Dancing Girls of Lahore by Louise Brown

This semi academic book documents the lives of women of Lahore’s notorious Heera Mandi – a colony infamous for its brothels and adult entertainment, spanning across centuries.

Louise spends around 5 years in Heera Mandi – spanning the various seasons of the year and followed one family over this period of time. Maha, a daughter of a prostitute and being in the business herself and her children, 4 girls and a boy portray a tiny glimmer of life in the brothel colony where relationships and love are framed in the context of sex and money and ultimately the powerful control these facets exert on the lives of the women.

I found the encompassing manner of including the many faces, personalities and dynamics which exist in Heera Mandi to be meticulously detailed. Glimpsing into the lives of the staggering and often stoned heroin addicts, the pimps openly conducting business transactions, in the streets, kusray, their communities, circumstances and the bittersweet relationships they have with one another, themselves and larger society to various Heera Mandi prostitutes – the old tawaifs from the era of the British Raj and nawab sahibs, to those girls fleeing destitution and poverty in villages, towns and cities in the hope of re-hashing a life rather than a mere existence provided Heera Mandi – the “Diamond Market”- a portrayal which reflected the many layers in which a society as fragmented as this was in many ways also cohesive. It’s people and the social norms and rules which regulate their existence being at odds with the larger convservative society, respect, honour and family being the cornerstone of a decent life, in loggerheads with an identity heavily loaded with stigma and a forever permeating presence of Heera Mandi in the lives of those tainted by it – regardless of how far they flee, and how long the exile lasts. Once a prostitute, always a prostitute – especially if you’re from Heera Mandi

The striking contrast played against the backdrop of a conservative Pakistani society – which almost ironically mirrors the location of Heera Mandi within Lahore nestled between the infamous Badshai Masjid, Roshnai Gate and Hazur Baagh is discreetly described through the relative secrecy in which the workers at Heera Mandi operate.

From wealthly clients such as Sheikhs from the Gulf, to politicians, members of the cabinet and entrepeneurs it takes little to realise the very sustenance of the women in Heera Mandi is dependent on the rich and affluent who can afford to purchase sex from quality women with the power dynamics often being skewed in favour of them.

However, there is much bartering and emphasise on the quality of goods – such as the age of the girl (the younger the better), her beauty (skin colour, features, attractive assets), her reputation (good dancer and sex worker) with the sale of a virgin girl being much prized, the relative desperation in terms of poverty of the family and the extent to which thise could be exploitated  -these all form a part in the agreed fee for their services, be it sexual or entertainment (mujra ) in the form of dance. Many clients may come and go, but the girls live in the hope of snaring a wealthy client who’s interest remains sustained enough to lead the girl and her family a comfortable life.

At what cost to their own chances of leading a life away from the brothels, to have a relationship based on love and affection as opposed to sex and financial gain is an underlying theme throughout the part academic/part biographical accounts of the women of Heera Mandi.

I’d recommend this great read. Another more detailed review can be found here.