History is bizarre. When you start reading it, you don’t understand a word- since it’s never the beginning. Even if you think you started from the beginning, it never is. The beginning has its own history, and so it takes you long to identify the real beginning of history. But when you do, it begins to unfold itself, like an untold tale. It unveils things that you know and things that you don’t. And then it connects to make sense for you. And slowly and gradually, you don’t even realise and you become one of the characters of history. Reading, rereading, investigating, connecting, going back and forth to make sense, until it takes you along with itself—something you came to know about, you became a part of it; so much so that you loved it and it became your life.
Wax work, floral prints
and white sheets in light,
it doesnt make sense
but they entered suddenly
And when I tried to
destroy the base,
they made a comeback
from a coffin–or so it seemed.
It got close, closer than far away
closer than I could imagine
but the bubble had to burst.
There was a time when I was excited
but I knew the long run was
trouble and misery.
I heard what they said
but now I know
they had no idea.
The distances mattered,
and so did the days.
So in the end when
we did not remain,
the idea of intellect
bonded us together.
I remember my freshman year at college when I was first exposed to the knowledge of prostitution culture in Pakistan. I was flabbergasted and awed at the same time. I had not watched enough Pakistani or Indian movies for that matter and did not know about the Kotha culture. I only assumed these girls wearing shiny dresses of silk entertaining men in Bollywood/Lollywood songs as dancing girls. All I had read about prostitutes till then was through English novels—and that knowledge too was limited.
Thus Red Light Area was a new term for me. I remember the shock on the face of my seniors when they found out during a discussion that I had no clue what they were talking about. That is how I was schooled briefly on the prostitution culture in Pakistan and, Heera Mandi and Shahi Muhalla of Lahore came as obvious references. At seventeen, I was disgusted at the practices and the culture of a part of our society that existed and lived amongst us, and yet surprised that people not only hadn’t eradicated such a system but also used the services unbeknownst to the family—pretending to be ‘Shareef’ members of the society. But soon I realized that the game wasn’t so simple. Prostitution is the world’s oldest profession after all.
‘Taboo!’ was a gift from a friend, providing me a motivation towards looking into the lives of people who dwell in Red Light Areas. Authored by Dr. Fouzia Saeed, Taboo takes a detailed qualitative approach to describing the lives of prostitutes. Dr. Saeed’s research extends to a period of ten years where she consistently visits the Shahi Muhalla of Lahore and covers the detailed life stories of people living there, their lifestyles, family system and hierarchy, status of family names and ethnicities.
The book further discusses the history of prostitution in subcontinent and how the elite section of the society had played its part in flourishing the business since the beginning. As Kaisera, a manager tells Fouzia,
‘…they are all hypocrites. Those who speak the loudest are against us are the ones with many children here.’
It is interesting as well as ironic as Dr. Fouzia points out that the women in this business are considered the lowest of the low in the society, have been seen as evildoers in general and are harassed by the police from time to time but no one questions the men who visit as customers. After all they are the ones helping the business thrive at the end of the day. This argument might also open a battleground for who is worse, the customers or the service providers. But the fact remains, business cannot prosper without either of them.
Similarly, her research also sheds some light on governments’ steps to ban the business from Shahi Muhalla from time to time. The residents of Shahi Muhalla argue that their services are not exclusive to prostitution only rather they produce country’s best musicians and dancers at the same time. As opposed to brothels in different parts of the city (of Lahore) whose sole purpose is sex provision, Shahi Muhalla provides a rounded up entertainment. Evacuating residents from Shahi Muhalla would only make them dissipate to all parts of the city and would be even more difficult to control and keep tabs. This is also partly the reason why brothels have been doing well in recent times according to Shahi Muhalla Naikas (women managers).
While reading it was also very interesting to note the faith these people in God—leaving everything to God in every matter—and their struggle for them to earn ‘Halal ki roti’ (Kosher earning) in their words. They would look down upon begging and stealing and would pride themselves in earning by hard work. It only reflects as to how different people have different ways of looking at things.
Taboo is thorough, well researched and backed by facts and history. In addition, it not only provides insights to the lifestyle of residents of Shahi Muhalla but also narrates the stories of several prostitutes, their dreams, aspirations and the bonds Fouzia develops with the residents along with time, thus keeping you engaged till the very end.
Average rating: 4/5