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The Striver

LEELA, THE NINETEEN-YEAR-OLD dancer at the center of Sonia Faleiro’s book about Bombay’s sex industry, conforms to several stereotypes about courtesans: she is cunning but naïve, vulgar but slyly confident of her beauty, independent and yet crushingly alone. But the intensity and care with which Faleiro, a remarkably talented Indian reporter, observes Leela allows her subject to inhabit, to defy, and ultimately to transcend these clichés, and to depict her, instead, as an intriguing bundle of contradictions. Leela survives by catering—often with painful perkiness—to others’ needs. But her motto is also “Kustomer is Cunt.”

To think of India’s rapidly expanding middle class is to conjure telemarketers and offshore I.T. consultants, the sober torchbearers of the world’s largest capitalist democracy. Faleiro’s unusual accomplishment in Beautiful Thing is to take a foul-mouthed dancer who sells sex outside a bar at her own discretion and present her as a flourishing, if often distressed, member of the same striving group. The book is both a lament for Bombay’s exploited beautiful things and a celebration of their steely independence. As such, it is a profoundly original and surprising book.

Leela, her siblings, and their mother were “united,” we learn early on, in their fear of Leela’s alcoholic father. Beating is common. When Leela enters puberty, her father ushers in two policemen to rape her. And: “Again next month, and then the month after, regular as schoolwork.” Rather than break her, Leela’s experiences provide her with admirable spunk. (At one point, making “a fucking sign with her fist,” she tells Faleiro that men are “chutiyas”—bastards, roughly.) At thirteen, she flees her home in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, taking a train to Bombay.

To Leela’s dismay, Bombay is not the monsoon-kissed Bollywood set she had imagined it to be. Instead, the city smells “of shit.” She wonders where Amitabh Bachchan, the industry’s most famous actor, resides; whether it is true that in Bombay “women drank side by side with men”? Before she begins allowing men to grope her for a fixed sum, her breasts are “squeezed,” writes Faleiro, “like oranges for juice by half a dozen hands.” Coaxed into conversation by a brothel madam and subsequently held hostage, Leela is forced to sleep with several customers. She jumps out of one of the brothel’s windows, and eventually makes her way to Night Lovers, the dance bar that she had set out to find upon leaving home. When Faleiro begins shadowing Leela (a project that unfolded over five years), Leela is nineteen and an experienced bar dancer.

Amid this account of Leela’s life, her personality emerges: she is agile, strong-willed, fickle, gutsy, unpredictable—but also, endearingly, a hopeless romantic. Despite the grind of her life at Night Lovers, she dreams of falling in love and settling into a stable marriage. Marriage becomes the Great Unattainable Thing, a stark contrast to the predatory relations that color most of her interactions with the opposite sex. “Kustomers follow single girls home,” Leela says. “And if she doesn’t let them in, they threaten to tell the police, even her neighbors, what she is.” Still, the hope of romance persists. “To be held, even in the arms of a thief, is worth something,” her best friend muses.

As Leela’s life at Night Lovers veers from excitement to frustration, along comes her mother, Apsara—an unannounced, talkative, conspiracy-minded visitor. The mother-daughter relationship plays out in the confines of Leela’s small flat, and this is where the book most comes to life. When Faleiro first meets Apsara, she is “scratching her scalp with a toothpick.” She immediately asks Faleiro: “What is your job? How much do they pay you?” A monologue from Leela is worth quoting at length for its stream-of-consciousness honesty about her mother:

Since I could see, I saw my father beating my mother. I didn’t know A-B-C, but I knew what it meant when Manohar threw aside his plate. That’s why I ran away. Because he abused her. Once he hit her so hard she fainted. And because she didn’t say No, he abused me; and I knew that if I stayed on, if I didn’t say No, one day he would do the same to my children. Now I see her sons have inherited this quality from their father—they think women were created by God to serve men like them. And that’s what makes me so angry; that she can see what they think of her, she can see it because I can see it and neither of us is blind. And yet she supports them. She loves them. She loves them more than she loves me. But why? Why when I’m the successful one, the one who works, who feeds her, who clothes her, who asks if she has taken her medicine? Why when I’m the one who had the courage to leave for the city? When I’m the one who became a success and made money, makes money! Money like a man! No, no, more than a man! I’ll tell you why. Because they’re boys. And I’m a girl. Nothing but a girl. The value of a boy is twice that of a girl—isn’t it so mummy, even if the boy is useless.

If Leela’s pain is obvious, so is her clear-sighted assessment. The question she asks her mother is less a threat than plainspoken articulation of reality: being a woman is a liability—financial and otherwise. It is Leela’s triumph that she disproves this terrible hypothesis.

Apsara challenges Leela, combining her criticism with disingenuous claims of ignorance. “What do I know?” she says. “I’m an illiterate village woman. Did I even see your father’s face before I married him?” In a book devoid of authorial comment, it is here that Faleiro almost ventures an opinion. Apsara hides behind the pretense of “illiteracy” to absolve herself of blame; she does nothing, ever, to help Leela. But the larger tragedy is not the maternal negligence. It is that sex workers like Leela and her friends (several of whom have been raped by family members) see their work as a refuge from the violence they experienced at home. At least the ebb and flow of their work-related suffering is kinder, less predictable.

As compelling as the plot points of Leela’s life are, the true strength of Beautiful Thing lies elsewhere—in its surprising examination of a particular corner of India’s middle class and its unique mode of narration. This exciting feature—its fast-paced, colloquial dialogue—also gives rise to minor drawbacks. Hindi words and phrases are often used without explanation. Faleiro’s especially amusing flourishes—Leela rouses a sleeping customer by shrieking “hensum! Ai, hensum!,” will be lost on American readers unable to make quick linguistic leaps. (“Hensum” means “handsome.”)

The celebration of slanginess is generally successful, permeating the entire book with a salty charm: her pronunciation of certain words (“business,” for example, is always “bijniss”) and her punch-in-the-gut cusses will register with those familiar with Bollywood. (Don’t all its villains say “bijniss”?) Moreover, Faleiro’s recurring use of colloquial Indian forces the reader to adapt to the book’s conventions—one has no choice but to focus and follow along—while providing a deeper look at who Leela really is. Dropped into the text, frequently undecoded, Leela’s pronunciations become gem-like clues that evoke India’s darkly glittering underworld. 

Beautiful Thing is not panoramic in its examination of contemporary Indian life; events are analyzed exclusively through the prism of Leela’s life. As a result, we get brief sketches—of the evolution of dance bars in the state of Maharashtra, of the history of Bombay’s oldest red-light district, of the development of dance bars into places where sex is implicitly for sale. The book’s unwillingness to broaden its scope—to provide hard statistics of other women in Leela’s position, for example—is in fact its strength. The focus on Leela illuminates, with humor and zest, the troubles and idiosyncrasies of a particular stratum of middle-class India. Like most young professionals, Leela is a zealous appraiser with a keen idea of her own self-worth and sharply delineated likes and dislikes. She clothes herself in designer wear, surrounds herself with branded appliances (an LG TV, a Kelvinator fridge), and gorges on good food. Lest we think this behavior pathetic, Faleiro tenderly details how much satisfaction Leela derives from her “imitation D&G shades” and “panties in pastel colors.” She compensates for the control she has relinquished elsewhere by enjoying her financial independence.

Faleiro’s book is the third this year that focuses on India and ironically uses the word “beautiful” in its title. Siddharta Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned chronicled a country in transition, focusing in particular on the venality of its capitalist elites; Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers tore the curtain separating toxic life in the slums from the healthy bustle of city life. The critical glare in Beautiful Thing is trained on the second, not the first, word. Toward the end of the book, Leela makes plans to go to Dubai—a black hole for those without a return-ticket, we are warned by an agent who hires dancers. When Faleiro questions Leela on the wisdom of her ticketless condition, Leela turns the question back on the reporter, asking her if she sees traces of fear in Leela’s face. Faleiro’s response, happily, is not in the affirmative. Leela is the playful, chattering master of her own fragile universe.

Mira Sethi is a writer living in Pakistan.