Beautiful Thing, By Sonia Faleiro

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The Independent Culture

Leela has velvety mauve-coloured eyes, butterscotch streaked hair and considers herself "a wonder not unlike the Taj Mahal of Agra city bathed in moonlight". Like the Taj Mahal, people pay to look at her beauty - but the architecture of this bar dancer's life is far more uncertain. In this tour de force of heartrending reportage, Sonia Faleiro shows the ugly brutality which has torn away the foundations of so many lives, revealing the core of a rotten societal infrastructure.

Leela's shocking story is at the heart of this excellent investigative study of Bombay's dance bars, which blends rigorous journalistic research with the narrative skills of a novelist. Faleiro depicts effects as well as excavating causes, painting a vivid portrait of the daily – and nightly – life of a dancer, as well as the factors leading Leela into that life in the first place, and showing why Bombay's dance bars were wiped out. With tight focus and pacing, she is adept at conjuring the brutal backstory of these lives. Here are those who are betrayed by the very people who are supposed to protect them, raped by parents and police, forsaken by care-givers and the authorities.

Leela arrives in Bombay as a poor, barely educated runaway, fleeing a horrific family life. But, for all its advantages, the city "could be toxic, no less than an open wound". It is this woundedness that Faleiro unflinchingly X-rays. Her talent for depicting lives lived in extremities of suffering was evident in her memorable story in the anthology Aids Sutra. Her first novel, The Girl, had a suicide at its heart.

Faleiro offers a searing depiction of trauma: "the extreme nature of these experiences - adult, violent, sexual and highly stressful - created a lonely and lasting trauma that made bar dancers constantly vulnerable". While it is difficult for the dancers to deal with their managers, boyfriends and customers in their own circle, the judgment of outsiders amplifies their pain.

Beautiful Thing devastatingly shows how a human being can be objectified. Faleiro explores what it means to be human at all, and the line between an inanimate object and a sentient human being in such pain that they would paradoxically wound their own selves to escape it. Leela drinks when she feels thwarted and, when the euphoria dies down, cuts herself. "Above all, the cutting was an expression of the girls' fear of what would happen to them if they didn't marry".

When the girls are "frustrated with the limited possibilities of their lives" in Bombay's Mira Road, they escape to the red-light district of Kamathipura; but escape in this world only leads to further forms of entrapment. Faleiro compassionately captures the yearning for a more humane existence and the resilience of the human spirit. Among these lives lived on the margins of society, voices usually unheard echo defiantly.