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French writer Claudine Le Tourneur D’Ison’s Hira Mandi is less a novel than an account of women and their quest for survival in Lahore’s red light district.
It is believed that fiction (in the form of a novel) can sometimes delve into the human condition better than fact (in the form of essays, news reports or research). Perhaps that is what drove French writer Claudine Le Tourneur D’Ison to write her Hira Mandi, an account of the red light district in Lahore, Pakistan, as a novel with its central character, Shanwaz Nadeem, standing in for the ups and downs of the neighbourhood and for the rise and fall of Pakistan itself.
Incidentally, this fiction is based on fact; while in Pakistan, D’Ison met painter Iqbal Hussain who hails from Hira Mandi and while the novel is not entirely based on his life, D’Ison was able to get access to life in the district through her friendship with him.
The life of Shanwaz, the son of a young courtesan, Naseem, runs parallel to the momentous events in the life of the young nation. This makes it possible for D’Ison to use Shanwaz and Hira Mandi as a mirror onto which the cataclysmic changes in Pakistan can be projected and their effects examined; the trauma of Partition, the optimism of the early years, the deaths of Bhutto and Zia, the growing Islamisation of a once multi-cultural society, the renewed hope of Benazir – all of these mould the fate of Hira Mandi and the trajectory of Shanwaz’s life.
While it works as an account of the neighbourhood and its fall from being a destination for the well-heeled to a seedy, decaying, no-good part of the city, it never really works as a novel. Shanwaz fails to emerge as a fully fleshed character and the twists and turns of his life, although incredible, seem to contrived to illuminate the life of the republic rather than as a result of his own nature or circumstances. It is ironic that for a novel set in Hira Mandi where the real players are the women, D’Ison chose a man as her pivot. Shanwaz’s mother Naseem is the strongest character in the novel and comes alive as the bearer of a proud legacy and a woman with fierce quantities of determination and self-preservation. Given that D’Ison’s sympathies lie so evidently with the women of the quarter, the novel would have perhaps worked quite differently with a female protagonist.
Hira Mandi also makes for some uncomfortable reading with its mention of girls as young as 11 or 12 being initiated into the world of singing, dancing and sex work. While D’Ison is no doubt only presenting something that happens, the portrayal of young children as temptresses aware of their power to seduce and detailed descriptions of the sexual act felt unnecessary.
Where D’Ison does succeed is in drawing a vivid picture of the Hira Mandi sex workers as a collective – women who earn their monies from offering pleasure to men but whose strongest bonds are with other women, who obsess over their own beauty but who know well the desperate end they can come to, easily enough. Just as in Memoirs Of A Geisha, the courtesans set themselves apart from the common prostitutes, but ever present is the danger of falling through the cracks, once the youth and beauty has run its course. On the feral quest for money and survival that lies underneath the girlish laughter and high spirits of Hira Mandi is where the novel shines best its spotlight.
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