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Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay's Dance Bars Paperback – 4 Aug 2011
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"Beautiful Thing is a brilliant debut that catapults Sonia Faleiro straight to the top of the premier division of Indian writers of non-fiction . . . Beautiful Thing opens up a hidden world with startling insight and intimacy, and strangely is both a tragic monument to the abused bar girls of Bombay and a celebration of their amazing resilience and spirit." (William Dalrymple, author of Nine Lives)
"Faleiro writes her way into the bloodstream with this mesmeric book, fashioned with heart and enviable acuity. A shocking, funny and memorable ride." (Nikita Lalwani, author of Gifted)
"A rare glimpse into dismissed lives. Sonia Faleiro brings a novelist's eye for detail and a depth of empathy to her work. This is a magnificent book of reportage that is also endowed with all the terror and beauty of art." (Kiran Desai, Booker prize-winning author of The Inheritance of Loss)
". . . With her we hear, we see, we feel and finally know the world behind that door: a world that was unimaginable before Faleiro drew us there, but is unforgettable when the last page is turned, the last beaded curtain drawn to a close." (Gregory David Roberts, author of Shantaram)
"A riveting exposé ... For a book that's so short, Faleiro manages to pack a lot in: pimps, gangsters, transvestites, cops and madams. But its most outstanding quality to my eye is the window it offers on the widespread sexual repression that exists in India today, and the murky middle-class morality that rules it ... The real triumph of Beautiful Thing is how Faleiro dismantles the grand tradition of marriage in India, exposing it for what it is - a form of slavery for a large percentage of women who are bound to their husbands for food and the roofs over their heads, but rarely ever for love." (Observer)
"Throws the doors open on Mumbai's sex trade." (Independent)
"A harrowing and heart-breaking account . . . a tour de force of reportage, whose depth, insight and resonance make it the equal of the best fiction. [Faleiro] has portrayed the tragedy of this world without a shred of sentimentality. In this she has done justice to her characters for whom sentimentality - like romance, love and honesty - are luxuries they can rarely afford." (Sunday Times)
"[Leela's] rich character is sparked to vivid life in a highly coloured work of brilliant literary reportage." (Times)
"A gripping and intimate portrayal of the lives of the women who work in that industry. She manages to evoke shock, rage and laughter...this book is a moving testament to the girls like [Leela]." (Literary Review)
"Saved from doominess by [Faleiro's] striking empathy, sensitivity, and sharp ear." (Independent on Sunday)
'A small masterpiece - a sassy, sensitive and deeply moving account of one bar girl's journey spiralling down through the circles of hell that is Bombay's sex industry.' William Dalrymple, author of Nine LivesSee all Product description
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While targeted at a privileged readership, this book is not a moral treatise or a pedantic talking-to to its reader, and it is most certainly not a cheap invitation to gawk at the lives of others. I think it aims to be a space to put forward the story of these brave, beautiful young women-- because that is what they seek- a listener. And once you have listened to these girls, the question arises, out of your sheer admiration and empathy for their savage spirit of survival - is there anything you can possibly do for them but to change the way you look at them, the way you think about them and what you hope for them?
Falerio's dancing girls are inarticulate, unrefined and uneducated, yet I saw them as TRULY feminist. While they own their femininity, flaunt their sexuality and sell it with impunity, Falerio is able to contextualize this as the only kind of feminism available to these women- the kind that refuses to be patronized, the kind that navigates a grotesquely patriarchal and apathetic society without fear and with hope for something better. They are not simply feminist because patriarchy isn't working for them --.they seek to author their lives themselves. Yet, it is also the kind of feminism yearns to be loved, to be saved, to be safe and to be materially successful. This is useful and important to understand, if any of us are going to be proactive about the state of women in India, or anywhere for that matter.
This book is also about urban poverty and about derelict youth that looks to glamour and money as the only benchmarks for a successful life, which is to be gained at all costs. This book is about the toxicity of the 'Indian dream', which is essentially a lifestyle dream - one that most people in India have absolutely no access to, confounded by the fact that they don't come from the right family, don't know the right people, didn't go to the right schools, didn't pay off the right person, don't have the right skin color, etc. This book is about the fact that many bright, beautiful young things are set up, right from birth, to be screwed- literally and figuratively.
This book tells a tragic story,but in the midst of the tragedy, it documents a thriving will to rise above it all, a will that is alive even among the most wretched, one that is dangerous and self destructive, but it is a real resource and the most precious one we have in our country today.
This book had so much local dialect and Indian phrases, which weren't always translated that I felt it challenging to anyone without such knowledge already. Also, not having visited India, more explanation of the area and other things mentioned would have been useful and would have meant less guesswork.
The subject was fascinating and startling and will cause hours of interesting and heated discussion in our book group but if more appreciation could have been given to the fact that many readers wouldn't understand the Indian dialect and slang used throughout, it would get a better review.
They say you should never judge a book by its cover but when that cover carries endorsements by William Dalrymple, Kiran Desai and Gregory David Roberts, Indiaphiles will realise that this is something very special and readers should sit up and take notice. I read a lot of books about Indian and have clocked up a lot of non-fiction about the country recently and whilst it's almost always interesting, some of the books can be heavy going and can take some determination to get through. The only hard thing about 'Beautiful Thing' will be putting it down once you've started. For a difficult story in a bleak setting which deals with exploitation of many kinds it's a remarkably easy read that flows like a novel rather than non-fiction.
We learn that life in the dance bars gives the most beautiful and popular girls a wealth that's beyond the dreams of the prostitutes out in the slums and a relative respectability that enables them to be courted by clients who spoil them rotten in return (initially) for little more than a bit of flirting and hand holding. A girl can exploit a lovesick married man who's never known beauty and exoticism in his sedate arranged marriage every bit as much as she herself is being exploited. There's nothing modern about these arrangements - India has a long history of courtesan-ship - women providing entertainment and romantic distraction for men with money. Dancing girls are dancing girls - regardless of the time in history and the story is thus simultaneously very modern and somewhat timeless.
The money brings the girls little benefit though because they can only live in certain areas of the city where the neighbours will accept their career choices and they spend like crazy. One might suppose they'd earn to send money back to their families - until you remember what those families did to drive them to the city. When the looks start to fade and the reliance on cheap drugs to keep them slender takes away their looks, there's only one direction the girls will be heading and that's downhill towards running or working in the brothels. The top girls dream of an assignment in the Middle East, of being sent to Dubai to dance for wealthy Arabs and take on the status of `temporary wife' which allows their clients to stay within the letter, if not the spirit, of Sharia Law.
Beautiful Thing is not entirely and unrelentingly miserable. There are moments - few and far between - when the story lifts your spirits. There's the story of one of Leela's friends, a hijra (transsexual) whose parents realised their only way to keep the son they love was to accept his choices. He and his parents seem to represent the only family in the book who are not utterly dysfunctional. The bar dancers and the less fortunate hijras take great comfort from this tiny evidence that family relationships can work and love can conquer even the most extreme of life choices. The book is an eye-opener of the most fascinating type - a rare and privileged opportunity to take a tour of not just the demi-monde of Mumbai but, after the bars close down and times get hard, the real hard graft of the unsafe streets and brothels of the city.
I am absolutely awestruck by the research that went into this book which is Sonia Faleiro's first full length work of non-fiction. To throw yourself into the underworld, court the friendship of fascinating but dangerous people, follow them wherever they go without apparent concern for your safety, and to do all that as a young woman from out of town, is nothing short of remarkable. Even more so, to do it by choice makes me say "Hats off to Faleiro"- she's an astonishingly brave woman. I really hope that we don't have to wait five years for her next book. I fear that the market for non-fiction of this type outside India is surely rather small and the use of a lot of local language (often but not always) translated or explained, will alienate many readers, but I hope that enough will accept that it's a small price to pay for a book that's truly one of a kind.