Interview with Sonia Faleiro

This week at your Adda, we have someone special interviewed for you. Here is a woman who is an award-winning Indian reporter and writer and  has recently spent 5 years just on researching about lives of the women of the dance bars of Mumbai. She is one of the early Indian bloggers and has been blogging since 2005. Her latest book, Beautiful Thing, was the book of the year pick in the Observer among other publications. Let us welcome Sonia Faleiro at your Adda.

Q: ‘The Girl’ (Penguin, 2006), your first book, is described as ‘A classic’ with ‘beautiful lyricism, poetic passages and evocative descriptions of Goa.’ After it was published you spent five years researching ‘Beautiful Thing’. We’d love to know the inspiration for both books.

A: The Girl was the only story I could have written at the time. I was 24 and a student at the University of Edinburgh. I was supposed to be researching my thesis, but the National Library was such a quiet, dare I say spiritual place, it inspired me to write something entirely different. The Girl was well received and allowed me to concentrate on writing full time. I thought I’d continue writing fiction, but just prior to the publication of The Girl I’d been working as a reporter in Bombay, reporting primarily on marginalized communities—meeting people who were real survivors. I was captivated by their toughness and their inspirational stories.

One of those stories was of a young woman who made her living dancing in a bar. That woman was Leela, and the story of her rise and fall in the backdrop of India’s greatest but also most unforgiving city, Bombay, is documented in Beautiful Thing.

Q: Can you share with us the experience and lessons learnt?

A: Everyone wants to know how the experience of researching Beautiful Thing changed me. I’m grateful for the opportunity to answer the question. I spent nine months with Leela, her family and friends, and over two years with many other people in the line (as the world of the dance bar is known), whose stories you don’t read about in Beautiful Thing but who informed the writing of the book. Collectively, they helped me understand the world of the dance bar with its unique twist on Mumbaiya speak, its relationship rules, its hierarchy; its many ironies. (For example, while women were the primary attraction of the dance bar and the reason why customers spent hours watching them while drinking grossly overpriced alcohol, true power lay not with these women, but with the men who employed them).

I also learnt of how people survive in the unforgiving landscape of Bombay. These survival strategies are true not only for bar dancers like Leela, but for the majority of Indians marginalized because of their caste, class, gender, economic situation or profession. It really was a life changing experience for me and convinced me of both, the need to give people like Leela a voice, and of my own deep interest in doing so.

Q: Bobby Darling and Rakhi Sawant are among the people you had conversations with much earlier when they were not known much. The interviews spoke about their story and their struggles. What were Sonia’s struggles?

A: I’m afraid my struggles don’t make for an interesting story; that’s why I write about other people!

Perhaps the greatest challenge I faced as a writer was the period when I moved from writing fiction to narrative non-fiction. Research demands a tremendous time commitment. Beautiful Thing took five years to research and write; my next book may take even longer. Because I like to concentrate fully on one thing I didn’t have a job during the time and did very little freelance work; so I dropped off the radar and many people wrote me off. Also, I don’t like to talk of the people I’m writing about. I think it’s disrespectful to turn their stories into idle chatter. This means that only one or two people really know what I’m working on and while this is appropriate it can also be lonely. It can also make for some uncomfortable silences!

Q: In the blog post Inside Mumbai Madrasas you shared your views on the modernisation of Madrasas. Do you think it’s fair to associate terrorism with any one religion?

A: Terrorism isn’t a religious construct; it is the construct of individuals, some of whom claim to have religion.

Q: You’ve written about your tryst with Bribery. How can one eradicate bribery from Indian society? Is this one of the causes hampering India’s progress towards being a superpower?

A: Speaking up is a good start. But so is understanding why people demand bribes. It isn’t uncommon to hear of a constable demanding a bribe from someone who lives on or off of the street. But often he is motivated not by greed but by compulsion. In some police stations in Bombay, senior inspectors demand cash from their juniors or constables. The constables, who earn less than five thousand rupees a month, cannot afford to pay their seniors from their salary. And so they demand hafta. So while there may be an explanation for the behaviour of the constable, the inspectors’ reasons are less clear and demand investigation. I think this is an important conversation for us to have. Through openness, emerge solutions.

Q: Not many people know that Sonia is not just a serious writer but has a good sense of humour too. What other qualities have you hidden from the World? 🙂 What other interests do you have?

A: Well, I’m an excellent dog walker. Just ask my Jack Russell, Zoey! She gets two hours of exercise every day thanks to me. It may just be her fault that Beautiful Thing took five years to write! Other than Zoey (and my husband Ulrik!), my interests include reading. I particularly enjoy narrative non-fiction and historical biographies. I’m very interested in the history of the American Revolution, and the causes, outcome and influence of the Civil War. Dave McCullough, author of John Adams and 1776, is a favourite. I’m a bit of an exercise fiend and go to spin class a few times a week. And my guilty pleasure, I’m embarrassed to share with your readers, is reality TV.

Q: Wow! A blog by ‘Zoey’. Share with us an incident involving Zoey that is etched in your memory. 🙂

A: There’s no doubt that I’m a Zoey-o-holic. And it’s not just me; plenty of my friends are the same. (Or, they’re really good at faking it!) Zoey’s numerous qualities include a great sense of humour (I can’t explain how this comes across; it just does), a sharp mind, excellent memory retention, and the ability to befriend anyone. My husband and I were the first people in our apartment building allowed to keep a dog. This was because Zoey came along to our landlord-tenant interview and charmed our future landlords by behaving perfectly. She didn’t bark once, not even when the doorbell rang furiously, and even managed to look unfazed at the mention of both ‘BALL’ and ‘CAT’, words that would normally drive her wild.

Zoey is a terrific dog. I love her dearly. Also, to be clear, she doesn’t write her own blog, she dictates it on the run.

Q: If you were granted a wish to interview a person of your choice, whom would you interview and what would be the question you would ask him/her?

A: I’d have loved to have interviewed Leela’s father, Manohar, whose abuse of Leela drive her to the dance bar. I want to understand his motives better, and the way to do that would have been to talk directly to him, and to learn about his family and, in particular, of the status of women in it.

I didn’t interview him because Leela asked me not to.

Q: Do you promote your blog? What promotional techniques work best for you and why?

A: I enjoy writing my blog, and I think people enjoy reading it because it’s a mix of the serious and the fun things that are of interest to me in the moment. I can write about style one day, and caste the next. I like to post pictures that amuse me, and also to update readers with news about my book. I think the mix is gratifying, and I’ve had the same readers for several years now. I don’t consciously promote my blog, but people who like my work tend to come over and browse through.

Q: What is your advice to someone who wants to start a blog?

A: As with all writing, a blog should reflect one’s personal interests. After all, we write best of what interests us most. It’s a good idea to pick a subject and a position and to then stick to it. Readers then know what they’re going to get, and if you work hard, blog regularly and comment intelligently on that subject you’re more than likely to develop a sound readership base.

Q: Let’s conclude off with a few favorites.

Color: Green

Movie: The Godfather Trilogy

TV Show: The Office, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, anything on Masterpiece Theatre.

We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow we will be Killed with our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch and Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc.

Time of Day: I’m an early riser. I like to start work at around 5 a.m. As the day progresses I lose steam and I’m dead to world by around 10 p.m.

Your Zodiac Sign: Leo.

Thank you Sonia Faleiro for doing this interview with us. Sonia Faleiro’s book Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars is out now from Penguin India. Go and read it. You can read Sonia on her blog, follow her on twitter, or join her Facebook page.

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