Shetty had booked them into a resort called River View (‘A Treat of a Retreat’). It had a swimming pool and a waterfall and offered a buffet of delicacies likepulao and mutton curry, golgappas and fountains of fresh, flavoured lassi.

Leela would have been happy to be a tourist, her camera slung around her neck. She had no need, she said, to dance to the loud Bollywood music a DJ in a bandana and shades was spinning, to stand under the waterfall in her new swimsuit and black lace leggings, to mirror the couples entwined in the pool—their love, their lust, a tangible thing it was only natural to want for oneself.

She could be haappy, in a quiet, regular way, just being with Shetty.

‘If he’d only sat beside me . . .’ Leela sighed. ‘But he was happy with his blue films and beer.’

When Shetty called Leela out on her glum face, she said what she always said when she didn’t want to admit she felt low.

‘I’m expecting my MC,’ she lied.

Photo: Akshay Mahajan / Penguin

‘Why are you talking to me like this?’ cried Leela. Then she shut up. Leela was feisty, but she knew Shetty had earned his reputation as a danger admi. He had cracked a bottle on a bar dancer’s head because she had refused to go with a Chhota Shakeel man. He had then phoned the Chhota Shakeel man to apologize and to ask which lodge he should have the bleeding, wailing girl sent to.

‘It’s okay durrling, not to worry,’ consoled Leela quickly. ‘We can do it, no problem. You won’t even be able to tell.’

Shetty closed his eyes. ‘Fucking randi,’ he murmured. ‘You’re all the same you fucking whores. Lies, lies, nothing but lies.’

‘How so?’ Leela pouted. ‘Is it my fault?’

‘How much money did I put on your cell last week?’ Shetty veered off.

‘A thousand,’ admitted Leela in a small voice.

‘Then how come two days later when I asked, “Why aren’t you returning my calls?" why did you say “PS, balance khatam"? Why?’ Shetty leaned forward and gripped Leela’s hand. ‘Leela, tell me why.’

Leela blushed. That was an old trick of hers and she hated to be called out on it. She had a single phone but three SIM cards. Shetty thought she had just the one and as her ‘husband’ had promised to take care of her bills. On the first of every month, he would hand over the amount she asked for. But it must have occurred to him that most months he gave her as much as ten thousand rupees. Either Leela was spending the money ‘talking sexy’ to her customers, or she was spending it on ‘women’s things’—‘abortions and suchlike’.

Which was it?

Shetty said he didn’t care who Leela fucked as long as he didn’t hear about it and lose face. Respect was more important to a man than money or power.

It irked him though that despite all he did for her—he paid for her rent and phone, he bought her lunches and clothes, he even let Leela sweet-talk him into bringing kebabs for Apsara and hadn’t fled when she chewed his ear off about what a good wife Leela would make—even then, mind you, Leela took men when she felt like it.

When Shetty was in a good mood he could laugh off Leela’s popularity, even feel some pride in it—everyone wanted what he had. He would remind himself that he had, after all, never hired a bar dancer he hadn’t test driven, front and back.

But when he lost the battle to contain his fiery temper, as now, all he knew was that he was a catch. He was a well-settled family man who owned his own dance bar, made great money and would, any day now, get a designation in the Fight for Rights Bar Owners Association.

He deserved better than a woman who would drop her knickers for a five hundred.

Unable to articulate his frustration at the collapse of a break he had looked forward to all week, he wanted to lean over and slap Leela hard.

He didn’t like beating women, Shetty said. That was no kalass, he was firm.

He had slapped his wife once and the memory of that moment made him a smaller man in his own eyes. But violence towards his bar dancers, even if it was only the implication of violence, was unavoidable. Otherwise they would think him soft and cheat him by meeting customers outside Night Lovers so they wouldn’t come in and the girls wouldn’t have to share their collection with Shetty.

Violence then wasn’t about kalass, it was bijniss. And bijniss was the oil on which his life ran with the middle-class predictability and the comforting security he had, as a child, been taught to aspire to and which, as an adult he had attained with no small amount of perseverance.

And just at this moment there was something about Leela, his damn bijniss that made Shetty want to cut her down to size.

He told me what happened next:

Photo: Akshay Mahajan / Penguin

But she had been thirteen when she had first laughed at his jokes, thirteen when he had wanted her, thirteen when he swore he would never stop making her laugh.

At thirteen her teeth had been like a string of Hyderabadi pearls fit for the neck of a queen.

Shetty smiled in recollection.

Leela thought it was because he had forgiven her. ‘Get into your nightie!’ she said to herself. ‘Distract him duffer, quick! Make him forget this MC bijniss!’

Leela returned Shetty’s smile; Shetty’s face closed.

Her teeth aren’t what they used to be, he thought. Of course, the dance bar will do that to you. Some girls! Their teeth so rotten, it was a wonder they tasted food. And their brains were no less rotten, mind you. Angootha chhaaps! Oh, but Leela. Leelaji could not only write, she could read. Once he had stumbled upon her reading a novel in the make-up room. There were very few things that impressed Shetty. That was one of them. Leela was so smart, just being around her made him feel good about himself. Like an upper-class man, in a top-class joint.

It was a matter of luck Shetty knew that Leela had been forced into this line, a line that gnawed into you like you were the marrow in a plate of nalli-nehari, and once you had been chewed through and through, spat you underfoot. And that someone like his Mrs had been born into a good family and so enjoyed every privilege of respectable lineage—a good husband, a good flat, a good vehicle, good children.

Because the truth was, even in Bombay, that great equalizer, you couldn’t always fight birth. And you certainly couldn’t do it without money and without connections.

In Bombay, a nobody could die with nothing.

And in that moment, perhaps in the regret of that moment, Shetty regained his feelings of affection and regard for the young woman before him. And he wished, truly, that Leela—oh, bright as a blade, as quick-witted as a street chokra and as marvellously clever as a Gemini circus magician—had had better luck.

But she hadn’t. And young as she was now, she would not be young forever. Shetty was not a cruel man; but he was a man with an eye for beautiful things. There was Twinkle, who was new to Night Lovers and ma ki kasam, she was so sexy. Things had been stressful lately, and he hadn’t had a chance to test drive her. But he was tired of hearing about her from other men: ‘Oh that Twinkle such a booty! I fucked her yesterday.’ And of hearing Twinkle talk to the other girls: ‘Saala chutiya! He kept moaning aah! Aah! Aah! Like I was sucking the meat out of his cock. It drove me crazy.’ Clearly, Twinkle was waiting for something better—him!—and he was planning to get started with a bang, maybe take her to Vaishnodevi. He would give her the spiel: ‘My parents died in a car crash when I was a child and I have been mother and father to my siblings for the past twenty years. I go to Vaishnodevi every six months to ask Deviji for strength. Tell me, sister, would you like to join me in prayer?’

‘Yes, that would impress her. Why were these girls so taken by God anyway? Was it because God had given them nothing? Yes. Because they had nothing, they had nothing to lose.

Shetty couldn’t help but think about the last time he had been to Vaishnodevi. He had gone with Leela.

‘All was going well, until I saw my brother-in-law walking ahead of me on the bridge. I ducked and weaved, but that chut chataoing maderchod not only saw me, he came up to me and said, “Hello!" and “Who is this?" about Leela. Of course, I said, “Saala gaandu," fucking arsehole. I don’t give that bastard any bhav. I paid for his wedding. Let me see that money, then we’ll talk. I said, “Is she your mother? Then why do you care motherfucker?" He ran. But of course he told his sister. Setting kharab kar di! He didn’t even wait to get to Bombay; he called her from Vaishnodevi itself. She called me. Straight off I said, “Woman, what woman? Arre that poor widow? The stumbling, bumbling widow who couldn’t manage her belongings? Yes, yes I helped her. Should I have pushed past without a thought? In a place of worship? Tell me?" She hemmed and hawed and so I said, “Mummyji, you believe your good-for-nothing brother who has always been jealous of me or do you believe me? Tell, tell now!" What could she say? She started crying, “Of course, I believe you; of course, you’re the only one I trust."’

Shetty grinned. He’d fucked that motherfucker good!

His good humour was restored. He felt his muscles start to relax. He held his hand out to Leela. ‘Sorry baba,’ he said, pulling her on to his lap. Leela fluffed up with pleasure. ‘Let’s break the bed,’ whispered Shetty.

Leela didn’t dwell on Shetty’s quick change of heart. ‘Maybe his nasha wore off?’ It didn’t matter. He was a man in a hundred. And he made her feel like the luckiest girl in the world.

Excerpted from Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars, Hamish Hamilton, 214 pages,Rs450.

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