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Inside the Lives of Indian Bar Dancers

03/01/2012 10:45 am ET | Updated May 01, 2012

In Mumbai the rich build helipads atop their houses, the poor beg not just for food but also water. The condominiums of the wealthy tower above the tarp roofs of the poor so that when they turn to the heavens in prayer they see instead the rich at play. Obvious disparity is a defining feature of Mumbai, and the city's survival and relative harmony despite this is what makes it so fascinating to writers.

I don't recall when I slipped from writing about the mainstream to writing only of the margins. But one evening a few years ago I found myself accompanying a young hijra, an Indian transgender, to the home of her guru for a story I was reporting. I was then invited to attend a brothel madam's birthday party in the red light district. Thereafter it seemed only natural that when the brothel workers went on pilgrimage to a shrine high up in the hills outside Mumbai, that they would invite me along.

With every interview, I learnt a little more of the intimate hardships of poverty. Through every shared experience I saw how great a struggle it was for an already marginalized person to survive in a city with eyes only for the prize of power and wealth. For the courage they displayed, everyone I met deserved to have his or her story told. Then in 2005 I was introduced to a girl called Leela who didn't just have a story, but who became part of a story that captivated India.

Leela was 19, and a bar dancer. Every night she danced fully clothed to Bollywood music in a seedy little bar called Night Lovers. The more energetic and calculated her dancing, the more likely it was that her customers, the men who'd come to watch her, would reward her. If they liked what they saw, they flung money at her. On a good night Leela earned the equivalent of $50. Customers also showed their appreciation with gifts of perfume and offers of money for sex.

Leela was one of 75,000 women who danced in bars. And at the time there were 1,500 such bars in Mumbai. Their aesthetic was a curious blend of a 1970s nightclub and a Bollywood set. But even among the crowd, Leela stood out. Most bar dancers were illiterate. Leela read novels. She had a wicked sense of humor. And she knew without a doubt that she deserved better than her customers. Through hundreds of hours of interviews I found that despite the physical hardship and routine degradation at the hands of customers and cops, Leela's life, relative to the alternative of the street or back in the village was under her own control, and, as far as she was concerned, a happy one.

In the summer of 2005, the local government decided to ban dancing in bars. The decision was a bald attempt to capture the middle class vote, and cost thousands of women their livelihood. Innumerable bar owners, waiters, bouncers, even taxi drivers and tailors who'd earned money from the bars also suffered losses.

Leela's life, which I chronicle in my book Beautiful Thing, was now out of her control. Like the Bollywood films to whose music she danced, it was chaos in the extreme.

Mumbai's summer of 2005 captivated India. The ban whispered of sex, sleaze and laundered money. Some dance bar's links to politicians, and gossip of love affairs between dancers and wanted gangsters became headlines. Knowing more about this previously ignored subculture became a national obsession. As interest swelled, so did opposition to the ban. Before the summer was through one thing became clear: The city's enviable equilibrium was only a mirage.

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