I went to a dance bar in Bangalore a few years ago, having harassed my friend Vijay into taking me along for a look. The scene was booming then, in the wake of a crackdown in Bombay. But what confronted us was a surprise after all the lurid press reports. Fully dressed women, most in Indian outfits but a few of the racier ones in t-shirts and jeans, danced to Bollywood numbers as we menfolk clung to the walls quaffing beers and nibbling peanuts.
For 100 rupees a dancer would come in closer to your table for one number. A paunchy man with the look of a respectably married bureaucrat lumbered through filmi dance routines, showering 50-rupee notes on the head of his chosen one. A fellow in polyester flares did the same but with tenners. Security guards stood in every corner to ensure that no touching took place, and to sweep up the takings.
Sonia Faleiro‘s brilliant book explores the other side of this scene. The journalist befriends Leela, who fled sexual abuse in Meerut to arrive in Bombay at the age of 13. She follows her across the city to brothels, hijra parties, slums and bars, through the underbelly of a metropolis that seems to run on a combustible mixture of sex, drugs, crime and cash. We meet Leela’s only friend, the brittle and beautiful Priya, her maddening mother, and her lovers, if that is the right word. The dancers are well paid, but their prospects are bleak. A few years in the Night Lovers bar, and the brothel looms.
About three quarters of the way through the book, reality drops a gear and the story takes on the urgency of an over-revving SUV on the road to Lonavla. The year is 2005, sanctimonious politicians are closing the bars and thousands of women are suddenly on the streets. Within weeks, Leela’s and Priya’s lives have turned into a nightmare. It’s edge-of-the-seat stuff, harrowing drama reclaimed from tragedy by a couple of ironic twists.
Bubbling through all of this is the rhythm of Bombay brothel patois, effortlessly conjured by Faleiro with Hindi-infused git pit. It forms the beat that drives the story onward. That, and fearless, foul-mouthed, cocky, chain-smoking, outrageously funny Leela. ‘Leela asked for trouble because trouble was free,’ writes Faleiro. ‘..only she could teach me what I wanted to know – the truth about a world that fascinated me, intimidated me, and as I came to know it better, left me feeling frustrated and hopeless.’