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Sonia Faleiro’s ‘Beautiful Thing’ is a vivid narrative of Mumbai’s bar dancers and how the ban of 2005 imperilled their livelihood.

In conversation with Beautiful Thing author Sonia Faleiro

When you meet Sonia Faleiro, it is a little hard to imagine this dainty young girl sitting in Mumbai’s neon lit brothels and dance bars. And yet for three years she spent nearly every waking moment speaking with bar dancers, bar owners, pimps and sex workers for her book Beautiful Thing. Laden with emotions—grief, sadness, anger and lots of humour, Beautiful Thing offers a glimpse into the lives of bar dancers between January and September 2005 when a ban put their livelihood in peril. And that’s when Sonia met Leela, a striking, firebrand bar dancer whose story forms the core of this intimate, engaging book. In the course of her research, Sonia realised one of the most important lessons in surviving Mumbai as a writer—that naivet´e doesn’t help in a city like this; tough people open up only to those who mirror that imperturbable quality.

Q. How did Beautiful Thing change your perception of Mumbai?

A. I love Mumbai. I have stayed there for nearly seven years. It is one city where non-mainstream communities are visible everywhere, which is not possible in a city like Delhi. You could be a Bollywood superstar living in a posh Juhu locality, and yet marginalised communities will be around that space as well. We have to realise that it is not only that they are visible to us, but that we are also extremely visible to them. They understand what we have and what they have or don’t have, and that makes the scenario all the more poignant. I realised this when I started interacting with bar dancers. To me, the devastation after the ban was so sudden, so immediate. A bar dancer I had met only three days ago had nothing to live on except tea. It made me realise that too much is expected of people in Mumbai in the name of the ‘spirit of the city’ to move on no matter what. A citizen can only do so much, especially if that citizen has been born without rights in a state of marginalisation.

We all admire Mumbai—it is a city where a nobody can become a somebody. But the truth is that in these marginalised communities, often a nobody stays a nobody.

Q. When one reads the book, you come across as one of its integral characters and not merely a voice telling someone else’s story.

A. I had to be present in the narrative. It was my interest in Leela that allowed her to trust me and take me to a world that not many have access to. Books like these do require considerable emotional investment by the writer, but sometimes one needs to edit oneself out. This is Leela’s story told by her through me. I have full faith that my readers will come to the right conclusion on their own.

Q. Mumbai’s bar dancers have always been present in books/films as caricatures, secondary characters to add a bit of colour. Was no attempt like this made in the past?

A. You need to have a lot of patience and time to gain their trust. And that means you need to be a great listener and be objective about things. They have this great urge to talk to someone, share their stories, but only if they can trust you. Leela accepted me the way I presented myself only because she knew that I accepted her. All these collective experiences changed my life. You can live all your life in a world assigned to you or choose to extend yourself to other worlds that are touching yours. I chose to extend myself and felt that my life changed for the better because of that. We have to realise one thing—you and I are the minority community in this city. It is not possible to progress or grow if you don’t understand how the greater part of the country lives.

Q. Your books are not only about the characters but about the cities they dwell in as well. Your previous book, The Girl, was as much about Goa as the three protagonists. Was that a natural inclusion or a deliberate decision?

A. The Girl was a very Goa specific story, and since I am Goan, there was bound to be a lot about the place in the narrative. In Mumbai, lives are lived openly on the streets. People cook, wash, rest on the street itself. It is fascinating to watch these open lives and write about them. This city has a very powerful personality. Some cities force you to shrink yourself into a cocoon; Mumbai doesn’t do that. And inevitably that facet seeps into whatever you write.

Q. So what’s next?

A. I am working on yet another non-fiction narrative. It is going to be about the impact of sustained and long term violence on the youth. In India, we face violence on a daily basis—a pinch, a shove. These small acts of violence can often grow into a full-fledged act. I am interested in finding out how this impacts people, especially children.