Life of bar dancer explored

Sonia Faleiro’s new book wins critical acclaim, reports Pallavi Sinha ( For Indian Link )

The literary world is just getting to know and respect Sonia Faleiro, and as her book Beautiful Thingshowcases at the Sydney Writers’ Festival 2011, we understand just why. The book is her first work of non-fiction and holds the weight of five years of research in the sleazy and secretive world of Mumbai’s dance bars. It won the Time OutSubcontinental Book of the Year and CNN’s Mumbai Book of the Year, with critics acclaiming it as “brilliant” and “unforgettable”.

The award-winning reporter and writer has delved into the mysterious and sexually shocking life of bar dancers, with a protagonist who, at just nineteen, is an exemplary and talented dancer, yet fiercely independent, optimistic and realistic about the life she leads. Although her story is the main one set amidst a backdrop of several parallel stories of shocking abuse and vice, an alarming portrait is painted of the paradoxical bar dancer’s world in which bars give them economic independence, but enslave them in that world.

Beautiful Thing covers a plethora of topics, from ‘silent bars’, the hierarchy of sex workers in India, police corruption, and the suffering of hijras (transgenders), among others. Sonia Faleiro has woven these stories together in an intricate plot that is compelling and powerful in its realism. Indian Linkspoke with the young writer on her book, and the influences behind the story and its telling.

Indian Link: Apart from Leela, the central character, details about other girls and their stories are also a part of the plot. How did you feel when you came across their situations? 

Sonia Faleiro: ‘Horrified’ somehow seems like an inadequate word, but I was horrified, by just how common this sort of abuse was in the lives of young women and how, in almost every case, it was perpetrated by or encouraged by family members. It took some time for me to accept that people lead hard lives and it was hard to comprehend how this sort of abuse gets perpetuated and passes down generationally. Because the consequences are so profound, they are sustained through one’s life. I was amazed by Leela, because despite her father permitting the abuse, she found the courage to leave and become economically independent, and to retain a sense of optimism and hope that success was a possibility. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had been beaten down by what happened to her, but she wasn’t, and that’s what made her so unique. The story of her abuse was not unusual, but what she made out of her abuse was unique.

IL: As probably all these bar dancers had suffered sexual abuse before taking to this profession, do you think it’s a cycle that’s hard to break?

SF: Yes, it is, primarily because of the poverty. When you’re poor, you just don’t have avenues of escape. A conventional education could allow you to leave and build a new life, but when you are poor and don’t have the means of education, you are stuck in an environment which sucks the life out of you. I think these experiences tend to perpetuate themselves because after a while you don’t really know any other kind of life, or any other experience or response. Leela said that because my father hit my mother, and she didn’t say no, he hit me, and if I took it, then he would have hit my children. That cycle would continue unless someone stood up to the oppressor. So Leela ran away and attempted to break the cycle, but she never reconciled things with her mother, so there was understandably, a lot of lingering unhappiness and bitterness.

IL: Why did you write the book?
SF: I felt that what had happened to Leela was a result of her gender and class, and that things like this continuously happen to marginalised young women. Almost daily we push them away as though their presence and future has no consequence to us or to the future of our country. I didn’t want people to forget. The ban on bar dancing introduced by the Bombay Police (Amendment) Act 2005*, had been implemented casually and had absolutely no support in logic or fact. Because morality is such a big issue in India and everybody wants to appear moral, the politician who suggested the ban received support from every other politician in the state, including opposition politicians who were known to have invested in dance bars or even owned their own dance bars. About 75,000 girls were affected by the ban, and as the dance bar has an ecosystem, it ended work for the girls’ managers, tailors who made their costumes, even the auto rickshaw drivers who were employed full-time driving these girls back and forth.

IL: The Act banning bar dancing was repealed by the High Court in 2006, and an appeal lodged by the State in the Supreme Court is still pending. Do you think the High Court made the right decision?
SF: Absolutely. It was a great boost for bar dancers and for those who supported them. Eventually it didn’t make a difference, because once the State Government appealed to the Supreme Court, the ban stayed in place. But it was a philosophical victory for the bar dancers.

IL: Although younger than you, Leela “taught you what you wanted to know – the truth about a world that fascinated and intimidated; and as you came to know it better, it left you feeling frustrated and hopeless.” Can you elaborate on these feelings?
SF: I was attracted to this world of dance bars because it’s one of the many sub-cultures that exist in Mumbai. It’s really intriguing and unique in the sense that it’s a self-sustaining ecosystem. Everyone in the dance bar depends on each other, and not on anyone outside that world. They have their own spin on the language of the city, their own coded phrases, a strict hierarchy, specific ways to behave and specific kinds of relationships. The girls come from all over India and because of the dance bar they become economically independent. They could support their family, perhaps build a house or educate children from their family. But these women were also exploited by the dance bars who survived on their earnings, with the bar owner getting 50-60% of what was thrown at the bar dancers. As a result of the pressures on them, they were cutters and alcoholics, and had various dependencies. This dichotomy was intriguing for me, but it was also frustrating because the bars gave so much to the girls, and yet it kept pulling them back right in. It was almost like there was no escape from the dance bar. Once she entered a dance bar with no skill other than dancing, she was at the mercy of the bar owner. When she loses this skill, she would have to go on the streets or start her own brothel, or if she was really lucky she would find someone to marry her, or go back to the village. The stigma of being a bar dancer was so great, that even once they left the dance bar, unless they had somehow managed to integrate into society, which basically meant getting married and not letting their neighbours know what they had done for a living, they were always tied to the dance bar, and it would be a curse on them and on their children.

IL: Your research covered visits to red-light districts in Mumbai, spending time with the characters in your book, particularly Leela. Did you find this difficult or dangerous? Were there any security issues?
SF: One of the remarkable things about Mumbai is that although there are these significant situations of exploitation of women, it is still the safest city in India for women. I went to dance bars in Bombay and to Kamatipura, the red light district, but I never felt under threat. But one of the primary reasons I didn’t feel threatened was because I had Leela with me, and I had her support. Once she accepted me and my presence, so did her core group of family and friends. With them looking out for me, I always felt safe.

IL: In some parts of the book, you show concern for Leela and her welfare. Did you become attached to her?
SF: It wouldn’t have been possible not to! Spending large quantities time with her, you would almost have to question your humanity not to get attached or feel for them, and to think about them in a way that wasn’t necessarily related to the work at hand. I made offers of help to Leela, which she rejected. I think that was because she was an adult who wanted to make her own choices, and despised any form of dependence. Certainly, I was very concerned about her.

IL: What about the lives of hijras and their disturbing stories that you encountered?
SF: I’ve written a lot about hijras before, so I was aware of just how brutalised and difficult are the lives of many of them. Even on the street, there’s a hierarchy, so a hijra sex worker will earn less than a female sex worker. They are more likely to get attacked, stoned, beaten up, cut and the police will extract more bribes from them. In the scale of that life, a bar dancer is at the top of this pyramid and hijras are definitely somewhere at the bottom.

IL: What is your favourite quote or mantra for life?
SF: I don’t have one, but I do like the philosophy to “just get out of bed”!

*Though some progress has been made, the abuse of women and police corruption seems to be a continuing problem in India. The bar dancing industry in India has been subject to scrutiny by politicians, leading to the Bombay Police (Amendment) Act 2005 being enforced, banning dance performances in eating houses, permit rooms or beer bars in Mumbai. This Act was repealed by the High Court in 2006. An appeal was lodged by the State Government in the Supreme Court, and the decision is still pending. Due to this appeal, the ban remained in place.