I felt like a bridegroom who had come to pick out one of the three beautiful sisters. Sitting next to each other on a blue sofa, they blushed and coquettishly glanced at us.
An old woman with a straight back and shining-white hair sat down on the floor and talked of the heat and humidity. She had a firm, commanding voice that sliced and rebuked the air with the sharp tanginess of a most refined form of spoken Urdu.
Unlike the brightly-colored and intricately designed shalwaar kameeze (Shalwar are loose trousers and the kameeze is a long shirt) of the girls, the stern woman stood apart in an off-white dress and a white netted dupatta (a scarf or covering for the head and upper body worn by women), carefully adjusted on her head.
It seemed like a cultured Muslim family, but the girls were not sisters. They were prostitutes. The old lady was not a mother looking for suitable boys for her daughters, but a pleasure-house Madam.
We were in Heera Mandi — 'a bazaar of diamonds' — Pakistan's oldest red light district.
Crossing into the Red Light
Mian Naeem, a soft-spoken Lahore-based sculptor and art-critic, had agreed to take me for an excursion to Heera Mandi, a place I particularly wished to visit especially after reading an excellent book by the British author Louise Brown, The Dancing Girls of Lahore: Selling Love and Saving Dreams in Pakistan's Ancient Pleasure District.
I was in Pakistan to take part in a conference for a visa-free South Asia and was tied up with a series of seminars and speeches during the day. Night was the time to explore the city and Heera Mandi had to be a necessary pilgrimage.
A Road Leading to Sin
Mian Naeem parked his vintage car outside the periphery of Heera Mandi. It was past midnight, perhaps the right time to take a dip into the secrets of the flesh.
The evening had grown slightly middle-aged. The madams and their agents were likely to be more tolerant towards pleas for cheaper bargaining. The available girls were unlucky to be picked yet and hopefully more resigned in their choice for customers. Further, the shield of the deep-night darkness made it easy to imagine that Allah would be too sleepy to notice his faithful venturing out to make sinful transactions.
The streets were crowded with the revelers of the night. Restaurants, and only restaurants, lined both the sides. The blazing fire in the tandoors, the complicated smell of chicken curry and gutter stink, the cries of the cooks, and the laughter of the diners combined to create a blurred sensation in the mind.