If ever I was a man looking for a nymph to satiate my carnal desires I would have looked for Leela. She is all that a man would want from a woman. Incredibly sensuous, feisty and fiery in every way, a go getter, a no nonsense bar dancer who titillates and makes you fall in love with her in a jiffy!
Yes, Leela is a bar dancer. And I am surprised that I found myself drawn to Leela and her story. Not just as a reader or a former television producer looking for great real stories, but as a woman. I must admit that at some level I wanted to be like Leela. Not for Leela’s past or the future that she heads to at the end of the book, but the present that the author so brilliantly portrays.
Sonia Faleiro was a reporter in search of a story when she met Leela – a beautiful and charismatic 19 year old bar dancer with a story to tell. And it is in the quest for a story that Sonia gets drawn into the world of bar dancers. A world of gorgeous women, stories filled with sex, incest, crime, passion, gangsters, pimps, eunuchs, sex workers and politicians.
When Sonia meets Leela she is 19 years old and is the highest paid bar dancer at Night Lovers in Mumbai. She tells the author, “Challenge me…any man, any time. A hi-fi man, your kind of a man. I’ll snap him up , like a fisherman does a pomfret.” She has a lover in the owner of the bar Purushottam Shetty and nurses a desire of being the legitimate consort to her lover. But she knows that he would never leave his family for her.
With Sonia, Leela takes you into the sordid world of bar dancers, women who were considered higher than sex workers, but then the side lines often merged. Some of the accounts of bar dancers shocked me. For instance, the story of the woman who was raped by her own son. Most of the stories had the same beginning. Of women exploited at the hands of their families, especially fathers and painful childhood. Leela who ran away from home at 13 makes Mumbai her home. She demands a certain amount of money, has an independence that marriage and domesticity would never have given her. It also becomes a reason why she chooses to be exploited by her family still, but is reluctant to break away completely. She tolerates her mother who lives off Leela’s earnings, but when she leaves her behind the mother quite predictably opens up her own brothel for her sustenance.
Leela takes you into the world of bar dancers, where disease, love, dreams, disappointment, fear and passion cohabit. The narrative flows seamlessly and you are pulled into the quagmire of storytelling where you have to remind yourself that what you are reading is a piece of non-fiction. It’s real. The stories are real. The shock is real.
The language is real too. The author hasn’t refrained from putting colourful profanities in the dialogues, much like they would be in real life. Equally interesting are particular nuances in dialect, for instance ‘bijniss’, ‘kalass’ and ‘kustomer’, these are words that are to be pronounced in a certain way. Even writing them as ‘business’, ‘class’ and ‘customer’ won’t have the same effect.
Pretty early in life Leela decides that “..if this was going to keep happening to me, then at least I should profit from it, I should eat from it.” And she does exactly that. Ferociously independent Leela however is aware that she is liberated in a different sense of the word. Leela tells Sonia, “When you look at my life, don’t look at it beside yours… she implores. “Look at it beside the life of my mother and her mother and my sisters-in-law who have to take permission to walk down the road.”
Leela’s fairly tale life is of course snubbed at the end. The dance bars close down and Leela meanders into prostitution. She finds her way to Dubai as a gangster’s moll and Sonia loses her in the melee of humanity.
And just like her I wanted to find her. To seek her out of her present and know that she is fine. That her spirit isn’t lost. That she hasn’t given up.
I was sad to finish the book, for there was no closure here. I’ll recommend it highly, as a piece of riveting journalistic story telling Beautiful Thing will not disappoint you.