It is much easier to decide what literary genius is in fiction than in non-fiction. To the demanding reader of fiction, literary genius resides for the most part in the experience of surprise, in being disarmed.We come to a work of fiction sceptical that it can make a world real and meaningful, even essential, for us, and ask to be won over by the writer's vivid and imaginative use of his or her freedom in the realms of language, structure and plot.
But when it comes to narrative non-fiction, the writer is both fulfilled and constrained by his responsibility towards a world that precedes the book and is the reason for its being written.
This limits expectations of the genre and makes its purveyors more dependent than independent.Indeed, the very techniques and effects that thrill us in fiction and are now increasingly channelled by modern-day long-form reportage, make us suspicious - we wonder if the writer is making some stuff up.For the work of non-fiction to be good, truthful and solid, we feel it should essentially be duplicatable by another intelligent human being entering the same field. There is no room here for the wilfulness and wizardry of literary genius - truth and invention cannot be simultaneously indulged.
Non-fiction writers, it seems, are either busy bees like David Remnick or smart alecs spinning a grand theory per book or essay, such as Malcolm Gladwell, or else unreliable fabulists, like Ryszard Kapuscinski.It says something, then, that Beautiful Thing, Sonia Faleiro's portrait of a teenaged Mumbai dancer, Leela, and her bright but brittle world, is so compelling that it invites from us the question of exactly what might constitute genius in non-fiction.
Faleiro's book begins in 2005 with her and Leela talking to each other in Leela's tiny flat in Mira Road, a grotty suburb of Bombay (Faleiro prefers, like some other Bombay writers, the city's old name to "Mumbai"). Their conversation is intimate, but not private - Leela's most favoured "kustomer", the owner of the bar at which she works, lies fast asleep on the bed beside them.This encounter sets the template for the entire book, in which the most intimate, manipulative, or bruising encounters between women and men are dissected by the book's many subjects (both female and male) in the most candid, matter-of-fact way, and the women live in one long continuous night, often black to them but sometimes also beautiful, in which there hovers, in every frame, the shadow of a man.
Behind Faleiro's protagonist lies a Bombay institution with a storied history - the dance bar.
Now outlawed by the government of Maharashtra, which runs the city, the dance bar was for decades the site and channel of many of the city's pleasures, adding the shimmer and sizzle of glamour, the exuberance and melancholy of Bollywood film songs and a frisson of romance.By dancing in front of customers in an environment where physical contact was denied, a dance bar girl became an object of desire with a power far greater than her importunate suitors, some of whom would have to throw money and gifts at her for months before she agreed to meet them in private. "They think I dance for them," says Leela, "but really, they dance for me."Although at first sight no more than an ornate screen for prostitution, the dance bar was also an institution in its own right, with its own codes and rituals.Crucially, it was viewed by many of the girls who worked there, often after early experiences of abuse in their own homes or in villages where feudal norms prevailed and women were seen as chattel, as a place of refuge, even as a gateway to riches.
The girls, as revealed by Faleiro's enormously detailed description of the psychological landscape of the trade, were likely to view others as queens might commoners.
When they were shut down (we see from the arc of Leela's story), the girls suddenly found themselves independent in the most negative sense of the word and were pitchforked into a sickening world of abasement, desperation and fear.
From / The National