COVER STORY: “There was a culture
TO prepare myself for the interview with the author of Hira Mandi, Claudine Le Tourneur d’lson, I had read her absorbing slim novel and searched for information about her on the internet. On entering the well guarded villa of her host, the French Consul General, I find her in the courtyard, enjoying the gentle sunlight of an unusually cold mid-February.
As I settle down in a chair, she asks me where could she get a book of mine, which has two music CDs? “I love Indian and Pakistani music,” she adds. “How did you learn about the book?” I am inquisitive.
I am floored. She had waded through different sites and gathered more information about me, than I could about her. It was not that I didn’t put in enough effort. The reason was simple. Much about her was in French, which, as the expression goes, is Greek to me. The little that is there online about yours truly is all in English. Hence the unfair advantage to the bilingual lady.
Claudine tells me that she was born in Metz, a small town in eastern France.
She refuses to mention the year, which is fine with me. “I did my high school in Metz and then moved to Paris. Always interested in art and literature that I was I studied for my Masters in French literature from Sorbonne University in Paris.”
She got the degree in 1979. Three years later she had another Masters under her belt. The university was the same and the subject was History of Arts. As if that was not enough, she got her third Masters in Egyptology from the prestigious l’Ecole du Louvre, a school of higher learning, attached to the world famous Louvre Museum. That was in 1983. She then took an advanced course in the language of ancient Egypt.
“Why, Egypt? Why not ancient Greece or ancient Rome?” I query.
“I was more fascinated by the country, by the Pharaohs, by the Pyramids and by the language. I love even contemporary Egypt,” she answers.
While she was studying in Paris, she worked on the weekends to save money for travelling. Her first foreign trip, no prizes for guessing, was to Cairo and its environs.
Claudine was also intrigued by India, by Hinduism and by the Mughal period in the country’s history. Sometime in the early eighties (she can’t recall the exact year) she took a flight for Bombay. That was during the vicious monsoon season.
“It rained heavily. There was no let up in the downpour. I was staying at an inexpensive place behind the luxurious Taj Mahal Hotel near the Gateway of India. On the third evening, bored to death, I grabbed an umbrella and went to the Taj. I decided to give myself a treat. All I could afford was a glass of lassi. The restaurant was empty except for two American men. We struck a conversation. They were shooting a documentary on the red light area of Bombay and asked me to join them, which I did wholeheartedly. I was intensely shocked to find emaciated young women, sitting on stools, outside their cage-like small rooms, waiting for clients. They were heavily painted and misery was writ large on their faces. The experience changed the direction of my life. I had an irresistible urge to write travelogues. I also had a strong feeling that I could do features.”
On returning to Paris, Claudine approached the editor of the newly launched French edition of the famous German magazine Geo. He was very encouraging and, as it turned out, she was at the right place at the right time. They were planning a special issue on Egypt. That was the beginning of her career as a prolific writer. She wrote travel pieces for many French magazines and also made a few documentaries based on her travels. What is more, she has written 13 books, including two novels, one set in the red light area of Cairo and the other, the fast selling Hira Mandi, which has been translated into German and recently in English.
How did Pakistan happen to her? “I met a French journalist who had reported for four months from Afghanistan. I had covered India. Before I forget let me tell you that we got married and decided to spend a month in your country. That was in 1988. We rented a car in Karachi and drove towards Lahore. We stopped on the way and enjoyed the scenic beauty. In Lahore, someone told us about Yusuf Salahuddin, a well-known cultural figure of Lahore. At that time his haveli in the walled city was being restored and he was living in Gulberg, but he was able to accommodate us in two semi-finished rooms. Close to the haveli was the famous, or shall I say the infamous, Hira Mandi. Yusuf introduced us to Iqbal Hussain, a truly out of this world person. He is the son of a prostitute, who has fought for a position in the society. He educated himself and also made a career as a painter. He fought for the downtrodden, despite his innate disadvantages. I came back to Lahore in 2003 and stayed at Iqbal Hussain’s house for two months. That gave me the opportunity to make friends with the dancing girls and the prostitutes.”
“Having read your novel and having read so much about him earlier, I am convinced it’s more of Iqbal Hussain’s biography than a novel.
Can you deny that?” I ask.
“That’s not correct. Yes, Shanawaz, the central character of the novel, has been inspired by Iqbal Hussain, but I have used my imagination to add a lot to the character. Likewise, I met a dancing girl, who was called Pinky. The décor of her room and her dresses were all in pink. I lent the colour to Naseem’s bed sheets. The traditions of Hira Mandi, the insurmountable odds in the lives of the prostitutes, the worthlessness of a male child and the miserable end to the lives of old prostitutes, particularly those with no daughter or granddaughter to look after them, are all that I came to know during my two month stay.”
“You have been to the red light areas in Bombay and Cairo. How do you find them different from Hira Mandi?” was my next question.
“There can be no comparison. In both these places all you see is flesh trade. Nothing more, nothing less. In Hira Mandi you saw colour, you saw dance, you heard music. There was a culture to it. Sadly, it is no longer there. The girls have mostly gone to the UAE, where they make more money and where there is no moral police. The ones who have stayed behind practise their professions in posh localities of Lahore or are at the beck and call of hotel guests,” replies Claudine.
I tell her about the culture in Chowk, the red light area of Lucknow, which has lost much of its traditions. It was a place where the nobility used to send their sons to learn etiquette. I mention Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s novel Umrao Jan Ada and Claudine jots down the title in her notebook.
Claudine’s next project is a book on Pakistani Christians. The day after we meet she is to go to the settlements where the community lives. She promises me that she would also meet middle class Christians, as also those who have made it big.
One last question: who was the late Iqbal Mustafa, the man she dedicated Hira Mandi to? “When we came to Pakistan, he had put us up in his house in Bahawalpur. He was immensely helpful. He was my friend, philosopher and guide. It’s sad that he is no more.”
— Asif Noorani
The reviewer is a writer. His latest book is Mehdi Hasan: The Man and his Music