Heera Mandi’s Collateral Damage – I
Heera Mandi comes across as a surreal world where exception is the norm. A father is not a provider but a promoter, a brother not a protector but a pimp, a mother not a caregiver but a coworker, a sister not a confidante but a colleague working in the same bar, operating from the same brothel or dancing at the same party. In this strange neighbourhood, a daughter is not your pride but merely a prized possession, a son not coveted but cursed. Here legal documentation makes a mockery of biological births when kids are registered in the name of their mother and maternal uncle or grandfather.
In many conflict zones of the world, it is the children who suffer the most. Labelled as collateral damage, they are shelved – no more than a haunting memory. These children will either die or survive. The survivors will have a tale to tell but the questions put to them can, at the very least, be answered – no matter how traumatic the recalling. Where is dad? He stepped on a mine and got blown up. Your mom? She died in the bombing. Your brother? He was a refugee and was lost at sea. Your sister? She starved to death.
Terrible as they may sound, these pale in comparison to the answers that the Heera Mandi kids can never voice. Your Dad? He would get clients for mom, got beaten up and died. Your Nana? He was the one who sent Mom to foreign countries when she was pretty and then sold her in the local market when she got older. Your brother? He used to do the same but then he started putting needles in himself, now he would be lying somewhere near the gutters and open drains. And your sister? She dances while men throw money over her, the more clothes she takes off, the more money they shower her with.
These are the children we are breeding in the streets of Heera Mandi.
“We, the children are still the same. There is no change.”
It is, at first, a rather strange sentiment, considering that it came from someone who you would not identify as a “child” by any definition of that term. This was a toothless, blind old matron of Heera Mandi, you see.
Introducing the outside world to Heera Mandi and its offspring is not an easy task. Preconceived notions, biases, and the taboos that loom over the area hide the plight of the children of this neighbourhood. It is a neighbourhood known by many names; Shahi Mohalla (imperial quarters), Heera Mandi (diamond market), Red Light Area and a name the grand matrons mention with a deep sigh, Bazaar-e-Husn (Bazaar of Beauty).
“Now how is that possible? Everything changes,” I say to her.
“Not for the children of Heera Mandi, as long as this stays their home.” Then she continues with a sigh: “But their home has changed over the years.”
It was true. The once beautifully ornamented jharokas are now in ruins. The brocade and lace tapestries have been replaced by patched up rags. The veiled maidens whose smile would light up the darkest night are now left with rotting teeth – wihch are, for most, best left unseen. The scented air laden with exotic perfumes and fresh garlands now reeks of human refuse and festering waste. The jhankaar of gungaroos playing to the beat of tabla and harmonium and live singing filtering through the intricate jali work has been traded for blaring deck music.
But nothing could portray the plight of Heera Mandi as succinctly as the conversation of this veteran of the area with her granddaughter.
That little girl runs into the room, planting herself on her Nani’s lap as she continues her train of thought out loud.
“My old eyes have seen many changes. The place is not the same as it was in its heyday but you my dear girl,” now addressing the little girl, “are still the same. You were there back then, all those years ago and you are there now. People never saw you then and they do not see you now,” says her Nani gently stroking her long hair.
And the little girl, perhaps thinking Nani had gone funny in the head, tells her, “No, Nani I am not the same! See: I have grown and everyone can see me.”
But the blind old Nani cannot see, at least not with her eyes. She laughs, nevertheless – a deep choked laugh with no mirth, and says, “Silly girl, even in the golden days of Heera Mandi behind every jharoka there was a passage that led to a dark, dank room and in that room there were two, three, four of you on crumpled sheets. I was there too, once, and my mother and so was your mother and your aunt. We all grew up there in that same room just like you and after you there will be your children. Heera Mandi will still be the same.”
The little girl thinks for sure that Nani sounds very queer indeed. But she still loves to put her head on her lap and listen to her tales of long ago.
The beautiful Gulrukh, who would appear in her Jharoka the same time every night and men would line up below her window just to catch a glimpse of her. And Rani, who tied her sari in the blink of an eye; young ladies would slave for her to learn her art.
She could listen to her Nani’s tales forever but she had much work to do. Her Amma worked nights so she slept during the day. Her Bhai slept day and night. She recalls when he could still work, when he was rolling cigarettes and smoking pot. But now he had started using syringes and was no good for anything anymore. So, she has to do all the chores. Amma had told her that she was growing up and soon would have to work nights too. She does not think it is any fun working nights because Amma always looks so tired and sick.
And she loves to dream. Her Nani once said to her that when you work nights there are no dreams, only nightmares. But when she told Amma she will only work during the day, Amma laughed and said, “You will not get good money for day work!”
But she does not care. She knows her school would soon start again and recalls the words of her teacher, “If you come to school every day and study hard you will not have to work at night.” She misses her school. Every day when she goes to get the milk, she passes by the locked doors. She knows all her friends, who had not moved since, missed school too. The day the school closed had been a sad day. The teachers cried. There was no money to run it. She had cried too in her Nani’s lap and asked,
“Why could I not go to another school?”
There were other schools in the Mohalla. but Nani had told her that her Amma had tried. They asked for papers and she had no papers. In her innocence she had said, “Amma could buy papers, could she not?” Nani had laughed and said, “No, not any papers. These are special papers that have the name of the father.”
Most of her friends also did not have these special papers but they all had fathers. Her Amma would tell her that she knew who her father was – not like some of the other Mohalla kids. Her mother was not a tramp like many others who did not know. And when many men come to these hellholes to meet and mate with the Ammas, the children wondered which one could be their father.
Some of these fathers are regulars and send money but are usually married, have a family and other little kids, so there was never a chance of owning up even if the father was known. The children would often hear their Ammas haggle over the amount. Sometimes they sent the money late and at times forgot to send it at all.
But this little girl does not want his money. She does not even want him to take her with him. All she wants of him is to put his name on the papers so she could go to school.
Many little girls and boys in Heera Mandi demand just this of their fathers.
It is a wish that we cannot grant. But we can send them to school. We can find them a school that does not ask for papers. Perhaps, a school that does not question their existence. And possibly even a school that does not hold them accountable for a crime they did not commit!
(to be continued)
Zerka Tahir is founder SID (Sustainable Intervention Drive)