In an earlier chapter I described life in the narrow streets of Lahore in the early and mid-forties. The mutual distrust between the Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other manifested itself in every sphere. The most 'secular' part of the city, however, was Hira Mandi, literally translated it meant the Gem Market of the city. It was primarily the area inhabited by the courtesans who coexisted harmoniously with a mixture of Hindu, Muslim, Pathan, Punjabi, Kashmiri or U.P. women. Among these women were versatile singers of classical and light music; accomplished dancers and plain prostitutes. A few turned into radio singers which was often proudly displayed as a title after their names. It improved their status, image and price.

Hira Mandi came alive in the evenings as rich businessmen, shopkeepers and landlords came dressed in their best apparels with perfumes all over the body. A prosperous customer would come in his buggy – horse-cart – sitting comfortably on cushioned seats accompanied by friends and hangers on. This was the most sought after customer. Most buildings in Hira Mandi ran an open house for their music and dance sessions. Anyone could join the audience as long as they showed their generosity by throwing or offering some currency notes to the girl who sang or danced. The performer, in turn, bowed and accepted the money with grace and appreciation. The 'body' shops were not far from there. In these the client chose from among gaudily dressed, tired but smiling women. The price was based on woman’s age and looks but was often decided after a process of bargaining -as if one was buying a shirt or a comb.

Hira Mandi was a part of our lives in Lahore – a reality we never lost sight of. My father with his friends walked every morning four kilometres from our house in Shahalami Gate to the river Ravi. Hira Mandi was en-route to the river. His group included some leading doctors, lawyers and businessmen. One of them was Dr. Gopichand Bhargava, a well-known Congress leader and a medical practitioner who later became the Chief Minister of East Punjab. He used to be regular walker with the group to River Ravi. On holidays, we younger children accompanied my father for the morning and shared the conversation of the adults. There were always more people in the group on Sundays and festival holidays. To the best of my knowledge, it was not considered 'sin' to visit Hiramandi – it was kind of an entertainment for both Hindus and Muslim elite of the city – like going to a cinema. Incidentally, cinema too was taboo - those who went to cinema halls were not looked at with respect.

Hindu residents of the city considered it a pious act to have a daily ritual bath in the river Ravi. Charitably inclined Hindus had dug up many wells near the banks of the river and built little temples with idols for worship. The well sites provided club activities to each group including sports like wrestling and kabaddi. Body and muscle building were part of it. People belonging to a particular group, generally Hindus and Sikhs and known to each other patronized these wells and temples. Often there was a caretaker who lived on the premises and tended to the needs of regular visitors, including oil massage to male members, or help in preparing the wrestling pit. He himself was a good wrestler and was happy to share his expertise especially the children. Of course, the visitors paid for the services of the caretaker. Thus, our excursions to the river Ravi usually involved wrestling lessons from our seniors in the wrestling pits followed by a swim in the river or a bath in the well-cum-temple where we exercised .

I grew very fond of the caretaker of our well site (with a tiny temple). Mast Ram was a wrestler. During holidays I used to cycle to the river after breakfast to study in the quiet environments of the deserted well. This was especially true during my preparations for my Masters' examination. Mast Ram gave me some luncheon as he cooked for himself too.

I had to perforce travel through Hira Mandi, as it was the only short route to reach the River. It used to be early morning or before noon when I travelled there to study. At that time, the girls of Hira Mandi, as well as their pimps and musicians were sleeping. The streets were deserted and shops closed. Occasionally, I did come across a dishevelled maiden without make-up peeping through the windows, at times making lewd remarks on seeing a young boy passing through the bazaar.

In the afternoon, they were more active, some straying down to the bazaar and walking about desultorily in their slept-in clothes, standing before a Paan-cigarette shops, smoking with their musicians and pimps following them in small groups making fun or vulgar remarks at the cost of the girls. The girls were more than a match for them in remarks and retorted with equal ferocity. After all, the girls provided bread and butter for the hangers on. Late afternoon was also their time to get ready for the evening, choosing the right dress for the night, putting on make-up. Some of the leading courtesans had to dress for a party outside their own parlour. At times, rich landlords or businessmen invited dancers or singers to provide 'Mujra' - a dance show at their own home to entertain their guests at a marriage. It was not taboo those days. Even women of the family joined to see the shows while sitting in 'purdah'. Holding a 'Mujra' at home was a status symbol like a Music Party by professional at your home today .

I do not remember visiting Hira Mandi during night when it was bright and dazzling with dancers, singers and soliciting activities going on. It was not that I had no desire to visit Hira Mandi at night. It was more due to the fear of being 'recognized' by some friend of my father or the family. The story would circulate with exaggerated emphasis on what I was doing there. However, I heard plenty of stories of what happened there from my young friends in hostels, some of whom had been there. One of them told me that his own uncle took him to Hira Mandi to introduce him to the pleasures of the flesh. Apparently, it was one way of educating the young without going into the intricacies of the birds and the bees in the good old days.


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