Situated right outside the Badshahi Mosque is Lahore’s oldest red light district. Hira Mandi has seen many go in as novices and remain there till the end with unsatisfied lives and compelling stories. So many of them. I have been running my small grocery store at the turn to Hira Mandi for over three decades now. A hand down from my father, my early days here had been fun, if nothing else.
Kali was the first one I had encountered and befriended. A colourful hijra he was, colourful in mind and attire, always up to some antics, sometimes donning the avatar of Sridevi from Mr India’s famous song “Kate nahi katte’’ with a saree whose colour was nothing like its inspiration but was the closest Kali could acquire with his meagre income. On other days, when it took his fancy, he would wear a green robe, one that replicated a fakir’s, and talk about the essence of spirituality. Seated right outside my grocery store, on a stool that became Kali’s seat, he brought something new to get on with the day.
Funny when I think of it now. When my father was in charge of running the store, he never for once allowed me to come by the shop. He said, I would take my place eventually. I was no geek and the school bored me. I spent my time playing with the likes of my age till I turned eighteen. It was as if my growing up and my father’s ageing had been meticulously planned by my father. Eighteenth of December 1962 onwards, my father stopped going to work and I became the proud owner of Adnan General Store.
Mehez eighteen years old ji, Mehez eighteen, I was not well versed in the law of this peculiar land scape. My first brush with fear was when Saqib Mia walked into my store, placed his desi revolver on my counter and asked me for shampoo and soap. He picked up the goods and then his revolver and walked out without paying for them. “Sir, the money,” I muttered to which he turned around and said, “Your father was a friend. Very good friend. Tell him Saqib visited the store today.” With this, he was gone. I called home and narrated what had happened. My father advised me not to ask him for money ever. I wondered why. I had never pictured Abbu to be a coward. The day, I remember, passed on as usual after that brief encounter till Kali swayed in around seven in the evening and asked for guthka. As I handed him the packet, I enquired about Saqib to which he gave a loud laugh and said, “What are you doing here without his permission? He is the big pimp, the one who runs the district.” Oh, the big pimp, huh, I said to myself. Kali had looked at me, I remember, as if I was a fool who had no business to be there and walked out. But he was back the next day, again for a packet of guthka and this is how I made my first friend in Hira Mandi.
I was a young boy and as you know ji, at this age, hormones do play havoc in one’s body. My first brush with the voluptuous Jamala was at this very place. She had walked in, red lipstick and all, and asked for three kilos of rice. As I went about doing my thing, I managed to steal a few glances at her. She was a pretty woman, very pretty, and I wondered what it would be like to hold her pretty face in my hands ji. She found me staring at her and smiled. ”You are new here. Where’s Chacha?”
”He has retired, Madam. I run the place now.”
She stroke my hair, smiled again, displaying her pan-stained teeth, picked up her bag of rice, paid for it and left. She turned around once, before stepping out and smiled again. This time, I smiled back. When Kali came by later on in the day, I broached the subject casually but the hijra was sharp, as sharp as a needle if you may please ji. He understood I was besotted and began taking digs at my cost. I cannot say I didn’t enjoy them. When it was time for the evening prayers, I shut the shop and made my way to the Badshahi mosque, and found Jamala, a different Jamala, sitting under the tree shade. She looked nothing like the woman I had encountered earlier in the day. A burqa to cover herself, the face devoid of make-up, she could pass of for anything but a fallen woman. I found myself walking towards her.
”You?” She had recognised me. That was a good start.
“Ji, I come by for the evening prayers here. So do you?”
She looked at me as if I had asked a foolish question and replied, “Isn’t that obvious, Mia? Why, do you think we prostitutes can’t call on Allah or is it the right of the so called good people only?”
“No, no, I didn’t mean to ji,” and I was thoroughly embarrassed.
“Funny! I come here and see many I have seen in our area. The same people who use us in the darkness of the night and shun us by the daylight like dirty secrets, roam the premise of Allah’s abode. Just like we do. Who is to stop us Mia? Think about it. In here, we are all equals and that is why I come here. To feel at par with those who treat us like filth. People think I have no rights but who is to take away my right to pray?”
“I am sorry,” I muttered and walked away.
Jamala’s words opened up something within the crevices of my mind. I couldn’t disagree with her. I decided on a little game for myself. Winding up business at 9:30pm every night, I began hanging around Kalim’s, an eatery serving mutton and beef kebabs near an open sewage in the district, looking for faces who I could later recognise at the mosque. Two or three days passed this way till on the third day, I spotted my trophy. It filled me with an unusual thrill, as if I had won something. Days passed by and this is how Jamala and I became friends from good and bad people respectively. Then one day, it happened. She invited me to her place for dinner.
“I am taking the day off Adnan. No customers for me tonight. My back ache has worsened so Saqib Mia has given me the day off. Come over and I will cook for you.” Eat at a prostitute’s? Really? Immediately the thought provoked another thought in my head. Why, but Jamala is a friend. I am not like the other men. I am truly her friend. Winding up business for the day, I took Kali for company. As you see, I was a virgin ji and still not ready to lose it if you may please. Taking me through the winding staircase of a four storeyed dilapidated building, I reached the fourth floor and Kali knocked on the door. “Come in,” she said. I opened the door slowly and entered the room, a small room with a cot that, I presumed saw many men on a daily basis. On the side, a small wooden cupboard, on top of which stood a fourteen inch television and a cane chair near the bed. A small shelf and a table made up for the kitchen in one corner of the room. It wasn’t clean but Jamala looked pure amidst the filth. There she stood wearing a white salwaar kameez and stirring the curry in the pot. Her back towards us, I nudged Kali and asked him to leave. Feigning innocence that rascal, he teased me for a good ten minutes before he made an excuse and left the room. Alone with Jamala, what should I do? What did people usually do? Should I hold her, talk to her or just sit? I was confused ji. Tying her hair into a bun at the nape of her neck, she turned towards me and asked me to sit, pointing towards the bed. I did. “The food is almost ready,” she said and unfolded a newspaper on the bed and placed a steel plate over it. She placed a bowl of steaming rice before me; then turned off the gas and took some mutton curry in a bowl. She placed that before me as well. The food looked delicious and I was hungry.
“Eat.” She said.
“What about you?”
“I don’t have dinner.”
“Weight issues these days,” she laughed.
As I ate, she narrated her story of how she came about to becoming a part of Hira Mandi. “My chacha sold me off. My parents died and he couldn’t fend for me.” I listened as I ate. “Similar stories float around here, Adnan. Some sold by their fathers, some by their brothers, some by husbands, but sold we are all, in some capacity or the other.”
“Will you continue to stay here Jamala?” She let out a tired sigh, one that told her truth in silence. Funny but by then I was no longer in the mood to hold her. I wanted to talk; and talk we did, way into the darkness of the night.
“Do men beat you Jamala?”
She smiled, a sad smile and replied, “They beat up my soul, Adnan. I feel hollow within after every man leaves my door.”
“Do you get angry, retaliate, beat them up?”
She laughed, “A prostitute is to be used Mia and used she is.”
“But you must feel angry no?”
“I utter a nazm I composed for men like these.”
“May I hear it?”
Baksh de mere katilon ko ae Khuda
Woh tere tawajuh ke qaabil nahi!
(Forgive my murderers oh Lord, for, they are undeserving of your attention)
When I finally bid her goodbye, I went home a man who had fallen in love.
My business was growing and so was my friendship with Kali and Jamala. We went out to eat, to watch movies, visited dargahs around the city and stopped for ice-creams every now and then. It was a family like affair till one brutal morning, Kali was found murdered. His body thrown in the open sewage near Kalim’s, the district had turned into a mourning place. Everyone loved Kali, such was the spirit he exhibited. While we all wondered what Kali had done to deserve this, a certain mullah from the mosque went missing simultaneously. This came into light in the evening when the mullah was sought for by the police. A few complained that they had last seen Kali with this man. I knew him myself ji. A kind man with a soft voice. Kali and I had spoken to him quite a few times at the mosque. Why would he kill Kali? But then he had disappeared suddenly and this evoked suspicion in the minds of people. Kali was dead now and we will never know the truth. That reminded me ji, Saqib and his men never pursued the matter. In the land of Allah, even goons fear the protectorates of religion. The matter was thus laid to rest and Kali was lost forever.
A vacuum of sorts engulfed our lives with the death of Kali. Jamala and I found solace in the dargahs we visited and it was during one of these visits that I asked her if she would marry me.
“You are at least a decade younger than I am Adnan. This cannot be.”
“Don’t worry about it Jamala. I have it all figured out. I will rent out a house for the two of us and we will be happy together.”
With tear-laden eyes, she said, “Adnan, no one has looked at me like a normal woman. Only you but Saqib wouldn’t allow it.”
“Let’s run away then,” I suggested.
“For a man as powerful as him, Lahore is but a small playground.”
I knew there was gravity in what she said but I wanted to marry this woman. We hatched a plan to elope in the week that followed. The dark of the night didn’t come to our rescue and Saqib’s men caught Jamala on her way out of the district. She never uttered my name and I left the matter there. They beat her up, I heard, but I could do nothing about it.
It is three decades later now. Jamala is old and doesn’t work anymore. I never married either. We still walk to the mosque together for our evening namaz and go to the movies once a week. She likes to eat in fancy places and I indulge her once a month. Kali is still an integral part of our lives. This coming week, Jamala will shift out of Hira Mandi. I have found a small house for her close to the district and a maid to stay with her too. This is the story of my life. Myself, Adnan Khan from Lahore, ji.