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Beautiful Thing, By Sonia Faleiro

Their bodies are temples– desecrated

Before Leela hit her teens, her father sold her virginity to the police in revenge for her refusal to make porn movies.

At 13, Leela escaped to the glittering promise of Bombay, where a kind woman offered to help; the woman turned out to be a brothel madam who imprisoned orphans and forced them to turn tricks, her prison secured by threats of disfiguring acid. Leela's salvation, finally, was a job as a bar dancer, where she attained the power and money she craved.

The journalist Sonia Faleiro's book, Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay's Dance Bars, is unbearably bleak at times, but it is saved from doominess by her striking empathy, sensitivity, and sharp ear.

Falairo befriended Leela and entered her story, one in which slum women are commodities; slaves to their only guaranteed asset. There is a hierachy in this shady netherworld: dancers feel superior to street prostitutes and the "silent bar" waiters who flog hand-jobs with the drinks. Yet dancers, too, sleep with customers. The difference is that their pay is in the form of gifts, and accompanied by melodramatic charades of wooing and "love".

It is not only women who are exploited. A world of transvestite and transsexual (hijra) prostitution exists, shadowed by the high mortality rate of shoddy castrations, and constant harassment and violence. Owners of establishments, too, are milked, having to pay bribes to police and protection money to gangsters. Even the customers can be entrapped, beaten, coerced into menial slavery or contract killing.

Individual details are viscerally shocking. Every dancer in Leela's building was raped or sold by relatives. A colleague was raped by her father; toiling at the bar, she hoped to build her sons a better life, but the eldest started raping her too. When she became tearful recounting her experiences, the other dancers sneered at her for "being bore".

Faleiro leavens the brutality with humour: the bitchy asides ("chapatti chested") made by the workers show their acid tongues and fast brains, and Faleiro illustrates slapstick comic moments vividly: "an energetic hijra in pearls fell through the floor during sex with a little man in striped shorts". And Leela's feline disdain for her mother is described as fear of catching her "fattiness and simple-type".

Inevitably, Leela's confidence and feeling of being in control were shown to be built on quicksand. Not only were girls dispensable but a political decision to close dance bars drove thousands into more dangerous sex trading. And the ghost of HIV was never far away, a devastating blow to the girls' imagined invincibility.

We in the West should not feel smug – how can we when a survey finds that more working-class girls aspire to be glamour models than teachers? But this book still left me angry that a country to whom we pay millions in aid puts space programmes ahead of the survival of large tranches of its people.

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