Saturday, August 13, 2005

Tales from Heera Mandi
Khushwant Singh

Khushwant SinghIT is not a diamond market as its name suggests. It took its name from Raja Heera Singh Dogra, a great favourite of Maharaja Ranjit Singh who built his haveli there. It is probably the oldest red light district in the subcontinent, much older than Kamatipura in Mumbai, Sonagachi of Kolkata or Chauri Bazar of Delhi, which is no longer the abode of dancing girls or prostitutes. Heera Mandi has survived the onslaughts of puritanical mullahs and Taliban elements on the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Flesh trade flourished in Heera Mandi through the reigns of Pakistan’s military dictators, as it did in the days of the Sikh rule.

During my years in Government College, Lahore, which is within walking distance, many students lost their virginity in Heera Mandi. And during the seven years that I practised law I heard of stag parties of lawyers where women from this area were brought for the amusement of legal luminaries. There was much talk of beauties who had just entered the profession: Nayaa Maal (new goods) was highly priced.

Lives of courtesans, dancing girls and prostitutes hold a strong fascination. They titillate male libido. Very few realise what tragically sordid lives these so-called ladies of pleasure lead. To wit I recollect Arif lines from Tawaif:

Naghme jinhen samjhe ho woh nalonki hai awaaz

Yeh naaz-o-adaa hain mere dukh-dard ke ghammaaz

Yeh nach nahin dil ke tarapne ka hai andaaz

Dukhta hai badan, hilta hai har jor badan kaa

Andaza kare kaun mere ranjo mehan kaa!

What you take for song is a wail of lament

All this coquetry hides my sorrow and pain

This is not dancing, it is my heart in anguish

My body hurts, every joint aches,

Who can gauge my sorrow and pain.

Louise Brown, Professor of Sociology at the University of Birmingham (UK), spent four years living with prostitutes of Hira Mandi. Her book The Dancing Girls of Lahore: Selling Love and Saving Dreams in Pakistan’s ancient Pleasure District (Fourth Estate) is not titillating stuff. On the contrary it is most depressing. It is largely based on a prostitute named Maha, daughter of a prostitute. As she is ageing and her market price falling, she is preparing her 12-year-old daughter to enter the profession. The starting price runs into a lakh or more. In their teens, girls become das hazarees — worth Rs 10,000. Then they decline to below 100. Their fathers and brothers act as their pimps. While families live in squalid havelis, stinking of shit and stale smell of cooking onions, they are in a bind. They would like to get their daughters married and lead respectable lives. But, there are no takers for these women.

Life well lived

"In the evening of one’s life, most of us are invariably drawn into spells of solitude. To an extent this is something ingrained in us by the Creator so that with the onset of age, in moments of solitude, we go back in time, and skimming over the years carry out an impartial assessment of one’s own life." With these words Wg Cdr P.K. Karayi (retd) begins his autobiography Images At Eventide (English Edition).

During his career, he was posted at the Air Attache’s office in London and during Queen Elizabeth and her husband’s visit to India in 1961 was Equerry-in-Waiting. He retired in 1978 and now lives with his wife in Mumbai, where his children and grandchildren are frequent visitors. He adds to his pension by free-lancing for many papers.

Karayi wields a light pen and highlights many amusing incidents in his life. He writes of a fellow officer who stuttered badly. When communicating his position to the Control Tower before landing, his staccato utterances caused much confusion. On another occasion, when a political neta standing in for the president was to take the salute and address officers, a strong gale picked up, knocked down the shamiana and blew the neta’s dhoti above his waist. There are many similar occurrences.

He ends his life story with yet one more episode: "Jullundhar has some excellent bungalows. One of our friends Premjit Lal had moved into a sprawling bungalow with a big garden and several out-houses. One morning, a very robust Sikh came over and folded his hands with a respectable namaste to the lady of the house. "Memsabji,", he asked, "can you allow me to live in one of your outhouses," The lady readily agreed. After a few days, one of the neighbours quietly mentioned to the lady of the house that the sardarji they had given the out-house to, was a well-known dacoit. Rather perturbed, the next morning she accosted the sardarji and asked: "I have been told by some neighbours that you are a dacoit. Is that true?" The sardarji, totally unruffled, replied: "Yes, Maiji, I am a dacoit but I can assure you that as long as I am staying in your kothi nobody will have the courage to break into your house."

Misplaced hopes

An astrologer told the gullible Opposition,

"Cheer up, my friends, don’t worry at all.

Manmohan Singh will not stay for long

Within days his Government will fall."

The saffron brigade cried in chorus

"Manmohan’s throne is set on sand

How can he exercise PM’s power?

He is just a puppet in Sonia’s hand."

Goaded by the green-eyed monster

And egged by motives sinister,

An aspirant for PM’s post yelled,

"Manmohan is a weak Prime

The astrological prediction proved false

Ill-conveived misgivings were set at rest

Manmohan completed full one year in office

He passed with credit the preliminary test.

(Contributed by G.C. Bhandari, Meerut)