Last year this day, it was 45 degrees in Lahore. But since we couldn’t stay all day in the comforts of AC (and of course why were we here if we didn’t taste some real Lahori food?), there we were, in androon city, on the roof of Cuckoo’s Den—an old kotha, now operating as a restaurant run by a painter, son of an old prostitute—in the backdrop of Badshahi Masjid overhearing live qawaali from down below somewhere, deciding on our Lahori menu for dinner. Even though we were seated outdoors under the sky, there was not a single whiff of air that could dry out our perspiration. It was a starless sky with no air but not the kind that whispered rain. We had our dinner listening to the clear sounds of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s numbers playing in the park below, only marred by the buzz of rotating stand-fans—a low-key affair; neither too many photos nor too much drama, just the four of us enjoying the unearthly backdrop. But the moment we paid the bill, it started pouring with reckless abandon—large drops of rain, each the size of a ping pong ball—drenching our clothes in seconds while we ran for cover.
Not for long though. We knew our clothes had been ruined and there was no cover in the Food Street so we resorted to buying kulfi, checked out some traditional jewelry, and argued about whether we wanted to eat Paan (we decided we didn’t).
Only then my friend’s driver called to let her know that the car had broken down. Wow. Exactly how it happens in movies. Except it didn’t.
We strode towards the car, licking the melted kulfi, while it poured. People were running here and there in a frenzy—anxious for cover. The route from food street to my friend’s place—where we were staying—was no less than an hour at least. It was already past 9:30. And of course we didn’t forget it was Independence Eve tonight, with the whole city lit and ready for celebrations. And in case we didn’t know how Lahoris celebrated, we were about to find out.
My friend called home and informed that we had been stuck and called for another car while we waited in the broken car amid roaring rain that unsettled everyone around. People ran out of eateries, holding whatever they could over their heads—bags, purses, umbrellas—hailing rickshaws to get out of the narrow streets. It was a musical chaos: sounds of azaan from Badshahi masjid entwined with Qawali (which couldn’t decide whether to continue entertaining people or to stop, eventually stopping mid-azaan) from the park beside the fort, the horns of cars and bikes honking non-stop in efforts of getting everything—moving and unmoving—out of the way to get out of the broken roads and quickly expanding puddles of water amid thunder and lightning of the hammering rain that had been suppressed for too long, it seemed.
So there we were, the four of us, stranded in the middle of the old city, sitting in a broken car waiting for another one to come.While it showered non-stop—rain drops pelting continuously on the metal roof—we talked about all the things that we wanted to do, things we dreaded after the long weekend, of life in another city, of movies that we had watched and those that were on our to-watch list, Bollywood songs, and cheap dance parties that ended in us rolling on the floor with laughter, followed by pizza deliveries and coffee rush late at night. Tired of waiting in the car for more than an hour, we changed places, opened and closed doors of the car (since the windows couldn’t be rolled down) while arguing as to whether it was safe to open the car doors:
“But it’s getting really suffocating in here!”
“I’d rather die of suffocation than by a serial killer slitting my throat”. (The driver had disappeared somewhere looking for a mechanic).
The street where we were parked had suddenly fallen silent, the only sounds now of rain thrumming on surfaces. Street lights blinked, so did the lights from inside the windows of the two-three story kothas. The silence was eerie and yet daring. Bored of sitting needlessly in a closeted space of the vehicle, bickering about what we were going to eat next, I suddenly had an idea—something I had always wanted to do but had never dared to say out aloud: we could explore the red-light area.
The timing couldn’t have been perfect; us parked just outside the back gate that entered into the district, with no people around, and virtually no one to notice us, we could just get out of the car and go inside, explore the street and come back. I knew the taboo associated with the place—the infamous Heera Mundi where men from all backgrounds visited to amuse themselves; from drug-addicts to vagabonds to bureaucrats and faujis, students and tourists to cheats and liars, and everyone else who didn’t fit the list and yet wanted the sheer experience of it all. Even though the street is an enigma for the outsiders, enticing some while repulsing others, to me, it held an artistic value. I had read Fouzia Saeed’s Taboo: The Hidden Culture of Red-Light Area and since wanted to visit the place. Heera Mandi is a completely innocuous street unlike what people imagine—that the people living in the Mandi would capture any girl who entered the district and force her into prostitution. And yet the idea was thrilling due to its taboo. I knew the opportunity was too big to miss—when else would we be standing here in this place, idle, with the only worry in the world of a car repair to get home, only feet away from exploring the place I’d read about years ago; a district full of skilled musicians and artists and vocalists and dancers; people, who weren’t appreciated for their inherent art and disgraced for their clandestine services. But of course I wasn’t listened to. How crazy was I to even voice my irrational thoughts of getting out of car in that unsafe area in the first place and then going right into the lion’s mouth on a rainy night in wet clothes, four girls only, with no male to accompany? I tried to reason rationally first with facts and then with the thrill it brought, but my friends were too hard lined to give weight to my imploring requests.
And so we waited for another hour stealthily glancing in the dark street—now the center of our focus, looking for any activity (it was too dark to find out)—till the other car arrived and we left eventually after 11 pm, reaching home (Phase 6) late at 1:30 am in the morning of 14th August. The ride on the roads on the eve of independence was a treat in itself worthy of writing another long post, nonetheless, the highlight of the drive back home was the final fifteen minute drive via Ring Road amid the downpour—sodium lit deserted road, wet windows, some nostalgic Pakistani music and us singing like crazy; probably the best long drive in rain I’ve had in years!
Note: To my friends who were the best company ever in Lahore, in scorching heat and load shedding hours and suffocating clouds followed by rain and downpour and summerhouse/rooftop conversations late at night.
Special thanks to Beenish, my true Lahori friend, who was the best host ever.