French author Claudine Le Tourneur d'Ison reflects on the making of her novel Hira Mandi – on the red light district in Lahore - and life in Pakistan.

Can you imagine a place in Pakistan where female births were celebrated while male births spawned regret, derision, even tears? Well, it existed and has been vividly captured in Hira Mandi (Diamond Market), French author Claudine Le Tourneur d'Ison's novel. An English translation of the book has just been released by Roli Books.

In 1988, Le Tourneur d'Ison — who is also a journalist, a documentary filmmaker, and the author of several books including biographies, travelogues and one other novel — made her first trip to Pakistan in the company of her photographer-husband Cyril. Her husband spent four months underground working on a piece of reportage in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan and she visited India several times. So they decided to explore the country in between.

In Pakistan, she spent three weeks at the home of Yusuf Salahuddin, the poet Allama Iqbal's grandson, in Hira Mandi in the walled city of Lahore. From there began a fascination with the people inhabiting the four streets that made up the famous red-light district culminating in the novel in 2003. “I did not set out to write a novel,” Le Tourneur d'Ison says. “But as I started writing I realised that, for the story to achieve its full potential, I had to use my imagination. Just sticking to the facts was too restrictive.”

Well known story

The story she refers to is the story of Iqbal Hussain, one of Pakistan's well-known painters and the son of a prostitute in Hira Mandi. The story begins at the time of Partition and spans the next five decades during which Hira Mandi deteriorated from being a refined part of town where elegant courtesans and dancing girls held court to a crumbling red-light district. Now the four streets of Le Tourneur d'Ison's novel no longer exist having been converted into a tourist attraction by the Pakistani government. The women who used to live there have dispersed.

As a Westerner who does not speak fluent Urdu or Punjabi, how was she able to get these women to confide in her? “They got used to me because I kept coming back,” she says. “And the presence of Iqbal as a friend and translator helped.” Didn't she feel unsafe visiting Hira Mandi, often late at night, to speak to the women there? “No,” she shakes her head. “I have never felt unsafe in Pakistan.”

The women of Hira Mandi were initiated into the profession at a very young age; as young as 11. They would wear a nose ring during the initiation ceremony as a symbol of their virginity. The nose ring would be removed in the evening by the man who paid the most money for it. As long as they were young and beautiful, the women often felt like movie stars desired by numerous men. As they aged, life became grimmer. The lucky ones were able to live off their daughters who followed in their footsteps. Others became ageing prostitutes selling themselves for a few rupees.

Poignant passages

The novel, though, is more than a portrait of Hira Mandi. It captures the history of Pakistan in the second half of the 20th century. Le Tourneur d'Ison talks of the hope for real democracy that swept the nation when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto became Prime Minister in the 1970s only to be dashed by the long dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq. During the repressive Zia regime, her friend Iqbal Hussain could not sell his paintings or display his work in museums. The election of Benazir Bhutto in 1988 rekindled hopes of democracy. But it has been snuffed out since. According to Le Tourneur d'Ison, Pakistan is worse today than it was 20 years ago.

For an Indian reader, one of the most poignant passages in the novel is the description of a day when the border between India and Pakistan is opened for a cricket match. The instance described actually took place in 1953. Indians poured across the border in thousands to meet old friends and relatives in Lahore. The day began with great joy, but grief set in as it waned with people realising they had to part with no idea of when they would see their loved ones again.

How do Pakistanis view Partition? Several see it no differently from Indians, according to Le Tourneur d'Ison. “A lot of Pakistanis, both young and old, regret Partition,” she says.

Hira Mandi has been depicted in fiction about Lahore before. But it has rarely been captured in such fine detail or used as a window to look at recent Pakistani history. That makes Le Tourneur d'Ison's Hira Mandi stand out. Other than France and India, the novel has appeared in Germany where it received a good reception. It is to be published in Pakistan next.