THEY have alluring names — Shahi Mohalla, Bulbul-i-Hazaar Dastaan, and Hyderabad’s Bazaar-i-Husn, formerly Sundarta Bazaar — old settlements where the business of flesh hangs on despite the ravages of circumstance.

Walking past the colonial quarters of Hirabad in Hyderabad, where intricate balconies and stone filigree jostle with modern-day eyesores, we arrive in a tangle of damp lanes.

Bazaar-i-Husn is said to be some 250 years old with over 600 multi-storey brothels and a hierarchy: the affluent leave their doors ajar — gaudy rooms in pink or red with ornate women who perform in cities or in faraway lands; some leave for a respectable life as the night ages.

Encounters with dead ends, where no one saw the point in a conversation at prime time, threw up an amusing surprise.

By a corner of the ‘offices’, I met the man who has carried the taazia from here for decades. In a sharia-compliant pajama and a white beard, when questioned he went into contortions of denial: “I have nothing to do with this area. Talk to me about religion. I appear on TV for my expertise,” he roared.

But one could hardly slide away without catching his murmurs — “Firdaus hai aaj? Ya sab maiyyat mei gaee hain?” (Is Firdaus available today or is everyone at the funeral?)

Some two doors from this sanctimony is veteran stage artist and dancer Jamila, known as Apa Peeno. A friend of the erstwhile movie star and one of the bazaar’s bygone caches, Chakori, Peeno belongs to days when the alleys had splendour.

“We learnt from Maharaj Samrat, and danced in beautiful clothes, heavy anklets, in the company of the genteel. It’s filthy now so I don’t live here,” she says as she takes us for a walk. We stop at a square with a shiny alam, above it a girl combs her hair on a balcony, and strikes a pose to grab lucrative attention.

“This alam stands all year; we bring it down 10 days before Muharram to decorate it afresh,” Peeno says after a quick prayer beneath it. “Saturday is not a night for chatter,” she smirks and leaves with her son.

But for some, every night is a night of exorcism of inner demons. Alia, a retired madam, joins us. “The rich ones will shut their doors now. I can take you to poor homes but they do nights. The government has banned us without another option. So we compromise our health and security,” is a wise gem from her.

A long stroll leads to a squalid hovel jammed with people. An irritable, gnarled woman is perched on the ledge outside it — she has brought a fresh recruit from Punjab. “Go and talk but she doesn’t sell,” says Bhootni Buriya — an apt name.

Her pit of sad darkness has seen glory — exquisite colonial floor tiles, lattice-worked walls, high ceilings and, like a patio, the upper floor opens into it with a grille balcony. It reeks of weed and alcohol; some refuse to awaken even in the din; a zombie-like man stares and two girls sit near the door. It was once home to former film star Neeli; the man with the vacant look is her uncle. A photograph of the girl who disowned them, adorns a wall. “Neeli now lives in Qasimabad and comes for Muharram,” discloses Alia.

Just then a policeman arrives. They are discreetly forbidden to talk; a girl disappears upstairs. “They take bhatta from us with free service,” cribs the old woman.

For lower sex workers, the balance of power does not tip in their favour. However, Pathani, Alia and their ilk can call the shots. They were both abducted at 10 and 12 years of age. At a distance of a few yards from Neeli’s past is Pathani’s duplex where she rents a stark room. Still a beautiful woman, Pathani has spent 30 years in the trade.

At her place, the two embark on their tales of love and betrayal. “I have nine children. I was so happy when my ex-husband proposed. It was a way out. But he was another salesman like Alia’s; she stayed and I separated,” Pathani says with tears then cracks crass jokes about men.

“We do a lot of nasha. Where else will relief come from? Some men pay to talk for hours. Are doctors in short supply?” she laughs. Little does she realise that they are vessels of grime that send out cleansed souls.

These are also places where you least expect a wish list of love. “Now I have a nice man. He is good to my children; no one can harm me. He will not marry me but I pray he ensures a respectable life for my brood.”

Pathani is Erum Bubbly’s relative — many years ago, Erum Bubbly shook Hyderabad when she took a bullet from her DSP boyfriend.

“She is a good woman who is happily married. Fairy tales happen,” Pathani smiles.

Bazaar-i-Husn bucks many trends. It is still a hub of syphilis as screening is rare, with negligible knowledge about precautions — despite the presence of a health NGO office nearby. “We know girls can’t be healthy after 13-hour workdays but if they are careful, business will dwindle,” Alia confesses.

Sadly, the area is a watermark of the time when it was washed with rosewater and sandalwood. Its women no longer stop to smell the roses.

The writer is a freelance journalist and author.

Twitter: @Reema Abbasi

Published in Dawn, December 27th, 2015

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