New Delhi : Hira Mandi, the traditional red light quarter of Lahore, lives in the popular mindscape through its stories of longing, loss and ‘mujras’ after the Pakistan government clamped down on prostitution in the 1970s, says noted French writer Claudine Le Tourneur d’lson.
Her fictional biography, “Hira Mandi”, based on the life story of Iqbal Husain, the son of a Hira Mandi courtesan, has connected to the English-speaking world with its first-ever translation by the capital-based Roli Books.
The novel, originally written in French in 2006, went on sale in India this week after an informal launch at the Alliance Francaise in the capital Monday. It will debut in Pakistan at the Karachi Literature Festival starting Saturday.
Claudine describes the book “as her love affair with the people of Hira Mandi, with whom she had spent weeks in Lahore as if she was a part of them”.
“The book has been inspired by Iqbal Hussain, son of a Hira Mandi prostitute, whom I had met in 1988. Iqbal is an artist – perhaps the only one of his kind – and a restaurateur. He owns an eatery, Cuckoo’s Den, in Hira Mandi where he serves traditional Lahori food,” Claudine said here.
Iqbal is a misfit of an artist in Pakistan, where “even talking about prostitutes is a taboo”, the writer said.
“Iqbal is not very comfortable among people though he has been drawing Lahore and the world to Hira Mandi with his food,” Claudine said. Cuckoo’s Den is a mandatory stopover for tourists in Lahore.
Iqbal uses the dancing girls of Hira Mandi as models for his impressionistic paintings “of figures and landscapes without expressions of sex”, the writer said.
“In his leisure, Iqbal spends his time helping the dancing girls. He is very human… Iqbal says, ‘I am a man before a Muslim,'” Claudine recalled.
Iqbal in Claudine’s novel is the hero Shanwaz Nadeem, who narrates his life story in first person.
Shanwaz’s earliest memories of Hira Mandi are of his beautiful 20-year-old mother Naseem, who lives in her Mughal-style “haveli” with her aunts, cousins and her five-year-old son in the narrow crowded bylanes in the old walled city of Lahore.
Naseem’s quarters are partitioned and Shanwaz wakes up every night to the “cries, moans and sighs of his mother in the bedroom on the other side”.
Shanwaz’s life charts Pakistan’s turbulent history from partition to the Bhutto years, Zia-ul Haq’s repressive regime, fundamentalist violence and the years of “The Satanic Verses”.
Hira Mandi gradually disintegrates around Shanwaz, leaving him with memories of its once-forbidden grandeur – and unrequited desires – amid aging courtesans and confused novices.
“The residents of Hira Mandi had hoped that the ‘Bhuttos’ would bring in democracy and free them of repression and blind police atrocities…But Benazir Bhutto had failed to do much for women. I suppose they were disappointed in the end…” the writer said.
The Hira Mandi of the courtesans does not exist any more.
“The dancing girls (the prettier ones) have either moved to Dubai where the business is good while the others are spread across hotels in Lahore,” Claudine said.
Segregated as a red light area during the British Raj for “the benefit of the soldiers” in the old Anarkali Bazar overlooking the Badshahi mosque, Hira Mandi was known for its “refined courtesans with impeccable manners, accomplished in performing arts, music and traditional gastronomy”.
However, the tradition of dancing girls in the old Lahore city – a walled settlement – dates back to the reign of emperor Akbar whose son, prince Salim, once fell in love with Anarkali, a dancing girl from Lahore.
The government is trying to remove the “taboos” associated with Hira Mandi with a heritage tourism project, the writer said.
“The government has decided to turn the four streets of Hira Mandi into a touristy place with Mughal facades, restaurants and art galleries. The government is planning to set up a dance school to perpetuate the dancing traditions. I was in Lahore last August. The transformation was yet to be completed…,” Claudine said.
The writer, who has authored 12 books, is planning to pen a chronicle of her journeys in Pakistan.