BY Vani IN Book Reviews

Their World is Shrouded in Silence: Author of Book on Bar Dancers

Vani via Quint

At thirteen, Munia has just had her first period when her so-called father sells her off to Babulal Dadua, headman of their bedia community – and a pimp. Without Prejudice by Devasis tracks the journey of this young girl from an indiscreet village in the heart of Chambal Valley, to becoming Pallavi Singh, one of the most famous bar dancers of Mumbai.

In his debut novel, the author not only commentates on the social stigma attached to the profession of bar dancers in India, but also asks some pertinent questions – is a woman’s body her own? How far does her freedom extend? What can she do when social traditions, laws of the land and above all, prejudices of individuals, bind her down; make her a commodity to be bought and sold? How can she turn back the tidal wave of social events set loose by the origins and consequences of various social traditions?

Without Prejudice, which took about eight years of intensive research, had initially been written in the non-fiction format, the author tells me. It was however while revising its second draft that he saw a storyline emerging – one that celebrated the triumph of human spirit. “It is the story of a socially excluded yet courageous young girl, a maverick, scheming yet lion-heart, middle-aged mentor, and an introverted, sincere young man, surrounded by years of taboo and social exclusion. So, instead of a non-fiction, I wrote a novel,” says Devasis of his book – which, by the way, has a nice romantic angle to it.

But, why did he write about bar dancers when he could have very well written about anything else? “Well, the problem is that whatever we know about these girls is fed to us by the administration. Look at the media reports, they only carry versions released by the police. Where is the reportage from the dancers’ point of view?” Devasis argues – and I cannot not agree to that, considering as a book around this theme was long overdue, more so after Maharashtra government’s ban on dance bars in 2005 that rendered about “one hundred thousand dancers redundant”. Just as I am made aware of this statistic, I begin to wonder if Devasis’s characters were inspired by real life.

“Yes,” he answers, “I have met a number of bar dancers while researching for the book.”

And, was it easy to get information out of them?

“The research was very difficult,” he says without mincing words“This world is shrouded by a blanket of silence. Very difficult to penetrate. But, once you know the dancers, you can see that they are as gracious and intelligent and full of empathy as any other human being. They have to trust you.  Because of taboo attached to their social status, either they tend to avoid mainstream or get covertly aggressive/defensive in social situations.”

 

The book has an interesting array of characters and a fast-paced narrative that packs a lot of facts alongside fiction, and asks many questions. Here is an excerpt from the book:

As he watched, Roy felt questions rise unbidden in his mind. How did such beautiful girls land up in a dance bar? Popular belief held that most of these girls had been forced into the profession, owing to physical threats or economic compulsions. But what compelling circumstances made them stay? While interacting with so many customers every day, they could reach out for help. Did they do that? What was the pattern of trafficking? How did the supply chain work? Roy was not convinced that brute force alone could be the reason why the girls adhered to the system…He reasoned that if dancers in bars were not in the hard-core flesh trade, then why would there be coercion or fear at all?

As I delve deeper into the story, it becomes apparent that the author is eager to reduce the prejudices that exist against the bar dancers. When I ask him if that was his intention, he answers me with an emphatic “Yes”.  “Those who discuss or write about this world do not know about it. And, those who are a part of it do not talk,” he tells me, explaining that as the reason why somebody had to write about it.

                                                                                          

So, is there a way to rehabilitate bar dancers, I ask him in the end. “The problem of dance bars is a social issue and it needs a social solution, not a political one,” he says. “By enacting laws or by policing the problem will not go away. It is a huge discussion and needs to be done in all earnestness, not as a short-cut method.” That’s food for thought, isn’t it?

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