Skip to main content

BOOK REVIEW: Hira Mandi / Author: Claudine Le Tourneur Dlson

Published in Daily Times Saturday, February 11, 2012

Reproduced on Claudine Le Tourneur Dlson's Website

Translated from French by Priyanka Jhijaria

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

A programme about Hira Mandi did the internet rounds a couple of years ago. It claimed, among other things, that the sons of the ‘dancers’ reportedly end up as lawyers, doctors, artists — a few join politics and some even reach the military. These outrageous statistics may be one of the reasons the documentary was banned from the mainstream media. That and its primary premise — the plight of the fallen women — would prompt the conservatives to howl with dismay before scurrying off to bury any evidence in the backyard along with other bodies.


Claudine Le Tourneur d’Ison embeds such wrenching moments in a bold narrative where its doomed protagonist can hail the brave new world and its genteel patrons from an extraordinary vantage point. The expedition to the underworld with the unfortunate progeny and the hapless dwellers of ‘Hira Mandi’ (red-light district) that lasts six decades is both harrowing and unexpected. The wreckage of lost dreams decaying in the old walled city arrives on cue; happy endings leave by the same door in this new book generously seasoned with half a century’s worth of infamy.

Staged in the most infamous parts of Lahore, Hira Mandi turns this sensational premise with its overarching theme of misery into a lavish set piece where a young Shanwaz Nadeem enacts the story of Iqbal Hussain, a real life celebrity artist from Shahi Mohalla who proudly proclaims his controversial origins, choosing to portray the humane over the ugly. The same unapologetic streak runs throughout the novel. The main character is an exception to the rule, which declares the Shanwaz Nadeems of the world ineligible for greatness. In this reality, sons are a burden, left to wander the streets with pipedreams; daughters, however, are valued and brought up to inherit the ‘family business’.

Since the children from the red light district are easily picked out through their accents, the fate of its 10-year-old male protagonist appears sealed. Partition is on the horizon as the boy without a future is introduced as a “useless pawn on the chessboard of a marginal society”. As the offspring of a ‘dancer’, his coming of age runs parallel with a young nation. He will take on the role of an artist wielding art as a tool to extricate himself from his circumstances — and to claim a place in society for not just himself but also his ‘subjects’.

Readers must brace themselves for the depravity that goes with ‘Hira Mandi’ and the surprisingly devastating criticism that emanates from its icy foundations. The characters caught in Hira Mandi’s vice-like grip are framed against the fresh hopes of a fledgling nation set to embark on its maiden voyage. The novel is prompted by Shanwaz’s cynicism and disillusionment to confront the crooked dimensions of these parallel universes. Searing commentary mercilessly rips through the beautiful façade, leaving the memory of its most revered icons in shreds.

As a boy he listens to Pran Chowdhry — the friendly neighbourhood Hindu depicted as an ardent admirer of Gandhi, whose bias for the man responsible for partition cannot be concealed; Sikhs and Hindus are presented as the recipients of violence before they begin doling out their own brand of terror. In Pran’s eyes, Jinnah will appear as a “severe, unbending messiah” who terrorises his kind and walks with “a condescending smile on his bony face”. His sentiments are mirrored by an older Shanwaz who ruthlessly compares the hopes of pre-partition with the follies of the coming age in the same mocking tone that mournfully concludes that his “country never stopped paying for the savagery of its creation”.

The novel does not allow its tragic victims to stray very far. The ‘dancers’ become his muse, ‘Hira Mandi’ remains his stage, and fame beckons Shanwaz, however reluctantly. With these changes come some telling observations about “stiff, snobbish, self-centred society” now ready to fawn all over his work, the never ending political pantomimes and the ultimate fall of a nation to the “lowest degree of cultural destitution”. Some of the more traditional elements of this world will be swept away by the seismic shifts in its political/religious/social structure. He will be left to bemoan the original face of the district, then home to the rich and depraved and now frequented by the holier-than-thou, depraved politicians “who brandish the Book by day and lavish banknotes at night”. This ominous worldview succinctly defines the frustrations of his times and pauses to blame the British for the decline of the “great courtesan”. Here the past will be mercilessly dissected; the present viciously discarded, and a lost era quietly mourned from their lonely perch.

Shanwaz’s assessment of ‘Hira Mandi’, once home to royal courtesans, is kinder. He glides by aging dancers “entering the ghetto of other retired magicians, a desolate world of regrets and bitterness” prefacing their tragic lives with a befitting eulogy. Sometimes, a single beam of light can be enough to cut through centuries of murkiness and the boy who becomes the consciousness of a floundering nation carries the argument in favour of his ‘people’.

In a way Claudine Le Tourneur d’Ison is on the same quest as the protagonist — to give the death of these hopes and dreams a decent burial and jolt society out of its usual apathy. Hira Mandi’s greatest strength perhaps is the way it uses Pakistan’s moody political climate as an accomplice to provide a wider understanding of the history behind such places. Neither world can ever align and yet here they are — displayed side by side, the shifting sands of a modern republic and the medieval echoes of a stagnant soul.

Available at Liberty Books

Images Courtesy of: http://www.albin-michel.fr/multimedia/Article/Image/2006/9782226168214-j.jpg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Op-Ed: MQM in Hot Soup

First Published in Economic Affairs - Islamabad based Magazine (Pakistan) / Aug 2013
BY Afrah Jamal


‘What was it for
?' The BBC Two anchor asks Farooq Sattar (MQM’s Deputy Convener and Parliamentary leader) with an impassive face, referring to the stash of pounds found after a raid on Altaf Hussain’s London pad.

‘Whatever it was for’, he answers, at his inarticulate best.

The word ‘body bags’ ominously flashes on the screen, Mr. Sattar changes tactics; ‘we were all laughing’, dismissing it as a joke.

The savvy anchor runs more damning clips.

‘It is out of context’, Farooq declares. ‘There is no reference to context’, he adds helpfully.

But your own SC took notice…

‘o’ that’, ‘mere emotional outburst.

Unlike those ‘media types’ this party member would not speculate on the origins or purpose of the stash. He, like other loyalists filed away the latest episode under ‘more malicious propaganda’ and ‘sinister witch hunts’, accused BBC of falling prey to Taliban influences and conti…

BOOK REVIEW: Pakistan: Beyond The ‘Crisis State’ / Author: Maleeha Lodhi

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, June 18, 2011

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

Published under the title: 17 Reasons to Hope

“History will be what we make it. If we go on as we are, history will have its revenge and retribution”— from the movie, ‘Good Night, & Good Luck’

A region known for most “terrorist sightings”, a place feared for harbouring medieval mindsets next to progressive thinkers and a nation shunned for having an affinity for nuclear toys. By turns a cautionary tale, an indispensable ally and an international pariah, Pakistan does not fit into any mould — for long. But its name crops up whenever things go awry.

Pakistan: Beyond the ‘Crisis State’ is a compilation of articles put together by Maleeha Lodhi that countermands the grim prognosis. When Ms Lodhi, who has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US and UK, acknowledges that “resilience has been part of Pakistan’s story from its inception, obscured by the single issue lens…

Rebuttal: ‘Finding a Safe Place for Pakistani Christians’

Published in Global Village Space under the title: Is Pakistan as extremist as portrayed by the Western media?/ Sept 2017

‘Finding a Safe Place for Pakistani Christians’ by Marijana PETIR, Member of the European Parliament – finds systemic persecution in Pakistan’s backyard, implying a clear and present danger to minority groups while bypassing an inclusive society that honors and respects the contributions of its minority communities or a nation that deems the eradication of discriminatory laws and radical ideology an essential pillar of its counter-terrorism policy.

An impartial review must also consider the state funeral given to a German nun, the national flag flown at half mast as a mark of respect and the military men who carried her casket; remark on the monuments named after Christian martyrs who served their country, meet Roman Catholic Bishops or Franciscan nuns awarded highest honors and note Christian war heroes who are the pride of the nation. The civil society that forme…

The Book of Davis - Reading between the lines

Published by Global Affairs / Aug 2017

Raymond Davis is a champ. A team player, who puts the needs of his comrades in arms before himself. He is savvy. He is a man of integrity - a survivor - a trooper. Ray, the epitome of courage runs headlong towards danger and into a minefield - literally. He is all this and more. This is his story after all.

6 years ago, he was a trained Special Forces SF, undercover ‘contractor’, forced to navigate the cramped alleyways of Lahore on a routine mission – the details of which remain a mystery. His book ‘The Contractor: How I Landed in a Pakistani Prison and Ignited a Diplomatic Crisis’ with Storms Reback, revisits the scene of the crime to solidify his innocence and along the way take a few potshots at random players who helped secure his release. It’s a hair-raising ride.

His style is conversational, his demeanor - amiable. The case is still fresh in people’s minds and his intent to set the record straight ignites yet another round of controversy…

OPED: The Afghan Policy in Perspective

Published in Global Village Space / Aug 2017

True to its reality show inspired template, the Afghan strategy was rolled out after months of speculations, suspense and dithering. It used memorable taglines and inflated figures. ‘Agents of chaos’, sunk costs described as ‘billions and billions’ and going all in seeking victory against all odds. It offered to be tough on Pakistan, even as it was vague on the outlines and predictable in its deployment.

Reading between the Lines

This is essentially the new, improvised policy meant not just for Afghanistan but also Pakistan and India. With it the U.S. administration appears to have heeded the advice of keeping the enemy in the dark. They have also dismissed the necessity of keeping their allies close and have instead embarked upon a strategic vision that aims to expand the theatre adding India to the volatile mix and potentially widen the gulf between allies.

Yet it is not the public performance of the commander-in-chief that catches the e…

BOOK REVIEW: DIARIES OF FIELD MARSHAL MOHAMMAD AYUB KHAN 1966-1972

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
PUBLISHED IN THE POST AUG 29, 2007

Books allow people to have their say. Diaries express what they actually meant. Therefore, every prominent personality must stray from the path of political correctness and leave behind a diary. One way to regain an insight into the defining moments of our history post ‘65 War would be through the diaries of Pakistan’s first military ruler and first C-in-C, Field Marshal M. Ayub Khan, who also authored the book, ‘Friends. Not Masters’. The personal lives of public figures are always intriguing; while their contemporaries indict/acquit them on consequences of their actions, diaries give individuals a rare shot at swaying the upcoming generation of juries. Recorded during the uneasy calm before an inevitable storm brewing on the Eastern horizon and Indian front, the entries, spanning 7 years from September 1966 - October 1972, are replete with shrewdness and candor of a narrator who observed the events initially as a key player…

VIEW: GOING DUTCH (2008)

Published in THE POST May 18, 2008

What does Cadbury have to do with 12 sketches and a 17 minute film? Nothing, really. Cadbury is neither Dutch nor Danish. But by now most Pakistanis - if not all - have probably received a text message stating otherwise. And thus begins a boycott campaign of all things Dutch or Danish. The self righteous lot, in their overzealousness, would acquiesce willingly. Yet, few who have received an email or sms that proclaimed the success of this boycott and lobbied for its continuity - or witnessed the demonstrations meant to convey outrage against both Denmark and the Netherlands for their alleged laxity in safeguarding certain religions’ sanctity - will stop to reflect on the virtues of pushing a hostile policy intended to coerce but neglecting to convince. Fewer still will bother to dig deeper and corroborate details of such episodes.

The cartoon controversy returned in 2008 – helped on by the aptly titled film ‘Fitna’- similarly denounced for its unflat…