NEW DELHI (Reuters) - A television report on Mumbai’s dance bars and the controversy over whether they should be banned or not first piqued Sonia Faliero’s interest in the vast network of bars in India’s financial hub and the women who worked there.
But the more she learned the more intrigued she became by the complicated world she found in Mumbai, once known as Bombay.
A 2005 ban on the dance bars — where relatively well-clothed women perform to Bollywood or Indian pop songs — set off a firestorm about whether the dancers were exploited or simply women seeking a dignified way out of poverty.
The Goa-born Faliero, an award-winning journalist, uses the life of one dancer, 19-year-old Leela, as a way into this underworld in “Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars,” released earlier this month.
Faliero, currently based in San Francisco, told Reuters that she felt drawn to people on the margins of society and that how they were treated was likely to determine the future of India.
Q. What sparked the idea for this book?
A. I was interested in the possibilities, and later intrigued by the complex, layered, and hierarchical subculture that is the world of Bombay’s dance bars, a world that is occupied not just by bar dancers and bar owners but by cops and gangsters, by politicians and madams, and in its myriad shades perfectly encapsulates the concept of Bombay noir.
Q. Why the name “Beautiful Thing?” Does it refer to the profession or the beautiful countenance of bar girls?
A. Both. Leela was certainly beautiful, fulfilling conventional ideas of what we consider attractive in our society. But her beauty was also a commodity and a currency that she had to barter for her survival.
Q. What side of the law are you with on the issue of dance bars - the controversial 2005 ban?
A. The ban was not merely a political act motivated by so-called social concerns for public morality and youth safety. It was an act of violence that pushed 75,000 women in a situation of destitution and degradation, one in which few had a choice but to become sex workers.
It was implemented to raise the public profile of the politicians involved, and is a sad comment on not just our poor choices on who we choose to represent us politically and to make choices for us, but for our inability to recognize the malfeasance of such political action, and to demand an end to it.
Q. How many bar girls did you meet? How did you encourage them to speak?
A. Hundreds. They spoke to me because as a reporter I have developed a reputation for being upfront and honest, and because as a person I’m respectful and non judgmental. I’m also low maintenance, and have endless amounts of time to invest in the pursuit of my subjects whether at day or night, in the city or the suburbs, in brothels or dance bars.
Q. What were the challenges that you had to put up with while researching the book?
A. Establish trust, certainly, because I was dealing with young women who had suffered betrayal at the hands of those closest to them; family members who should have protected them for example, and who had instead sold them into the dance bar. However, once Leela honored me with her trust, her family and friends were quick to follow. I hope this story has done them justice.
Q. You have earlier written another book, “The Girl.” And, you have written anthologies which are an eclectic mix of stark, contemporary and non-serious issues. How would you draw an analogy, if any, between your earlier works and this work of non-fiction?
A. I write of what I see. And it’s true that I, more than most other people, am drawn to the margins of our society and to the stories of those people who inhabit these spaces.
I believe these people are the majority, that people like you and me are the minority, and I believe that unless we understand them, and as importantly understand how we treat them, than we’re unlikely to understand who we are as Indians and where our future lies.
Q. What is the image of the protagonist Leela that you want most readers to retain in their mind after finishing the book?
A. Leela isn’t just a survivor; she’s a winner. She can take any situation thrown her way and extract the best from it. I want people not just to admire her for these qualities, but to recognize her admirable courage and resilience. We need more women like Leela in our world, but we also need more people willing to see Leela’s potential and to help her become her best possible self.
Editing by Elaine Lies