Beautiful Thing by Sonia Faleiro (thoughts)
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m interested in reading more nonfiction by non-US/UK authors, so when I saw Beautiful Thing by Indian journalist Sonia Faleiro available on Netgalley, I had to request it! While doing research for a story, Faleiro got to know Leela, one of the women working in the ‘dance clubs’ of Mumbai; from her description, these dance clubs sound similar to what in the US we call strip clubs. After the assignment, Faleiro kept up her relationship with the dancer; this book is a profile of her life and environment. Thus, it looks at the dance clubs, and the lives of lower-class Indian sex workers, through the narrow prism of one dancer and her friends and family. This focused approach is the book’s strength as well as weakness. On the one hand, Faleiro presents Leela’s past and present without filtering, so that the reader can really get to know her. This definitely succeeds in putting a personal face on what kind be a painful topic to think about, and it might draw in readers who would other shy away from such depressing subject matter. Faleiro also does an admirable job of keeping her own judgements out of it; even when she’s describing pimps or ‘madams’ or the customers, she keeps the narrative straight-forward (far more than I could do). And her descriptive powers are considerable: I felt like I was right there with her.
However, I kept expecting that at some point the lens would draw back, and Faleiro would look at the big picture. This never happens, and the broader issue of how women are portrayed/treated in various Indian cultures never gets brought up. Also, there was a troubling amount of direct dialogue/speech for a book that includes an afterward saying that Faleiro has combined identities/changed specifics to protect those involved. She never explains if she had a tape recorder on her during all of the conversations, and if not how she managed to recreate the dialogue. This created a certain amount of skepticism in me as a reader.
So, I would recommend this, but not without a few reservations. I’m glad that I read it, but I don’t think it lives up to the blurbs it’s received. It’s really more of a memoir than a piece of investigative journalism, which is probably why I didn’t love it. I know many readers who enjoy memoirs more than straight-up nonfiction, and for them it might be a good introduction to an important topic. On a more superficial note, the US publishers have chosen one of the most offensive covers I’ve ever seen. For a book about disenfranchised women who are treated as nothing more than sex objects, they’ve gone with a photograph of a young, slender, brown-skinned naked woman’s body, from mid-thigh to mid rib cage, with what looks like red laser lights ribboning across her body. I think that’s shameful. I’ve gone with the less-objectifying UK cover, which at least shows a woman’s face instead of torso.
Suggested Companion Reads
- The Dancing Girls of Lahore by Louise Brown (I never blogged about this account by a British scholar of her time living in Lahore and studying the dancing girls there, but it’s an excellent account. It has a different, more scholarly feel, but the girls’ experiences are quite similar.)
- Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl Wudunn (If you’re interested in the larger picture of problems facing women, and how they’re similar around the world, this is a very good introduction. It also includes suggestions on ways you can help, which helps counteract the depressing material a bit.)
- The Consequences of Love by Sulaiman Addonia (A novel set in Saudi Arabia by a Eritrean author who lived there, this is a scathing account of what happens under strict Wahhabi gender segregation. I’m including it here because, for both the Indian and Pakistani dancing girls I’ve read about, a tour of ‘the Gulf’ is their dream job.)