the best you will ever hear. The best, understand? Now come close. Closer! Okay, ready?”
There are some minor irritants in book that are a bit distracting. For example, reading “non-wedge” and “kushtomer” looks authentic and amusing once or twice, but not so repeatedly throughout the book. The author has a certain fascination for naming brands that seems superfluous in the text at best and irritating at worst - we are told again and again about the Gold Flake cigarettes that Leela smokes and the LG refrigerator she keeps her rotting vegetables in.
That aside, this is one of those books that make you feel sad or angry at one time and laugh out at another. It makes you contrast your ensconced life and good luck, your relatively petty problems notwithstanding, with that of those far less fortunate, caught in the grip of circumstances beyond their control and living with a constant hope for a better tomorrow. It is in other words a thought-provoking and insightful book that is a must-read. It is arguably one of the best non-fiction books to have come out of India in recent times.