Dancing Girls of Lahore: Selling Love and Saving Dreams in Pakistan's Pleasure Districtby Louise Brown
The dancing girls of Lahore inhabit the Diamond Market in the shadow of a great mosque. The twenty-first century goes on outside the walls of this ancient quarter but scarcely registers within. Though their trade can be described with accuracy as prostitution, the dancing girls have an illustrious history: Beloved by emperors and nawabs, their sophisticated art… See more details below
The dancing girls of Lahore inhabit the Diamond Market in the shadow of a great mosque. The twenty-first century goes on outside the walls of this ancient quarter but scarcely registers within. Though their trade can be described with accuracy as prostitution, the dancing girls have an illustrious history: Beloved by emperors and nawabs, their sophisticated art encompassed the best of Mughal culture. The modern-day Bollywood aesthetic, with its love of gaudy spectacle, music, and dance, is their distant legacy. But the life of the pampered courtesan is not the one now being lived by Maha and her three girls. What they do is forbidden by Islam, though tolerated; but they are gandi, "unclean," and Maha's daughters, like her, are born into the business and will not leave it.
Sociologist Louise Brown spent four years in the most intimate study of the family life of a Lahori dancing girl. With beautiful understatement, she turns a novelist's eye on a true story that beggars the imagination. Maha, a classically trained dancer of exquisite grace, had her virginity sold to a powerful Arab sheikh at the age of twelve; when her own daughter Nena comes of age and Maha cannot bring in the money she once did, she faces a terrible decision as the agents of the sheikh come calling once more.
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The Dancing Girls of LahoreSelling Love and Saving Dreams in Pakistan's Pleasure District
By Louise Brown
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Louise Brown
All right reserved.
"We Were Artists . . . Not Gandi Kanjri"
(Hot Season: April - June 2000)
Lahore is a wonderful city with rich character and a worn charm. The Mughal Empire has bequeathed some glories to the modern city: the awe-inspiring Badshahi Masjid; the imposing Shahi Quila, or Royal Fort; the pretty Shalamar Gardens; and the now dilapidated tombs of Emperor Jahangir and his empress, Nur Jahan. Grand buildings inherited from the British raj sit in stately, shabby order on the broad, leafy Mall Road running through the center of town. New suburbs have grown -- some affluent and some not. The streets and markets bustle and hum with life and the mosques and mausoleums are always busy. Best of all, though, is this ancient place -- the Walled City -- a quarter of a million people squeezed into a square mile of congested tenements and shops. It is the heart of Lahore and it carries the city's soul.
Old Lahore can't have changed much for centuries. The moat was filled in long ago and the defensive walls have gone, but the residents, constrained by ancient land boundaries and historical memory, continue to build their houses as if the walls stillexist: an ageless and invisible presence. The thirteen gates into the city remain too, channeling pedestrians and traffic from the wide roads of contemporary Lahore into the narrow lanes and alleys of the Walled City. Rickshaws, horse-drawn carts called tangas, motorbikes, and small vans compete with pedestrians for space inside the walls. No vehicles of any kind enter the narrowest alleys. Neither does the sun. Only in the wider lanes and the bazaars does the sun shine directly on the ground. Most of the small passages running through the city lie in perpetual, dusty gloom.
Early morning is the best time to see the old city. During the hot season there are a couple of hours before the temperature soars and the lanes become too congested. The city wakes up and life unfolds in much the same way it must have done hundreds of years ago. The shopkeepers are busy: the butchers slice up chickens and goats, the tea shops open and the bakers prepare halva and fry puri for the first meal of the day. The fruit and vegetable sellers arrange their produce in a kaleidoscope of bright colors: plump aubergines, mooli, red carrots, sweet firm tomatoes, bundles of spinach, fresh okra, and leafy bunches of coriander and mint. Donkey carts rattle and creak down the galis, the narrow lanes, delivering goods: large round metal pots carrying milk from the villages; another piled high with sacks of flour and rice. A rickshaw whose only passengers are a dozen frantic hens stops and the goods are thrown, squawking, into the back room of a butcher's shop. In the little workshops men and boys are already at work by seven o'clock, grinding bits of metal, heating syrupy liquids over open fires, sticking unidentified items together. It is gray, dirty, repetitive work and it lasts for most of their waking day.
Heera Mandi -- the Diamond Market -- is a crumbling ghetto of three- and four-storey buildings tucked into the northern corner of the Walled City, right next to one of the greatest forts of Mughal India and its biggest, most perfectly proportioned mosque. The old women living here say it has been the red-light district for as long as they can remember and it flourished long before the British arrived in the mid-nineteenth century. Heera Mandi, also known as Shahi Mohalla, was important then, and in its heyday it trained courtesans who won the hearts of emperors. The old ladies insist that things used to be different in those times: women like them were respected. They were artists, not gandi kanjri -- not dirty prostitutes.
I have a room in the home of Shahi Mohalla's most famous resident, Iqbal Hussain, a professor of fine art who paints portraits of the women of Heera Mandi. When I came to Lahore previously it was Iqbal who taught me most about prostitution in Pakistan and about life in the mohalla. He is an authority on the subject because he lives and breathes it: it's in his blood. He is the son of a courtesan and has spent over half a century in Heera Mandi, growing up in this house that lies in the shadow of the mosque and in the longer shadow of social stigma. His friendship gives me some protection now that I've returned to stay in the mohalla and witness its life first-hand.
Iqbal's house expands, month by month, as he scours the construction sites of the Walled City, collecting windows, doors, statues, and tiles from ancient, demolished havelis -- the graceful traditional homes of the rich. He incorporates these fragments into his home, so it has become an eclectic fusion of Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh design. My room, on the third floor of the house, overlooks the biggest courtyard in Heera Mandi. It's the most beautiful room. It has three bay windows, each fitted with tiny panes of colored glass. The furniture and doors are of carved wood and the giant floor cushions, bolsters, and heavy curtains are made of golden and burgundy brocades. This room, like the whole house, has been assembled from pieces and images of old Lahore.
On the ground floor of the house Iqbal runs a restaurant where young couples meet for forbidden romantic liaisons during the afternoon. They sit in the back room and drink bottles of 7-Up in the summer and cups of coffee in the winter. The boys talk a lot and the girls giggle without reason or pause. In the evening most of the visitors are groups of well-heeled, arrogant men. At other times entire families come for an outing bringing Grandma, the babies, and assorted uncles and aunts. They dine at long tables and then traipse up to the roof to look at the Badshahi Masjid and the fort. As they pass my room I hear them puffing and complaining that the climb is steep and that there are a crippling number of steps.
Excerpted from The Dancing Girls of Lahore by Louise Brown Copyright © 2006 by Louise Brown. Excerpted by permission.
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