How to reform Hira Mandi

Before process of social transformation started, new professions created, everyone knew their place in tehzeeb.

Ajmal Kamal March 23, 2012

In my last column, “Our internal censors”, published in this newspaper on March 16, I had to attend to the mini-debate sparked by my remarks about the disappearance of Zafarullah Khan from our official history. In my view, making unwanted people disappear — or using extraordinary means and unusual arguments to distort their image — is a nationalistic device commonly used in our country. This is a subject worth exploring, and I intend to come back to it, but just now, let us finish our business of looking at the portions of Saadat Hasan Manto’s story “Naya Qanoon” that were deleted when the textbook board in Sindh did him the great honour of including his story in the Urdu syllabus Gulzar-e-Urdu meant for class XII students.

Here comes the most masterful stroke of the blue pencil of the textbook board censor. It appears near the end — the climax — of the story, when Mangu kochvan, extremely anxious about the new constitution and impatient to see it in some physical form sights a gora fauji with whom he had had fights on a few earlier occasions that ended with the white army man beating up the enraged but helpless tongawala. This time, however, Mangu feels that with the new law in force, things have changed and he has no need to show submission to the gora fauji.

Ustad Mangu was trying to work out if the present system of allotting tonga number plates would change with the new dispensations, when he saw a gora soldier standing next to a lamp post. […]

“Sahib Bahadur kahan jana mangta?” Ustad Mangu sarcastically asked, not forgetful of the fact that there was a new constitution in force in India now

“Hira Mandi, […]” the gora answered.

In a superb move in the fine art of censorship, the conscientious editors of the textbook have changed the last line of the above passage to the following:

“Mandi, […]” the gora answered.

By striking out the word “hira” from “Hira Mandi” (literally, ‘diamond market’), the name of the famous red-light district of Lahore, the textbook censors have managed to remove the sting. Having been metamorphosed to “mandi,” it may well be the fruit or grain market, or ghas mandi that the poor gora fauji was trying to reach. By transforming the obviously carnal motivation of the gora into something acceptable under the Hudood Ordinances, the faithful but dishonest editors have managed to hide the fact that the goras (and others) were also included in the clients of our unfortunate women populating our brothels. This may also shed another, unrealistic but pleasing, light on the relationship between the British and the Indian Muslims. The Shurafa part of the Muslim community in the subcontinent, from Sir Syed to Sir Iqbal, had been great admirers of the British rule. The political party that came to represent the Shurafa Muslims was actually formed with an aim (among others) to “promote among the Muslims of India feelings of loyalty to the British government.” (We must thank our respected historian Dr KK Aziz to bring this deliberately neglected fact to light in his books, and Najam Sethi to mention it in his TV programme recently.) This feeling of loyalty is starkly manifest in a huge bulk of writings of Shurafa Muslims beginning from Sir Syed’s arguments about 1857 in his Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind to the elegy written by Sir Iqbal on the sad demise of Queen Victoria, the benevolent monarch of British India. The editors appear to have inherited the world view of the Shurafa and the party that came into being to represent them.

As far as the institution of prostitution is concerned, it had remained an integral part of the feudal Muslim culture in the subcontinent. Since the cultural set-up — eulogised, even glamourised, by some of our leading cultural leaders as the so-called “Hind-Islami tehzeeb” — privileged the upper caste Muslims (who gave themselves the title of ‘Shurafa’ or ‘Ashraaf’), women of lower castes (Muslims as well as others) were supposed to be available to them so that they could quench their sharif carnal desires. A close reading of fiction written by authors like Abul Fazl Siddiqui reveals the interesting and scandalous intricacies of the feudal world of UP in which successive generations of such lower castes, or khidmati qaumain, used to provide rakhels (keeps or concubines) to successive generations of Shurafa landlords and rulers. These khidmati or service castes used to perform different specific functions for the Shurafa: they were dhobis (washermen), bhishtis (water-carriers), nais (barbers), malis (gardeners) etc., apart from following the majority hereditary profession of farming. The womenfolk of all these service castes were — are — considered fair game for the Shurafa that enjoy feudal authority over them.

It may be noted that these women belonging to various service castes did not necessarily receive any compensation for their sexual exploitation in addition to the wages in kind given to their caste for their traditional profession. In addition to these exploited women, separate castes had been created who had prostitution as their hereditary profession. (In Punjab this caste is called kanjar.) Their women earn their living as sex workers and men as pimps. In the days before the process of social transformation began and new professions were created, everyone knew their place in the traditional tehzeeb and did not dare to question the hereditary profession thrust upon their caste by history. Some of the prostitutes were allowed to attain a high social status, for example in Lucknow and Delhi, where Shurafa sent their male offspring to famous prostitutes so that they could learn to speak Urdu in the correct accent and acquire other evolved tastes. Some of them, in the inimitable words of Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi, even forgot to bring their sons back home!

Manto was among the foremost modern Urdu writers, who wrote about how the process of social change was creating awareness among the kanjars (and other downtrodden people) about their condition and a desire for a better life.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 24th, 2012.


M. Arif Ali Khan | 9 years ago | Reply

This is shameful article written on the shoulders of Manto trying to take to task our Heroes. I feel ashamed of being a part of this society where women are stripped naked and paraded through the roads of the city. Is there no khidmatgars in Pakistani society today?? It is even worst. People, instead of trying to malign our ancestors, should look into their own gerebaans. One can only feel ashamed. Stop being Hippocratic and come to reality and start writing something fruitful for this generation and the generations to come. Dont try to distort history. For Gods sake there is so much beyond HIRAMANDI to be taught to our children who are using the computer more than the elders.

A. Khan | 9 years ago | Reply

Thanks for highlighting a deliberately neglected part of sub-continent Muslim culture.

Although you seem to imply that the practice of having women of khidmati quomain as concubines is a thing of the past, it still happens in our wadera and sufi culture. Just go with any pir or landlord to their holdings and if you are a guest of said pir or wadera, you might be offered one.

Activities such as this are what prevents these waderas from ever wanting their mureeds to be educated. Applies equally to sardars or any other landlord who has control over his serfs.

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