Without Prejudice: Epic Tale of a Mumbai Bar Dancer by Devasis
Munia’s fate was supposed to be sealed, not when she travelled to Mumbai from her village birth place, not when she changed her name to 'Pallavi Singh', not even when she was promoted to principal dancer in the town’s most fashionable ‘dance bar’. Munia’s fate was sealed – like generations before her – the moment she was born. Entire communities – considered ‘ungovernable’ by the British Raj and whose status has hardly changed today – consigned to trading their female offspring and living off the proceeds.
Not my traditional reading fare, I confess. But when one is presented with a signed copy by the author himself, who also happens to be a colleague, one can hardly refuse! Despite the allure of the title, the book is in fact a historical drama relating the social and economic plight of one community from rural India, its historical place as well as its role in India’s business and entertainment capital, home to power brokers, and dreamers alike. It’s a wonderful read; it took me just two weeks to complete, snatched while on flights between Delhi and Bangalore, and it read like a screenplay – the action visibly accelerates towards the end.
The central narrator, Roy, is a journalist investigating the likely social and economic impact of the impending prohibition of dance halls in the city; he encounters Pallavi during his research and rapidly completes a ‘dance hall MBA’ on the workings of the business. One delightful scene describes how a pair of dancers’ birthdays is celebrated at the club with cake cutting and ‘Happy Birthday singing’: “I am surprised to see…. (such) modern management techniques of team building, bonding and employee relations in a place such as this dance-bar…,” exclaims Roy. “Thank you for liking our efforts,” the veteran steward, Manjuunarth, deadpans. “I think you miss the real picture. Celebrating birthdays is a very good business sense. Customers shower huge amounts of money on their favourite dancers. Good for our collection.”
The book covers the length and breadth of Mumbai; from corporate takeovers to police raids, from romance to child abuse. But the narrative never succumbs to morality; characters are never portrayed as victims or perpetrators, situations are never unequivocal. The narrative is laced with humour and irony throughout. Girls end up in dance halls for a variety of reasons and motives, many prosper, many more suffer. It is still possible to maintain a sense of humanity and adhere to a code of behaviour even within such surroundings.
This was supposed to be Pallavi’s fate. But she defies it in search of a new identify, happiness and – the one taboo remaining within her particular community, for whom a girl child is little more than an annuity – marriage.
Devasis takes the reader on multiple twists and turns before reaching the final straight and, in common with the theme of the book, there is ambiguity, even at the very end. Perhaps we’ll have to wait until the second instalment or, even, the film to see whether Pallavi got the wedding of her dreams!