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Hira Mandi through French eyes

Peerzada Salman

KARACHI: A book titled Hira Mandi by Claudine Le Tourneur d’Ison was launched at the Alliance Francaise Karachi on Friday. The book, on life in and around Lahore’s famous red light area also known as Hira Mandi, is an English translation by Priyanka Jhijaria of the original French version.

At the launch, the author Ms Le Tourneur d’Ison gave a brief background of the book as well as of her foray into the world of journalism. She said that as a student of literature and history of art she had always dreamt of travelling the world and was captivated by places like Egypt and India. As to how she reached Bombay in the ‘80s, she said she had read about Mughal kings and Hinduism and they fascinated her. While staying at a hotel in Bombay she came across a photographer and a journalist who were working for a TV channel and were asked to do a story on Bombay’s red light area. They suggested to her that she accompany them, which she did, and as a result got to witness the plight of the girls in the red light area. It was then that she decided to become a journalist. She came back to France and wrote her first article for a magazine.

Regarding her interest in Hira Mandi, Ms Le Tourneur d’Ison said that it all started in 1988 when she met her husband while he was working in Afghanistan. From there they decided to travel to Pakistan where they spent five months. While in the country, they journeyed by car from Karachi to Lahore, where they met Yousuf Salahuddin. When they expressed interest in seeing the walled city, Mr Salahuddin invited them to stay at his haveli located in that area. It was during their three- week stay there that the couple discovered Hira Mandi.

Comparing the red light areas of Cairo and Bombay to Hira Mandi, Ms Le Tourneur d’Ison said the latter was poetic and beautiful. In Bombay (now Mumbai) girls were treated as prostitutes, but in Hira Mandi they were called dancing girls. She claimed the dancing girls opened their doors to her without any reservations. It was in the mandi that she one day met the artist Iqbal Husain, who was born there into a family of dancing girls. “It was a wonderful day. When I interviewed him, I was very impressed by his life and the courage with which he’d lived it,” she remarked. She said she decided in 1989 to write a book about Iqbal Husain and Hira Mandi but it took her 15 years to achieve that.

Replying to journalist Asif Noorani’s question whether the character in her book, Shahnawaz, was Iqbal Husain, Ms Le Tourneur d’Ison said the book was not Husain’s biography, although Shahnawaz was inspired by the artist. She revealed that during 2003 she stayed in Iqbal Husain’s house and listened to him speak about the area and its history in detail. While she included that in her book, many other stories also became part of her narrative. She also touched upon the character of Pinky, a dancing girl she met in the area.

Responding to a question asked by a member of the audience, Ms

“It has no meaning anymore,” she lamented. Answering a query as to what had happened to those dancing girls, she said they’d either gone to Dubai or relocated elsewhere in the city. On Iqbal Husain, she said she found him to be an inspiring figure, one who believes he is a human being first and then a Muslim.