At 13, 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 comments 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?
“They Have to Trust You”
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.
The novel, by the way, also has a nice romantic angle to it.
But, why did he write about bar dancers when he could have written about, well, anything else for his first book?
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?
I cannot help agreeing, as I consider that 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. 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 taboos attached to their social status, either they tend to avoid the mainstream media or get covertly aggressive/defensive in social situations.
“Needs a Social Solution, Not Political”
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…
As I delve deeper into the story, it becomes apparent that the author is eager to reduce the prejudices that exist against an entire community of bar dancers. When I ask him if that was his intention, he answers 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. Somebody had to write about this.
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. 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?
(Vani has worked as a business journalist and is the author of ‘The Recession Groom’. She can be reached @Vani_Author)
(The Quint, in association with BitGiving, has launched a crowdfunding campaign for an 8-month-old who was raped in Delhi on 28 January 2018. The baby girl, who we will refer to as 'Chhutki', was allegedly raped by her 28-year-old cousin when her parents were away. She has been discharged from AIIMS hospital after undergoing three surgeries, but needs more medical treatment in order to heal completely. Her parents hail from a low-income group and have stopped going to work so that they can take care of the baby. You can help cover Chhutki's medical expenses and secure her future. Every little bit counts. Click here to donate.)