By Mayank Austen Soofi
[The author traveled to Lahore, the most celebrated city of Pakistan, in September, 2006.]
I felt like a bridegroom who had come to pick out one of the three beautiful sisters. Sitting next to each other on a blue sofa, they blushed and coquettishly glanced at us.
An old woman with a straight back and shining-white hair sat down on the floor and talked of the heat and humidity. She had a firm, commanding voice that sliced and rebuked the air with the sharp tanginess of a most refined form of spoken Urdu.
Unlike the brightly-colored and intricately designed shalwaar kameeze (Shalwar are loose trousers and the kameeze is a long shirt) of the girls, the stern woman stood apart in an off-white dress and a white netted dupatta (a scarf or covering for the head and upper body worn by women), carefully adjusted on her head.
It seemed like a cultured Muslim family, but the girls were not sisters. They were prostitutes. The old lady was not a mother looking for suitable boys for her daughters, but a pleasure-house Madam.
We were in Heera Mandi — 'a bazaar of diamonds' — Pakistan's oldest red light district.
Crossing into the Red Light
Mian Naeem, a soft-spoken Lahore-based sculptor and art-critic, had agreed to take me for an excursion to Heera Mandi, a place I particularly wished to visit especially after reading an excellent book by the British author Louise Brown, The Dancing Girls of Lahore: Selling Love and Saving Dreams in Pakistan's Ancient Pleasure District.
I was in Pakistan to take part in a conference for a visa-free South Asia and was tied up with a series of seminars and speeches during the day. Night was the time to explore the city and Heera Mandi had to be a necessary pilgrimage.
A Road Leading to Sin
Mian Naeem parked his vintage car outside the periphery of Heera Mandi. It was past midnight, perhaps the right time to take a dip into the secrets of the flesh.
The evening had grown slightly middle-aged. The madams and their agents were likely to be more tolerant towards pleas for cheaper bargaining. The available girls were unlucky to be picked yet and hopefully more resigned in their choice for customers. Further, the shield of the deep-night darkness made it easy to imagine that Allah would be too sleepy to notice his faithful venturing out to make sinful transactions.
The streets were crowded with the revelers of the night. Restaurants, and only restaurants, lined both the sides. The blazing fire in the tandoors, the complicated smell of chicken curry and gutter stink, the cries of the cooks, and the laughter of the diners combined to create a blurred sensation in the mind.
The path was narrow, but not straight. We climbed up and down as if walking in the old quarters of a hill resort. The people who inhabited the ancient houses in these streets looked suitably decent, making it difficult to believe we were approaching a red light district.
The Ground Beneath Their Feet
Some more steps, then a right turn, and we walked under an open sky. "This is Heera Mandi," Mian Naeem declared.
A crowd of boys cheered in a dimly lit tin-shed where a snooker table glowed under a bare light bulb. There were carts selling bananas, biryanis, and flowers. Brightly lit eateries with used chicken bones strewn on the floors were filled to the brim.
There was no lady standing under the lampposts soliciting clients. There was no man acting like a lady's agent. The shaky, frail-looking structures rising up on both sides of the street ahead were gloomily submerged in darkness. Their doors and windows were closed and the balconies were sullen and quiet.
We walked ahead and noticed an alley to the right. Two women stood a short distance away, whispering to each other. Their faces were cloaked with shadows. A thin man with a garland of chameli flowers wrapped around his wrists appeared from behind and overtook us with drunken steps.
Gradually the darkness began to lose its sheen. The street became livelier. As we penetrated deeper more doors were found open and more windows gave view to the lighted spaces inside. Mian Naeem pointed across to a room jutting out into the pathway. It had a large window and a most beautiful creation was peeking out from there.
She looked divine and more beautiful than the Indian actress Aishwarya Rai. With a pimple-free fair complexion and fine shaped lips, her eyes expressed eagerness and her hands signaled invitation. Her steps were as light as a bird as she hurried from the window towards the door.
Dressed in a white lehenga (a long embroidered skirt) and her anklet bells jingling music every time she moved, she looked all set to burst into a mujra (traditional dance of the courtesans). There were no creams, rouge, eyeliners, and powders disfiguring her face. A mild shade of maroon suggested the promise of a kiss from her slightly pouted lips.
Tempted by a Dancing Girl
Our eyes met and her face simmered of sentiments that suggested my walking away would break her heart. She looked pure, gracious, and yet highly amorous. It seemed as if I was the wine she was thirsting for all her life.
Mian Naeem said her name was Saira, that she used to be quite coveted in her time. Now, Saira was in her 30s and her business had gone down. Unlike in the past when she picked out only the handsome and the very wealthy, she presently took in any person who walked by her quarters. The revelation was disappointing. That she had singled me out was unremarkable in light of this information.
More Sight Seeing
Three unshaven boys, looking hip in their long hair, sat in a shop that had its walls adorned with posters of Gone with the Wind and Casablanca. Guitars, electronic keyboards, and drums were placed haphazardly on a wooden counter. It was a rock music band that accompanied the ladies in the private dance parties, a popular trend in upper class Lahore.
Until a few years back, Heera Mandi was acclaimed for its musical heritage. It boasted a rich tradition of Indian classical music and indeed many famous singers of the subcontinent were born, groomed, and trained in its chambers.
Adjacent to this rock band was the sitting room where Mian Naeem had taken me to have a look at the 'three sisters.' The ragged-faced agent who stood outside suggested a girl of our choice could perform a Bollywood dance for five hundred rupees. After we took leave of the 'three sisters,' Mian Naeem mentioned there were higher prices for other kind of performances.
Indeed, the highest possible price was always demanded for the betrothal of a virgin. Deflowering involved rituals that were not different from the ceremonies demanded by a proper marriage. Large sums were paid by the 'groom.' Feasts were thrown by the madam-mother and blessings were offered to the girl as she prepared for her initiation into the world's most ancient profession.
Usually the most beautiful had their virginity sold to the rich sheikhs and princes of countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain where they were flown and their temporary living arrangements paid for by their 'husbands.'
As we walked past more such sitting rooms, Mian Naeem pointed out the agents and provided tips on how to identify them. In many places, the rooms were closed from the front but there were camouflaged entrances from the sides. On one of the balconies lounged a bare-chested man while below the lady of the house was eyeing the prospective clients. A little ahead, brightly dressed women were quickly settling themselves in a cab that, according to Mian Naeem, would take them to the apartments of rich Lahori men.
The Unreal Reality
It was strange walking in the by-lanes of Heera Mandi. Officially, Pakistan is an Islamic republic where prostitution is punishable by death and where most of the women do not show their naked face to any male except their closest relatives.
Yet we were in a neighborhood, in the heart of Lahore, which seemed to have been frozen in time. It was as if the outer rules of the much real world could not intrude here. No one seemed to be bothered by the laws that were applicable in the rest of the city.
Heera Mandi was like a paradise where one could freely indulge himself in the pleasures of the flesh, where one could get away from the oppressed world of Shariat laws and Koranic injunctions; a balm which one could apply to soothe his soul made claustrophobic by so many morals; a relief which one could momentarily cherish amidst a life made predictable and burdensome by nagging spouses and aged parents.
Heera Mandi was a world far away from the despairing headlines of Islamic fundamentalism, America's war on terrorism, and Bin laden videos. It was a world very different from all the known worlds. Heera Mandi was an easy place where life was unreal and where it was possible to experience unconditional love and fanciful sex — for a price.
The Tragic Face of the Pleasure District
But of course Heera Mandi is a pleasure house only in its false description. It is actually a mirage that has the power to destroy the lives of both its residents and its visitors.
Attractive prostitutes like Saira might be able to hide their true age and be familiar with all the seductive charms for trapping gullible boys, but they are done with once their bloom is lost. From there it is a downhill journey towards a life plagued by poverty, despair, and loneliness.
Most of the Heera Mandi prostitutes share the same miserable end. These women who had once sold their virginity for thousands of dinars to rich gulf state sheikhs finally slip down to a stage where ten rupees is their demand price (which could be further bargained) for hurried services with poor vegetable vendors. There could not be more poignant irony.
Some prostitutes, fortunate to give birth to beautiful daughters, do live a luxurious life of rich madams, but still the melancholy of their old age could not be wished away.
The Twilight Days of Heera Mandi
Happily, the morally righteous have reasons to smile. These are the final days of Heera Mandi. The place has started decaying like a rotten corpse. What had started off as a pampered district built next to a Mughal fort now lies uncared for in a filthy part of old Lahore.
Once upon a time, Mughal princes courted its virgins. The wealthy culture-loving families, from the feudal estates of North India, used to send their young sons to be trained under the guidance of the Heera Mandi ladies. They were expected to learn the style of fine Urdu conversation, to appreciate the nuances of Hindustani classical music and to get well versed in the art of lovemaking.
Once upon a time the ladies here were more sophisticated than the women of the most respected and rich families of the land. But now an eclipse has set in.
Times have changed. Heera Mandi is merely another red light district. Girls are patronized for quick sex sessions rather than for their poetry recitation. Courtesans have become call girls. Eminent people, with claims to middle-class respectability, no longer desire to be seen strolling in its streets. Even the ladies' chambers are shutting down.
The pleasure ladies are gradually leaving Heera Mandi quarters for the modern secretive flats of Defense and Gulberg. The thrill of midnight cruising is being replaced by deals made over mobile phones. A world is coming to an end, soon to be gone with the wind. Heera Mandi will become a fable, a fantasy, a dream house of the whores.
On our way back we stopped in a mud-built shack to have sweet, milky cardamom-flavored tea with oily fried goat testicles.
The night was growing old. The noise was quieting down. And the shadows were growing larger.