Book Beneath the loss, despair, cruelty and sadness of a sex worker's and bar dancer' s life, is a woman who longs to come to into her own. Sonia Faleiro tells us more

“There's no black and white where money, sex and violence are concerned. It's a blanket grey area. While writing about that world, I was in a state of walking shock.” Sonia Faleiro's eyes well up with tears when she talks about bar dancers Leela and Priya, Leela's mother Apsara and Masti, a hijra. No, they aren't exotic fictional characters. They are real. They live among us. And they are ‘invisible' because we choose to keep them away from our sanitised everyday environments.

Feisty Sonia Faleiro tells their story with the sharpness of a reporter and the compassion of a friend, in her book “Beautiful Thing” (Penguin, Rs. 450), launched recently in Crossword.

“Beautiful Thing” traces the journey of 19-year-old Leela, a bar dancer when she gets away from an abusive home into the shadowy world of Mumbai's dance bars, brothels and sex industry. Sonia lays bare her stark reality, as well as her hopes and dreams.

“My day job is to report on marginalised communities. I decided to write on Mumbai's sub-culture, concentrating on women and hijras. So I contacted a bar owner who introduced me to Leela,” says the award-winning journalist. “Leela's life is an example of the crime society commits against women and gets away with. Her life is representative of what women suffer in society. They are never given a chance to rise; we keep pushing them down.” Sonia examines the contradictions inherent in the lives of bar dancers. “Women enter the bar line to be economically independent. They want to get away from the proverbial trio of men who abuse — fathers, lovers and husbands. They get away yes, but at a cost. Mainstream society denies them rights and privileges.”

“Beautiful Thing” chronicles how poverty and abuse leads many women to turn to prostitution and bar dancing. “The position of the family you are born into determines your destiny. The professional life of a bar dancer is short lived. As soon as they reach their late twenties, they are booted out. They have no education or professional skills.” At this point in their lives, they return “home; to their villages where they are rejected wholesale as ‘bar waalis'. As long as they were earning and sending money to their villages, they were accepted.” Sonia is sceptical of the pros of legalising prostitution. “Will legalising the profession make a cop stop taking hafta (bribes), raping and assaulting sex workers? I imagine not. Besides, we need to factor in floating sex workers. They might face threats of being jailed and harassed. How will they look after their children?”

Sonia feels hijras are highly misunderstood. “They have been rejected by their families and are left to fend for themselves. The hijras have no power — to fear them is to empower their manipulative guru bhais who gain the most from exploiting them.”

The angst of the writer is felt throughout the book without manifesting itself in obvious ways. “I had two responsibilities while writing this book. First to the reader and then to Leela, to tell her story as it happens. The presence of the writer should not alter reality.”