Red Light Area of Pakistan
There is a certain winding road in the ancient walled city of Lahore, walking down which you come face to face with the real heart of life. Rising like the heat and sand of centuries past, almost as old as the Mughals themselves, it’s life staring you boldly in the face: hot, humid, stark….it makes you sweat with it’s unblinking, almost naked intensity. I have found here the cure for any sadness that torments the human soul…. have felt my own melt into insignificance in it’s grimy dust.
Hedged in by the majestic 'Emperor's Mosque', lies here the Heera Mandi or Diamond Market….which is the infamous Red light district of Pakistan. Once famed for its courtesans and dancers sought by princes and noblemen, the modern day sex trade is a far cry from it. Yet, military coups, taliban regimes, poverty and wars are the changing winds against which this island of dark pleasures and revelry has stood the test of time…almost like the beating heart of this dusty old city.
A place of darkness….it comes alive only as the sun sets in its russet sky. The swiftly falling night blankets the poverty and dirt that lies exposed by the day. The smell of rich sweet delights mingles with that of freshly sliced coconut and sugar cane, as vendors call to the passing crowd, with wooden stalls piled high with spices, mangoes, cucumbers, and all kinds of exotic wares. Hawkers roam with strings of roses and jasmine petals, along with beggars with scrawny outstretched hands. Lurking at corners, drug dealers exchange grubby hands with loafers; shady pimps with prospective customers. And everywhere... the heat and chaos of breathing, sweating humanity pressed together.
The sound of tabla, or eastern drums reaches you even before you step into the brothels. Blaring from transistors are popular bollywood songs, rising over the din of beeping horns, motor cycles and donkey carts. Rickety buildings jostle one another as if each is fighting to hold on to every last inch of it’s space on the ground.
Women dressed seductively in bright silk tunics and tinsel, perch on the upper storied windows, beckoning you with henna painted hands with glass bangles. There are no doors to the dimly lit buildings, but just myriad coloured curtains hanging at the entrance of each….witholding the promise of secret pleasures within.
Once inside the curtained room, all else fades away. A nod to the right person, an exchange of notes, and suddenly you’re looking within the jewel case itself: A young girl gently sways her hips to music….the ‘gungroo’ or little metallic bells strapped to her feet making a little tinkle as her feet softly strike the ground.
Her olive skin gives off the jasmine aroma of distant lands….her long dark hair moving alluringly against her slim waist… her eyes with their far away gaze, blackened with kohl. Portly businessmen lean back on cushions against the walls, twirling mustaches and drinking hashish. One can almost sense lust like a living presence in the room, making one choke on it.
The girl dances….the fans overhead whirl…and the sultry heat keeps twisting and rising in an endless circle of desire. As old as time itself. The woman gives them a fantasy to carry home with them….to smile at as they go about their other, real lives…to dream of as they lie besides the mother of their children at night….
At first glance, yes. But these ‘jewels’ in this diamond market of flesh mask an ugly core. Under the glamorous exterior is a rotting, foul reality….one that reeks with misery like the stench of gutters in the back alleys. Some of these girls have been forced into this profession as young as 11, disease and aids a possible threat no one wants to face. Birth control is an unheard of concept so that many of them get pregnant before their 16th birthday, after which their market value falls rapidly.
Children, born to the trade, run around astray like the starving dogs in the filthy streets. For a pretty girl, the prospects are still better: that of being sold to a rich arab sheikh in the middle east, or being 'kept' by rich business men in the posh city neighbourhoods. Till she reaches her shelf life, that is.
But mostly, by 30, it means being reduced to an early old age, countless unwanted pregnancies, and eventually selling oneself for as cheap as 20 rupees i.e. less that a dollar even! And only one motive driving them all: the fear of starvation from poverty that looms large and dark in every corner of their benighted world.
In a muslim society, dominated by men, she’s cursed….spat at…an unclean necessity that must be tolerated so that men can guard their ‘respectable' marriages back home. Used and discarded as if no more than an object…she’s as easily dispensable, as the next girl in line reaching puberty.
....And yet, the dance must go on…. her smile must camouflage the tears burning within…..and her eyes with their dark haunted look must keep staring into the distance…where no light ever shines for her.