As a child in Bhopal I remember friends of my father occasionally mentioning the famous red-light area of Lahore, referred to as ‘diamond market’. It was to this oasis of pleasure and contentment that men with padded wallets gravitated, and rulers of native Indian states sent their sons to imbibe etiquette and culture. The courtesans were known for their graciousness, impeccable manners, refined customs and proficiency in singing and dancing. The place was also steeped in folklore of the kind that still brings a tear to the eye, like the one about Prince Salim, son of the Mughal emperor Akbar falling madly in love with the beautiful dancing girl Anarkali who was his father’s youngest concubine, and the subsequent discovery that a fuming father had issued orders to bury the girl alive.
Or like the one about an Italian by the name of Faletti who was so badly smitten by the beauty of a dancing girl that he decided against returning to Naples and instead built a hotel in Lahore. The stories are probably apocryphal, but they make jolly good reading and add to the mystique of those Mughal-style havelis that housed some of the most beautiful girls in India.
In a puritanical and misogynistic society like that of Pakistan, which enjoys the dubious reputation of being the most testosterone-fuelled place in the world, a book about a red-light area might raise a few eyebrows and have the older portlier generation of male chauvinists chortling with pleasure. However, anybody who reads Hira Mandi, by the French journalist and author Claudine Le Tourneur d’Ison, flawlessly translated into English by Priyanka Jhijaria, will be sorely disappointed. The narrative was never designed to titillate the jaded appetites of middle-aged men. It is a serious account of an institution that houses the inmates of the world’s oldest profession. It is also a remarkable work, beautifully crafted, the chronicle of a passion written with great sensitivity, warmth and understanding by a globe-trotting author of 12 books. The accounts of life in Hira Mandi, Shahi Mohalla and Tibbi Gali, with its pimps and prostitutes, its beggars and drug peddlers, its gin-sodden drunks and coughing consumptives, its wisps of mogra and motia alternating with the stench of excrement, its crumbling dry rot structures and stygian gloom is etched with profound insight and perception.
Inspired by real characters, Hira Mandi is a fictional account of the life of the son of a courtesan of the area. The reader is taken on an eventful journey through the horrors of Partition, the boy’s adolescence, his closeness to his attractive mother, his longing for the Hindu girl he loved and the defloration of his beautiful sister by the very man who assaulted his mother. The reader learns of his addiction to opium, his incestuous relationship with his sister and her subsequent death at the hands of a nobleman who subsequently commits suicide, his desperate attempts to escape the life of an Untermensch, his inability to find a job, and his year in jail for trying to rescue his mother from the clutches of a violent and abusive client. This is followed by his mother’s attempted suicide, the young man’s endeavour to give the inmates of the red-light area equal rights under the law, the serendipitous discovery of his talent for painting, his subsequent fame as an artist which made him rich and his appointment as a professor of art. It will make a useful addition to the library of a discerning reader, for if ever there was a labour of love it was this.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 29th, 2012.