The smell of death and decay wafts from the incense sticks dotting the streets. These agarbattis are more commonly found planted around mud graves in cemeteries, not in these dingy streets that are lined with shops. Here in Heera Mandi, the heady scent of sandalwood and rose sears the nose. It smells like loss.
During the daytime, this is just another street in Lahore, with shops selling cheap shoes, hats, jewellery and other trinkets. But when the sun and the shutters go down, very different wares go on sale.
At night, as the grand and beautiful Badshahi Mosque looms in the backdrop, men bustle up and down the dusty street, peering through doorways which are shielded only by flimsy, dirty curtains. Amid the rowdy banter, the faint sound of bangles and ghungro can be heard tinkling to the beat of the tabla and the strum of the sitar. In other corners, you can hear feet thudding to lurid Lollywood beats. Inside the cloying scent of the agarbattis mixes with the stench of stale sweat.
As the sun sets, the women start getting ready for the long night that awaits them. Peeling off their shalwar kameezes, they squeeze themselves into tight-fitting clothes. Breasts bulging and stomachs protruding, they pile on layers of make up: powder and foundation to conceal their dark skin, rouge to heighten colour and eye shadow to adorn their eyes. Those trafficked from the Northern areas of Pakistan bear a fairer complexion, which automatically increases their worth in the market, explains Nadeem*, one of the local pimps in the district.
Nadeem claims that these girls come to him either of their own accord or are sold to him by their families.
“My family has been in this business for years,” he claims. “My father was a pimp, as was his father and all his other brothers.” He is in his mid-forties, with dark, beady eyes and flared nostrils that give his face a hawk-like appearance. He has a receding hairline and he scratches his over-grown belly every few minutes as he responds to queries, drawing attention to the big, jewelled rings on his sausage-like fingers. He laughs often, a deep guttural sound which gets amplified with every second as his paunch shakes to its rhythm.
According to Nadeem, his wife is in charge of taking care of his ‘employees’ and maintaining order within them. He happily narrates what he perceives as the good fortune of his wife at not having had any girls, and expresses no grief at the memory of the one that died as an infant. He proudly names all his three sons — Yaqoob, Abeer and Muzaffar — who help him in looking after his business.
“Regrets?” he asks, “Why should I feel regret or have any compunctions regarding my profession? It’s a bustling business and I am just catering to people’s needs. Isn’t it better that they come here instead of going out and raping unwilling women?”
I press him about the willingness of women who must surely have to endure horrid atrocities at some point or the other, and he answers with another question, “Would you rather they have their arms cut off or acid thrown in their faces and made to beg on the streets?”
He is not allowed to reveal the list of his clientele but smiles slyly and states that people from all social strata visit his girls and claims many of his clients are people who are well-known and educated.
“My girls are of the highest calibre. But I do have different rates for girls, depending on their age and physical appearance. In any case, they all know how to perform their jobs extremely well,” he says, while cleaning the dirt under his nail with his teeth. “The virgins, obviously, bring in the highest income, although they are not put on the market immediately. It’s a business and one needs to handle it in a shrewd manner to ensure optimum profit. There is a special night when all the virgins make their debut as dancers. They then continue to dance every night for a couple of weeks. People regularly come to watch these tempting, untouched treats, and pick their favourite. In the end, whoever bids the highest, gets the girl he wants.”
He introduces his most recent employee: Nazuk. Her name means ‘delicate’ in Urdu but it hardly does justice to her withering, cadaverous frame. She is not simply delicate, but weak, desolate and completely lost. Her hollow cheekbones make her eyes look larger than they are and her dark circles give her a haggard look. Her nose has a distinct dent right at the bridge, but the eye is drawn to the large hoop she wears in her nostril with a gold chain extending to her ear. Her lips are thin and tightly clenched — perhaps formed that way from years of repressed anger and pain. Her long, frizzy hair reaches the end of her spine. She wears a long, flowing skirt with a bra-like top that glitters unceremoniously in the red and blue lights. Multitudes of bangles bedeck her arms going up to her elbow, and when she walks, the trinkets around her ankles jingle noisily.
When she speaks, her voice is timid and her dialect distinctly different from the locals of the area. Her pimp leaves to give us privacy and to allow her to speak freely, but hovers within earshot. Nazuk appears to be in her twenties, but cannot recall her exact age and explains that she is from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. She is a mother of six, she tells me, and her eldest daughter is eleven years old.
“I studied in school till the eighth grade, but when I got married my husband did not allow me to study further,” she explains.
Four times her age, an alcoholic and drug addict, her husband got Nazuk when her father pawned her over to him in exchange for clearing his debt.
“He beat me daily and made life a nightmare for me. He wanted me to work and earn money to feed the children,” she continues in a monotone. “It was hard for me to work because I kept getting pregnant. When I was seven months pregnant with my last child, he decided to leave me. I begged him to stay and did everything he asked but that was not enough.”
Having given birth to her last child two months ago, she recently turned to prostitution. “It is hard for me to find a job because I have no qualifications and the ones that I could’ve gotten offered such meagre pay that I would not have been able to feed six hungry mouths.”
Nazuk’s uncle suggested this profession to her and allows her six children to live at his place as long as Nazuk keeps giving him part of her income. In just two months, Nazuk has been forced to indulge in various sexually deviant acts and subjected to sadistic beatings, being gagged, humiliated and gang raped by four men at a time. There are wounds and burn marks all over her body.
“It is not a job I want to do. But I have gotten numb to it all. My uncle has an agreement with my pimp and if I break it, there will be dire consequences. I do feel like ripping the skin off my body after every job, but I live in peace knowing that my daughters will not have to go through any of this since this will help me earn enough money to make sure they never have to endure what I have to endure.”
Nadeem’s employees are not just women. “I cater to everyone’s needs and guarantee satisfaction in every way possible,” he explains with a smile. “Once you see what my boys and girls have to offer, you will keep coming back.”
Not pleased with Nazuk’s narration of her life story, he presents Riaz*, eager to prove that the ‘majority’ of his employees are very happy with their lives.
“I started in this profession when I was 11,” says the clean-shaven boy, punctuating his sentence with a wink. He’s wearing a black shirt with red embroidery and a pair of jeans so tight they seem to be sewed on. He speaks in a low, mellifluous voice and keeps running his hand through his light-coloured hair, which flops to the corner of his eyes. Riaz is one of the many teenage boys who provide services to homosexual clients. He starts his business in the afternoon and the dealing reaches its peak in the evening.
Riaz was a victim of sexual abuse at an early age. When he was in the third grade, a neighbour lured him to his house by offering to give him his pet bird and then sexually abused him. As the youngster narrates his tale, he puffs on his hashish cigarette ‘to lessen his tension’. “I did not know what he was going to do,” he says in a childish voice, wrinkling his forehead.
Though he was not given the bird, he got Rs10 for sweets. The man, a taxi driver by profession, then started sexually abusing him on a regular basis. When Riaz tried to stop him, the man threatened him. “He told me that if I disobeyed him he would tell my father about what had happened, who in turn would have killed me,” recalls the boy with a laugh. He lets out a stream of pungent smoke from his mouth, and goes on with his story. The taxi-driver, a married man, made him popular in his crowd. “Every time they (the driver and his friends) used me, I got Rs20 to Rs40 as a reward,” the fair-skinned boy reveals. “Gradually I started enjoying it.”
At the age of 13, he had in effect been turned into a male prostitute, and would hire himself out for the whole night. Riaz had a good idea of the price he could fetch and, before he knew it, he would not pass a single day without selling sex. At the age of 17, his parents, disgusted with his behaviour, threw him out of their house and he sought refuge with Nadeem and his clan. He was happy with the knowledge that he was not only getting sexual satisfaction but also money. “It seems liked the ideal job!” he says with a giddy laugh.
Going back home was never an option and he does not want to do so, even if he is given the choice. “I am satisfied with my present profession,” he declares. His customers can be as young as 23 or as old as 65, and half of them are married. “Before going off with a customer, we smoke hash or opium which heightens the pleasure,” he claims with a smile.
As the night grows darker, the streets appear to become more crowded, and Nadeem, Nazuk and Riaz take their leave. For them, the day has just begun.
*Names have been changed
**Painting on the contents page courtesy of Iqbal Hussain
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, December 25th, 2011.