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A Fringe Story

Annie Zaidi

By Sonia Faleiro
Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Books India), 2010, 216, RS.450.00


I had been following Sonia Faleiros work with some interest for the last few years, particularly her series of reports about Mumbais bar dancers and their difficulties in the wake of the ban on dancing in bars (not applicable to fivestar hotels and nightclubs, of course).   Her subject is an endless source of fascination for those on the outsidethose who do not visit dance bars; those who see bar girls travelling on trains but dare not strike up a friendship; those who have watched films like Chandni Bar and read Suketu Mehtas Maximum City but are never quite satisfied. Bar dancers are as much a source of perpetual curiosity as gangstersit is no coincidence that the lives of both are so deeply entwinedand each story is met with eager voyeurism, relief that the life we read about is not our own, and shock that such things happen all around us, and we are oblivious.   Faleiro has chosen Leela for her protagonist. A nineteenyearold bar dancer who danced at Mira Roads bar, Night Lovers. The suburb is technically outside Mumbai and has little charm to it. The book, then, is a fringe storyof marginal people in a marginal location and a soontobeillegal profession. Leelas close friends are bar dancers or hijras. She herself seems successful. She earns thousands of rupees in tips. She also sends money home to a family that had begun living off her body when she was barely twelve. She spends a lot of money tooon clothes and cosmetics and drink, and saves almost nothing. She drinks, she chews gutka, she smokes marijuana, she has sex with customers, men who patronize the bar and begin to spend a lot of money. She doesnt cook and hardly cleans. She swears filthily, easily. She thinks herself beautiful.   This much we know early on. This and a lot more. There is just too much information in the first chapter although it begins well, taking us smack into Leelas truthscustomer on the mattress; she in his boxer shorts, looking at herself in the mirror, smoking; the bewildered journalist; the rotting vegetables in the fridge; the shocking language. It is a good place from which to start understanding Leela. But then suddenly we are treated to a broad description of Leelas life and those of other bar dancers. It is like a camera zooming out at the wrong moment. The first chapter is ...

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