The Dancing Girls of Lahore: Selling Love and Saving Dreams in Pakistan's Ancient Pleasure District

The Dancing Girls of Lahore: Selling Love and Saving Dreams in Pakistan's Ancient Pleasure District

by Louise Brown


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The dancing girls of Lahore inhabit the Diamond Market in the shadow of a great mosque. The twenty-first century goes on outside the walls of this ancient quarter but scarcely registers within. Though their trade can be described with accuracy as prostitution, the dancing girls have an illustrious history: Beloved by emperors and nawabs, their sophisticated art encompassed the best of Mughal culture. The modern-day Bollywood aesthetic, with its love of gaudy spectacle, music, and dance, is their distant legacy. But the life of the pampered courtesan is not the one now being lived by Maha and her three girls. What they do is forbidden by Islam, though tolerated; but they are gandi, "unclean," and Maha's daughters, like her, are born into the business and will not leave it.

Sociologist Louise Brown spent four years in the most intimate study of the family life of a Lahori dancing girl. With beautiful understatement, she turns a novelist's eye on a true story that beggars the imagination. Maha, a classically trained dancer of exquisite grace, had her virginity sold to a powerful Arab sheikh at the age of twelve; when her own daughter Nena comes of age and Maha cannot bring in the money she once did, she faces a terrible decision as the agents of the sheikh come calling once more.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060740429
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 07/05/2005
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.05(d)

About the Author

Louise Brown is an academic at Birmingham University, England, and the author of several books on Asia. She frequently returns to Lahore, Pakistan.


Birmingham, England

Date of Birth:

June 1, 1963

Place of Birth:

Stone, Staffordshire, England


B.A. Honors in Medieval and Modern History

Read an Excerpt

"We Were Artists . . . Not Gandi Kanjri"
(Hot Season: April - June 2000)

Lahore is a wonderful city with rich character and a worn charm. The Mughal Empire has bequeathed some glories to the modern city: the awe-inspiring Badshahi Masjid; the imposing Shahi Quila, or Royal Fort; the pretty Shalamar Gardens; and the now dilapidated tombs of Emperor Jahangir and his empress, Nur Jahan. Grand buildings inherited from the British raj sit in stately, shabby order on the broad, leafy Mall Road running through the center of town. New suburbs have grown -- some affluent and some not. The streets and markets bustle and hum with life and the mosques and mausoleums are always busy. Best of all, though, is this ancient place -- the Walled City -- a quarter of a million people squeezed into a square mile of congested tenements and shops. It is the heart of Lahore and it carries the city's soul.

Old Lahore can't have changed much for centuries. The moat was filled in long ago and the defensive walls have gone, but the residents, constrained by ancient land boundaries and historical memory, continue to build their houses as if the walls still exist: an ageless and invisible presence. The thirteen gates into the city remain too, channeling pedestrians and traffic from the wide roads of contemporary Lahore into the narrow lanes and alleys of the Walled City. Rickshaws, horse-drawn carts called tangas, motorbikes, and small vans compete with pedestrians for space inside the walls. No vehicles of any kind enter the narrowest alleys.

Neither does the sun. Only in the wider lanes and the bazaars does the sun shine directly on the ground. Most of the small passages running through the city lie in perpetual, dusty gloom. Early morning is the best time to see the old city. During the hot season there are a couple of hours before the temperature soars and the lanes become too congested. The city wakes up and life unfolds in much the same way it must have done hundreds of years ago. The shopkeepers are busy: the butchers slice up chickens and goats, the tea shops open and the bakers prepare halva and fry puri for the first meal of the day. The fruit and vegetable sellers arrange their produce in a kaleidoscope of bright colors: plump aubergines, mooli, red carrots, sweet firm tomatoes, bundles of spinach, fresh okra, and leafy bunches of coriander and mint. Donkey carts rattle and creak down the galis, the narrow lanes, delivering goods: large round metal pots carrying milk from the villages; another piled high with sacks of flour and rice. A rickshaw whose only passengers are a dozen frantic hens stops and the goods are thrown, squawking, into the back room of a butcher's shop. In the little workshops men and boys are already at work by seven o'clock, grinding bits of metal, heating syrupy liquids over open fires, sticking unidentified items together. It is gray, dirty, repetitive work and it lasts for most of their waking day.

Heera Mandi -- the Diamond Market -- is a crumbling ghetto of three- and four-storey buildings tucked into the northern corner of the Walled City, right next to one of the greatest forts of Mughal India and its biggest, most perfectly proportioned mosque. The old women living here say it has been the red-light district for as long as they can remember and it flourished long before the British arrived in the mid-nineteenth century. Heera Mandi, also known as Shahi Mohalla, was important then, and in its heyday it trained courtesans who won the hearts of emperors. The old ladies insist that things used to be different in those times: women like them were respected. They were artists, not gandi kanjri -- not dirty prostitutes.

I have a room in the home of Shahi Mohalla's most famous resident, Iqbal Hussain, a professor of fine art who paints portraits of the women of Heera Mandi. When I came to Lahore previously it was Iqbal who taught me most about prostitution in Pakistan and about life in the mohalla. He is an authority on the subject because he lives and breathes it: it's in his blood. He is the son of a courtesan and has spent over half a century in Heera Mandi, growing up in this house that lies in the shadow of the mosque and in the longer shadow of social stigma. His friendship gives me some protection now that I've returned to stay in the mohalla and witness its life first-hand.

Iqbal's house expands, month by month, as he scours the construction sites of the Walled City, collecting windows, doors, statues, and tiles from ancient, demolished havelis -- the graceful traditional homes of the rich. He incorporates these fragments into his home, so it has become an eclectic fusion of Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh design. My room, on the third floor of the house, overlooks the biggest courtyard in Heera Mandi. It's the most beautiful room. It has three bay windows, each fitted with tiny panes of colored glass. The furniture and doors are of carved wood and the giant floor cushions, bolsters, and heavy curtains are made of golden and burgundy brocades. This room, like the whole house, has been assembled from pieces and images of old Lahore.

On the ground floor of the house Iqbal runs a restaurant where young couples meet for forbidden romantic liaisons during the afternoon. They sit in the back room and drink bottles of 7-Up in the summer and cups of coffee in the winter. The boys talk a lot and the girls giggle without reason or pause. In the evening most of the visitors are groups of well-heeled, arrogant men. At other times entire families come for an outing bringing Grandma, the babies, and assorted uncles and aunts. They dine at long tables and then traipse up to the roof to look at the Badshahi Masjid and the fort. As they pass my room I hear them puffing and complaining that the climb is steep and that there are a crippling number of steps.

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The Dancing Girls of Lahore: Selling Love and Saving Dreams in Pakistan's Ancient Pleasure District 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book gives a very good in depth view of the lives of the men and women who live in the Lahore red light district. Although the lives of most that we meet are sad and inescapable it helps us to gain insight into other parts of the world. I really enjoyed the book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book provided a very real snap shot into the lives of the women in Lahore's red light district. Very real and honest. It was also a very interesting glance into the practices and beliefs of Muslims in Pakistan. My only complaint is that I felt the heart of the book took place in the end. I found myself wanting to hear more about the adult lives of the main character's daughters. But I also realize this book was primarily intended for academic research, not entertainment, and since it is non-fiction, their story is still unfolding. Perhaps a sequel.....
Essa on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Rather than being simply a collection of statistics and essays about prostitution or women's disempowerment, this book takes the reader right into the heart of one family's experience. Louise Brown lives for several years in Heera Mandi, particularly with one woman, "Maha," and her family. Brown eats their food, attends their parties, participates in their religious festivals, and sees the children grow older---and, sadly, sees the generationl cycle of prostitution carrying itself on in the maturing children. There are also fascinating sojourns with other people in Heera Mandi, including other prostitutes, pimps, an artist, and a family of Christian street-sweepers.The book does an excellent job of describing and evoking the sights, sounds and smells of Heera Mandi and elsewhere, and of bringing the people and places to vivid life. As well, Brown admirably portrays the people therein not as faceless caricatures or pitiable Third-World statistics, but as living humans with dignity and worth, humans who sometimes show great resilience in adapting to or resisting the often bleak circumstances into which they are born.It is a book that is as moving as it is informative.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Dancing Girls is a little too long but well written. Brown from England, lives in the Pleasure District for weeks at a time. This can be very painful reading, very young girls are raised to be prostitutes, neglect and abuse are rampant. But I am curious as to how and why Brown (an academic) can leave her own daughters back in England.