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Book Review: Beautiful Thing

books Updated: Nov 13, 2010 11:51 IST
Upala Sen
Upala Sen
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

This does not raise the bar

Beautiful Thing
Sonia Faleiro

I’m the kind of reader who likes to take off the book jacket before having a go at the book. And that is how I missed the little mention about Beautiful Thing (BT) being “one of the most original works of non fiction from India etc etc”. So after ploughing through 200-odd pages when I read the first line of the section titled Acknowledgements, I was stumped.

Stumped in the way when the nuns back in school announced that on Friday we would be watching a movie. And when Friday came the movie turned out to be documentary on drinking water; a problem of misdirected expectation, nothing to do with the quality of the subject.

So for your sake let me copy-paste Acknowledgements and put things in perspective: Spun around the tale of a Mumbai bar dancer Leela, BT is “five years of research on bar dancers, bar owners, customers, stewards, waiters, sex workers, hijras, brothel madams, gangsters, policemen of all ranks… lawyers, NGO workers, mediapersons and the families of women working in the bar line.”

Structurally the book cleaves into two, reminding me of a painting I have seen only recently. The canvas of artist Salvador Dali’s Portrait Of My Sister shows a sketch of a young woman, chin resting on hand staring ahead wide eyed. On the bottom of the canvas is what looks like a mirror image of the same girl, upside down. The story goes that the bottom half was painted many years after the top half. If you look closely you can see that the girl in the reflection is sunken-eyed and her skin has an unhealthy bluish pallor. As for the sensuality, what sensuality?

The first half of Faleiro’s book is about the gutsy Leela with her perfect heart of a face, and natural “booty”, snapping her bra straps and asking for trouble “because trouble was free”. The second half is about Leela after the implementation of the ban on Bombay’s dance bars. Faleiro sums it up pithily: “Leela’s economic deterioration was immediate and clear. The cooler had been switched off; the television was now a foot stool”.

BT is as racy as a Mumbai local and as full and varied, revolting, amusing, and ruthless. It is like “platform 9-3/4 at King's Cross” from JK Rowling’s Harry Potter, a world within a world, with its own distinct world order.

Faleiro tries to decode this alternate universe. She tells you how you can gauge the success quotient of a bar dancer from the fragrance she is wearing: “with them came the fragrance of Jovan Musk and Revlon Charlie, and if they’d recently been sent to Dubai or had lovers who’d been there, of Armani and Versace.” She tells you the codes of morality: “Marriage to a bar dancer meant that she and her lover lived together in what they agreed was harmony… But a husband such as this was often no more loyal than a casual lover.” She also deconstructs the bar dancer’s immediate geography, and the ‘unspoken arrangement’ underlying its composition and symmetry.

So what’s the verdict? Well, a lot of sound research, for someone who’s looking for this stuff. As a book it fails, creaking with similies — “Apsara… had a face like a cutting board”, “mother sounded like an audio cassette someone had pressed the fast forward button on”— rumbling with bar dancer jargon (read gaalis), dropping into a text-book like drone in patches and confusing the reader with truckloads of characters. BT sets out to make the unfamiliar familiar through stylish narrative and structure, but when you have turned the last page you realise that you’ve just got an above average documentary.