I distrust biographical studies that soak in too much psychographic subtlety, as much as, that other egregious genre, biographical fiction- as though there were a difference between their performative horizons: both paint the object in the biases of the subject who vanishes under his narration, gesticulating strategically with the objects of analysis, when the narrative demands it independently of the objects’ self narrative. We are all subject to violence, who live, as someone somewhere is, always-already; what is a possibility once, after all, is a necessity for ever. The more idiomatic and transparent the narrative of a witness to violence greater the risk of the contamination of deeds by intentions, things by thought not mediated by the singularity of experiential being; in the self-subsistent sufferings of others there is seldom room for the others who are spoken of: they await their subjectivation by external description. There are only insular narratives because only one may speak before any meaning is negotiated; the lone subject of experience, already a partisan to her reactive, first-hand knowledge is, paradoxically, the only one who can tell what it is that is her conditional being. Biography must of necessity betray these commitments to fidelity if it must defray the cost of an audience’s total ignorance by paying for their enlightenment the great sacrifice of happenstance objectivity in the currency of personal impressions.
This biography of the marginalised bar dancers of Bombay, now Mumbai, commits to this pious legerdemain a respectable dedication, spanning five years of first hand research that bespeaks at least a taste for reactive induction on part of Sonia Faleiro. The recreated chatter of pimping parents in cahoots with the police, the salesmanship of wayward fathers selling seal pack virginal daughters to lecherous rural lords and the rapes of mothers by sons are coloured with the verbalisations of the subjects’ idiomatic hinglish legitimising the objective gaze as it penetrates non-existent moral standards native to the participants of this sordid real life drama. The bootiful Leela and her scabrous escapades in the badlands of rapine, exploitation and repression are followed through with the hawk-eye of a respectable South Mumbai authoress. Already, the idea is romantic: how much more romance in the tracing, mapping and pointing out of the jagged lines that make up the lives of whores and eunuchs who survive despite all. Mentored by the rapscallion Gregory David Roberts of Shantaram fame, and feted by social butterfly and imbecile Shobha Dé, Faleiro’s taste for what reviles her is exemplary and her panache in sublating the shit and gruel of the assorted misfortunes into an artistic exercise is nothing but noticeable.
The shaggy book, no mean feat for a mere two hundred and eighteen pager, is garrulous with the vacillations, evasions and gossip of the main sufferer Leela and her comrades in the bijness of copulation without exploring any of the larger social tendencies which ground the institution of prostitution as it has come to be repudiated by forces larger than the ambitious politician she passes verdict on- an opportunistic chief minister of Maharashtra, who took umbrage at the possibility of moral corruption of society was not responsible for the Indian notions of purity which predated him and allowed a culture of lundchoos [cocksucking] whores and dirty hijras [eunuchs] punished for their mere existence. As though these cocksuckers were driven to their exploitation by a passion for seminal virtues and their obverse vices, regulated by the ritual and lore of Indian culture; dire necessity as a factor is focussed on, to Faleiro’s credit, but her analysis of the cultural patina which envelopes the flesh of the matter is conspicuous by its absence. She is carried away in embodying the petulant whore and her bitter sweet resentment against her family, cops, men, society and her eunuch friend by dissecting their dialect.
The end impression I gathered from the book was that of a shaggy-dog passing itself off as an academic undertaking but lacking the bite of the former and professing a studiousness that barks shy of the analytical depth of the latter. It is a book to be read in two hours and consigned to forgetfulness, a specimen of what is going wrong with allegedly academic works of biographical intent.
My Rating: 1 ½
Faleiro, Sonia. Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars. New Delhi, India: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books. 2010. Print.