One of the most beautiful and disturbing books I own is the photographer Mary Ellen Mark’s Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay (1981). Mark’s portraits of prostitutes, transvestites, madams, customers, boyfriends, and children, shot in an impoverished red-light district in India’s largest and richest city, are exquisite. The photographs’ blazing colors, destitute settings, precision of detail, jarring juxtapositions, awkward body poses, and intense facial expressions catapult the viewer into the squalid, yet captivating world they depict — rendering its extreme otherness beautiful. In viewing, we are simultaneously compelled and repulsed by the images, by what we see and what is reflected back to us of humanity and of ourselves. Though sex is everywhere in the images, the erotic is absent, powerfully so. Our fantasies yearn to eroticize the images but their stark reality inhibits us. Mark’s book boldly reminds us that art by its very nature is voyeuristic. The portrayal of a subject’s nakedness, real or metaphoric, arouses our horror, desire, pity, mirth, joy, and, at its most successful, inspires self-reflection and empathy.
Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars (2010) and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (2012) are literary complements to Mark’s photography some thirty years on. Faleiro, an Indian-born journalist living in the south part of the city known as the “Manhattan of Bombay*,” turned “from writing about the mainstream to writing only of the margins” where “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.” Bombay, home to India’s largest number of dollar millionaires, is often compared to New York, Moscow, and Shanghai in terms of its global economic power, yet more than half of Bombay’s 18 million inhabitants live in slums, a third have no access to clean drinking water, two million have no toilet. Faleiro’s foray into the underworld began after she met a young hijra, or transgender, on an assignment. Eventually, she met Leela, a nineteen-year-old bar dancer, who was such a whirlwind of intelligence, magnetism, and drive, Faleiro decided that if she was going to peer into the dance bar world and Bombay’s sex trade, she wanted to do so through Leela’s eyes.
Faleiro’s five-year chronicle of Leela’s life as the highest paid bar dancer at one of the city’s 1,500 clubs is a tour-de-force of the literature of fact. She seamlessly weaves politics, history, sociology, urban activism, and healthcare into her portrait of Leela’s life as an erotic dancer, infusing her rhythmic sentences with Leela’s and her coterie’s sharp-witted and colorful patter.
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