Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay's Dance Bars

BOOK: Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay's Dance Bars
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Beautiful Thing

Beautiful Thing

Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars

SONIA FALEIRO

First published in Great Britain in 2011 by Canongate Books Ltd,
14 High Street, Edinburgh EH1 1TE

Copyright © Sonia Faleiro, 2010

The moral right of the author has been asserted

First published in India in 2010 in Hamish Hamilton by Penguin Books India

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available on
request from the British Library

ISBN 978 0 85786 169 6
eISBN 978 0 85786 172 6

Typeset in Sabon MT by Palimpsest Book Production Limited, Falkirk, Stirlingshire

This digital edition first published by Canongate in 2011

www.canongate.tv

For Ulrik

‘My story is the best you will ever hear.
The best, understand?
Now come close.
Closer!
Okay, ready?’

Contents

PART I: JANUARY 2005

‘CHALLENGE ME. ANY MAN, ANY TIME’

‘MANOHAR WANTED ME TO START MODELLING; HE SAID I WAS BOOTIFUL’

‘A BAR DANCER’S GAME IS TO ROB, TO FOOL A KUSTOMER’

‘MY MOTHER IS FAT. AND VERY, VERY SIMPLE’

‘I WANT A GOOD BREAK, YAAR. NO CUT-PIECE, SIDEY ROLE FOR ME’

‘TO BE HELD, EVEN IN THE ARMS OF A THIEF, IS WORTH SOMETHING’

‘I TOO LOVE YOU, JANU!’

‘I’M GOING TO SKIN YOUR FLESH AND THROW IT TO THE DOGS!’

‘THE LUCKIEST GIRL IN THE WORLD’

‘IF I FALL, WHO WILL ACCEPT MY OUTSTRETCHED HAND?’

‘I SELL WATERMELONS. WATERMELONS AND WATCHES’

PART II: SEPTEMBER 2005

‘NOW THAT YOU’RE UNEMPLOYED, HOW DO YOU FEEL?’

‘EVERYONE DRINKS! EVERYONE BEATS!’

‘IF ANYTHING HAPPENS, RUN LIKE SITA SHOULD HAVE RUN FROM RAVAN!’

‘THEY SHOWED ME. THEY SHOWED ME ALL NIGHT’

‘MOVE ON. STAY AWAY. LEAVE ME ALONE’

‘ONCE THESE RANDIS COME UPSTAIRS, THEIR
CHAMRI
IS MINE’

‘TELL ME, DO YOU SEE IT?’

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

PART I

January 2005

{ 1 }

‘Challenge me. Any man, any time’

L
eela told me she was beautiful. And as she assessed herself in front of a full-length mirror in a vest and the boxer shorts of the customer asleep on the bed beside her, I had no reason to disagree.

She wasn’t tall, she admitted. And her breasts were make-believe; her bra was ‘imported-padded’. Her shoulder-length hair was streaked butterscotch and her eyes, unlike those of any girl from her hometown of Meerut up north, were a velvety mauve you might see in the sky on a day that promised rain. If a customer gestured, ‘
Asli
?
Ya nakli
?’ Leela would pretend she didn’t know he was referring to the colour of her eyes and smirk, until the customer, flooded with nervous excitement, felt like he’d spied something he shouldn’t have—the creamy curve of her chocolate breast between the metal hooks of her sari blouse.

But Leela as Leela had been born was in there too, and it was this natural ‘booty’, ‘straight from the hand of God’, that she was most proud of. The other girls, she said, were ‘black, like Banglas’, and once they’d scrubbed their faces clean of the Dreamflower powder without which they wouldn’t leave home, they were no prettier than the beggar-monkeys snatching bananas out of the hands of devotees at the Hare Krishna temple down the street.

But not Leela. Stripped of everything, including her knicker bra, she was still a wonder, she said—not unlike the Taj Mahal of Agra city bathed in moonlight.

Although I couldn’t attest to all of the above, this much I will say: Leela’s face was a perfect heart, the sort style magazines use to demonstrate make-up most suitable for different face shapes. Her hands and feet were shapely and smooth and, like her complexion, of a dark gold. Her bare fingers were tipped with hard, square nails that came in use when the dance floor got too crowded for her liking. And knowing well the elegance of her little nose, Leela would flaunt it like an engagement ring. On certain evenings at the dance bar, when she needed to increase the padding of hundred rupee notes in her bra, Leela would engage only in silhouette.

But beauty wasn’t everything. What you wore made the difference between a fifty and a five hundred.

What you said to your customer when he feigned reluctance to spend another evening merely watching you was crucial. So was how you said it. Remember the wise words of the legendary courtesan Umrao? ‘No one knows how to love more than we do: to heave deep sighs; to burst into tears at the slightest pretext; to go without food for days on end; to threaten to take arsenic . . .’

Umrao was a beauty, but it was her epic
nakhra
, pretence, that made her legend. Leela understood this immutable fact of her profession and so she stayed sharp, ‘sharp,’ she said, ‘as a double-edged razor blade’.

‘Challenge me,’ she would say, ‘any man, any time. A hi-fi man,
your
kind of man. I’ll snap him up, like a fisherman does a pomfret.’

‘Challenge me,’ she would demand, and on evenings when she talked drunk and stepped funny, when the roots of her hair, black as her real eye colour, showed up disloyally under the twenty-watt bulbs of her 1 Bedroom-Hall-Kitchen flat (BHK), there would be something like hope in her eyes.

Leela asked for trouble because trouble was free.

‘Challenge!’ Snapping my bra strap.

‘Challenge!’ Pretending to burn me with the ever-present Gold
Flake between her fingers until I cried out, I believe you, Leela! You will win.

I wasn’t being conciliatory. Leela was the winning sort; the kind of girl you wanted by your side when you bought your stack of Friday morning lottery tickets outside Churchgate station.

She won against her lover Purshottam Shetty. The sharp-faced, short-legged, married father of two was her ‘husband’ and by any standard, even by those of the dance bar, she was his down low. And yet the value of what she received from him, Leela said, like a child insisting to her mother she could play in the rain and not catch cold, exceeded the value of what she gave up to be with him. She won against her mother, Apsara, though Leela’s tactics weren’t fair. ‘Apsara’ means ‘celestial nymph’, but Leela’s Apsara weighed over eighty kilograms and had a face like a cutting board. The orange stubs of her teeth stuck so far out they might have belonged to another face. When she spoke, the daughter said of her mother, mother sounded like an audio cassette someone had pressed the fast-forward button on. When she entered a room, Leela turned the screw, it was like night had descended. ‘You’re so fat!’ Leela would screech, caring neither that her joke, if it was that, was amusing, nor that her mother was not amused.

And Leela won against her father Manohar. But that was long after he started renting her out to the
ghodas
, the police, opposite her school. When they took her virginity from her, cursing that she’d knotted the drawstring of her salwar like it was a sack of
atta
she was saving for winter, all she saw were the peepal trees of the station compound. Their leaves had crowded together, it seemed to her, to gossip and wonder at her shame.

When I first met Leela, she was the highest-paid bar dancer in Night Lovers, the dance bar in which she worked, perhaps in all of Mira Road, the Bombay suburb in the crowded midst of
which she then lived. I was a reporter researching an article on Bombay’s bar dancers. The story wasn’t published because it wasn’t considered ‘newsworthy’. No one wanted to read about a community of marginalized dancing girls who had been around, it seemed, forever. And yet, I found myself making excuses to meet with Leela, again and again.

Let me try to explain why.

Leela was paid to dance for men. And I, and most people I knew, had seen bar dancers only in Bollywood films—not as the protagonist, but as background entertainment, one-dimensional and on the margins; manipulated and mistreated. Because of what I’d seen on film, Leela’s success and optimism, her magnetic vivacity, revealed so vividly when we first met, was to me a mysterious thing.

Soon enough, I discovered how truly unlike we were. Leela was a free spirit. She lived by her own moral code; she followed no religious text; and to a customer she might say ‘
gaand meri chaat
’, kiss my ass. She was clearly no saint. But her flaws made her human; even her inconsistencies were beguiling. It took me six months to find out where she’d really been born. She said she was forced to sleep with men for money, even though she made more money than she knew where to hide. She said her feelings for Shetty were the real thing and wondered why he didn’t reciprocate in the manner she wished—in the doting, hen-pecked style of the husband character played by Amitabh Bachchan in the film that made her cry all through,
Baghban
.

All Leela wanted, Leela confided with a Meena Kumari in
Pakeezah
sigh, was to fall in love and become a housewife and mother.

From Leela’s point of view, our friendship was an adventure. She was seven years younger than me, but only she could teach me what I wanted to know—the truth about a world that fascinated me, intimidated me, and as I came to know it better, left me feeling frustrated and hopeless.

When we first met, I lived in Bombay’s Manhattan, in the
southern tip of the city. Some people refer to South Bombay as ‘town’, a town within the city of Bombay, a place so special it deserves its own borders.

The British stamped South Bombay with regal buildings of limestone domes and sparkling white pillars. South Bombay has sweeping streets that get swept and ancient trees with fan-like leaves flurrying with pigeons. It has the Four Seasons, the Taj that was bombed, the Taj that wasn’t. It has sushi restaurants and cafés that bake thirty kinds of fudge brownies. It is owned by men in Cavalli and by women who favour Lanvin; couples who like to inform everyone they meet that
Vogue
magazine once referred to them as ‘Bombay’s beau monde’.

At the other end of this dazzling spectrum that defined not just South Bombay but India itself were the street kids in their barefooted, dust-smeared scruffiness selling pirated Gladwell, Rowling and Roy at one traffic light and cheekily begging a lift to the next.

Where Leela lived there were no domes, no pillars, no sushi restaurants. You didn’t carry a minaudiére, you carried a
thaili
, a plastic bag; if you were stylish, a pleather purse with chain links. There were restaurants and hotels, of course, but if you lived outside Mira Road it’s unlikely you would’ve heard of them, or that you would want to stop by.

The view was unusual—salt pans—but it was usual too—dinky cars stuttering over potholes, gangs of stray dogs chasing cyclists. Of residential buildings that resembled giant washing lines, their every window, every balcony enclosed by intricate grillwork, giving these buildings the appearance of prisons, and their occupants, when they peered through, appeared imprisoned.

Despite the apparent difference in our worlds, Leela had no curiosity about me. She once asked how much I earned and whether I ‘went’ with ‘boys’ and, if so, how much they earned. But she would never know much of my life outside of hers; she wouldn’t even know where I lived. Leela didn’t know, because Leela didn’t listen. Leela wanted only to be heard. And the best
way to accomplish that, she knew, was not to change the subject if the subject was her.

BOOK: Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay's Dance Bars
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