I said in my last post about this book that I would “probably get back to this sometime soon.” Well, I am getting back to it, but “soon” turned out to be two years and three months later. I put the book down for a while shortly after I wrote that promise and actually left it somewhere else for a couple of years, retrieving it only recently. When I picked it up again, I found myself becoming more engrossed than I had been before, because of its highly vivid descriptions of life in Lahore’s Heera Mandi district, from the day-to-day hardships of the brothels to the dramatic and flamboyant rituals that take place in Lahore on the death anniversary of Shahbaz Qalandar (a subject that some people who’ve been visiting this blog might have guessed would appeal to me). The book is also very absorbing for the sympathetic but realistic way that it delves into the personalities of some of those dancing girls. The jacket copy says that Lousie Brown “turns a novelistic eye on a true story.” While that line might be a bit cliched, it is still accurate.
In one of the last chapters, I found a passage pertaining to a favorite topic on this blog. So I decided to excerpt that passage first this time around, and I’ll post some more quotes from earlier parts of the book soon (with “soon” this time around meaning a lot less than two-and-a-quarter yeas later). When reading this passage, notice that it is about a real-life contemporary tawaif (of sorts) looking up to the legendary historic-fictional one in the movies and wanting to be her. That is something that I haven’t seen before…
We are sitting in the best room, talking about my work and the book I’m writing about Heera Mandi. Maha wants to know what new things I’m saying about her. I say, “Everything,” and she’s pleased.
“I’m the star of the book, aren’t I?” she questions.
I confirm she is and that the children are stars too.
I think I understand the kind of star Maha wants to be. She enjoys lots of Bollywood films and she knows one especially well – Pakeezah, which means “Pure Heart,” a classic film made in the early 1970s. It’s a story about a tawaif who is rejected by her lover’s family and who dies in childbirth. Her daughter, a courtesan too, struggles for honor and fulfillment. The film romanticizes the world of the tawaifs even as it damns it. Meena Kumari, the legendary Bollywood actress, played both the lead characters, alluring and gracious even as she neared death both in the film and in reality. Sumptuously dressed, adored by men, technically skilled in the performing arts, innocent and yet battered by life, the courtesans in Pakeezah possessed the pure heart of the film’s title. It was Meena Kumari’s last movie – arguably her most famous – and one that immortalized the tragedy of the courtesans she played and her own tragic death from alcohol-induced cirrhosis of the liver. Perhaps Maha wants this kind of immortality too – a lasting record of her life, something to lift her out of the ghetto.