Beautiful Thing: Portrait of a Bombay Bar Dancer.
Can you tell us a little about your book Beautiful Thing?
Beautiful Thing is a work of non-fiction. It’s the story of a young girl called Leela who runs away from home after being prostituted by her father and reaches Bombay determined to build a new life for herself. She’s only thirteen when she gets a job as a bar dancer but because of her beauty and vivacity very quickly becomes popular, earning plenty of money and living the lifestyle of her dreams. When I met Leela in 2005, she was nineteen and hopeful that her affair with her boss, a man who was already married and had children, would turn into something more permanent. But very soon after, the government cracked down on dance bars, banning them on the grounds that they encouraged immorality, corrupted the youth and encouraged crime, essentially forcing Leela and about 75,000 young women like her out of work and onto the streets.
Leela’s story is about one woman’s fight to turn her life around, but it’s also the story of callous government and the conflict between different standards of morality, and about how we as a society treat our most vulnerable. It’s the story also of Bombay, a city I lived in for seven years and that I love, but which can be a pitiless place for those without status, money, or powerful connections.
How did you meet Leela, and what inspired you to start writing about bar dancers in Bombay?
I was introduced to Leela by a source. The man in question was a dance bar owner and I’d spoken to him after watching a news report on the city’s dance bars. There’ve been dance bars in Bombay since the 1970s and watching the report I realized how little I, and most people, knew about them. They’re a fascinating subculture, a microcosm of Bombay with a unique twist on spoken language, with a strict hierarchy and rules about social behaviour, with close connections to the world of crime, cops and politicians. There’s a reason why Bollywood films tend to feature bar dancers, although almost always in minor roles, or situate scenes in dance bars.
I wanted to know more about the world of Bombay’s dance bars and Leela was the perfect guide. She was very smart, and unlike any bar dancer I would meet, keenly aware of how people both in her world and the wider world perceived her. She had a great deal of empathy and although she’d suffered a tremendous amount she approached life with humour, goodwill and optimism. I’d originally wanted to write a long profile of Leela, but only a few months after we met the government ordered dance bars closed and I was there watching as Leela’s life started to unravel. It was simply devastating, and I knew the violence of the ban had to be chronicled.
Beautiful Thing paints a vivid and dramatic picture of Mira Road in Bombay. Were you surprised or shocked by the things you encountered in Leela’s life?
I was, even though I’d been a reporter for over ten years and spent much of that time reporting on marginalized communities. The hardest thing to see, however, was how governmental and institutional disregard for vulnerable people can have immediate and catastrophic long-term consequences not just on the people targeted but also on their dependants. For example, most of the bar dancers I met with had to take their children out of school after the ban. And these children, many of whom were the first generation in their family to receive an education, were sent back to the village they came from and either put to work in the fields or allowed to lie around frittering their life. So the ban didn’t just devastate a group of young women, it devastated an ecosystem of hundreds of thousands of people who depended on the women to pay for their education or their rent or food—to essentially to help them survive. The ban took a community of people who were self-sufficient and destroyed them.
You spent a lot of time with Leela researching Beautiful Thing. How did you find writing about someone who you had got to know so well? Was it ever confronting or challenging, and did you ever feel that you were at risk of betraying Leela’s confidence?
It isn’t easy writing about someone you’ve known intimately. But that’s my job and Leela was aware that she’d be written about in a particular manner—that I would write about her relationship with her parents and her best friend, talk about her lover, and so on. It was necessary to tell the whole story as it happened not only for the sake of the story but also for Leela’s sake: Leela chose not to be a victim and it was important for people to see that and respect it and the only way they could access that side of her was through the detail and intimacy of the particular story-like narrative in which Beautiful Thing is written.
Do you still keep in touch with Leela and do you know what her life is like now?
I’m not in touch with Leela. Readers of the book will know what I mean when I say ours was a one-sided relationship and the moment I was unable to pursue Leela we lost touch.
What is the situation for bar dancers in Bombay currently? Has the scene changed dramatically since the introduction of the new laws?
The Supreme Court has yet to return a decision on the ban, so it’s still in place, which means that while bars remain open they’re no longer known as ‘dance bars’ and cannot employ women to dance. Some bars found that they couldn’t attract sufficient customers without dancers and they were forced to shut. Others carried on, a small number employing former bar dancers as hostesses, others starting what is known as ‘orchestra service’, which basically means a live band. The ban hit not just the women but also the management of the bars, and worse, it created instability and gave momentum to the already-prevalent fear that no matter how hard some people work someone else would always control their future. The almost immediate destitution and the downward spiral in the quality of the bar dancers’ lives was obvious in 2005 itself, but I think the impact on the spirit of the city, on the confidence of its most vulnerable people, will be seen for a while.
What advice would you give to aspiring non-fiction writers for interviewing people, and writing the story of someone they spend a lot of time with and get to know well?
I think it’s important to pursue a story for as long as you can, as many years really, to understand your subject. For me I got to the point where people would say to me, ‘we really have nothing more to tell you, go home, get a life.’ So I was pretty persistent! Of course you have to draw a line—you can’t research one story forever—but I’d caution about hurrying because that can lead to incomplete knowledge. It’s also important to keep reminding yourself of your job as a reporter and writer, and to remain clear eyed and objective. There’s place for sentimentality in life but not necessarily in non-fiction.
You’re a novelist, non-fiction writer and journalist, are you writing another book at the moment, and is it another work of non-fiction?
I won’t get into details at the moment, but I’m working on another book of non-fiction.
Beautiful Thing is available in all good bookstores. You can purchase it in both print and ebook format.