Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay Dance Bars by Sonia Faleiro is both an intimate look into one dancer's life and a sociological look at a particular time in India. Through the voice of Leela, a dancer in one of the many bars that were once common in some areas of India, the reader is taken on a relentless journey of desperate hope and a relentless pursuit of happiness.
Through Faleiro's narrative, Leela's story gradually unfolds, revealing a young woman who is impossible to like but manages to inspire a deep compassion. Leela's life at first seems narcissistic and self-destructive but, as the story of her childhood begins to weave itself into her present choicse, it's impossible not to appreciate the simple truth: Leela is a product of her environment and, whatever potential she might hagve realized in a different circumstance, will never be realized. If she is manipulative, it is obviously rooted in a survival instinct forced upon her because of her childhood. Her parents are pragmatic at the expense of Leela's purity and hvae no qualms in using and abusing her to their own ends.
The political environment defines Leela's life and morality from the start and when one politician blames the dance bars for being an immoral entity whitin an otherwise moral society. Shutting down the bars results in leaving the dancers without much recourse, for they are uneducated and untrained to do anything but prostitute themselves. And when a young girl is taught from childhood that her sole purpose is to serve as a sexual object the inevitability of her story's end is nonetheless heartbreaking.
Difficulat to read at times becuase it is so heartbreaking, Leela's story is beautifully and evocatively told by Faleiro. The prose is sometimes poetic and her descriptions are vivid, so much so that they etch themselves on the heart. She generously sprinkles the story with Hindu words, adding a flavor all their own without ever becoming obtrusive. Every word, every story, Faleiro shares, and Leela's nightmarish childhood is not unique in the world of the dance bars, makes it impossible for the reader to judge Leela or any of the other dancers.
Even if one does not like Leela, she inspires a sympathy. Her story is left unfinished but the reader knows how it will end, how it must end. Leela's is a cautionary tale of what happens in a society where women and girls are not given the same but Leela herself wouldn't give a flip if the reader felt pity. To do so, she would have to be vulnerable enough to feel the full horror of her childhood and noboy reading this novel could judge her for choosing not to do so. After all, the reader can close the book at any time, walk away and forget what happened to Leela and continues to happy to children. As painful and beautiful as this book is, it is easy to want to forget what it has to say.