Summary and book reviews of The Dancing Girls of Lahore by Louise Brown

The Dancing Girls of Lahore

Selling Love and Saving Dreams in Pakistan's Ancient Pleasure District

By Louise Brown

The Dancing Girls of Lahore
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  • Hardcover: Aug 2005,
    311 pages.
    Paperback: Jul 2006,
    336 pages.

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Book Summary

The dancing girls of Lahore inhabit the Diamond Market in the shadow of a great mosque. The twenty-first century goes on outside the walls of this ancient quarter but scarcely registers within. Though their trade can be described with accuracy as prostitution, the dancing girls have an illustrious history: Beloved by emperors and nawabs, their sophisticated art encompassed the best of Mughal culture. The modern-day Bollywood aesthetic, with its love of gaudy spectacle, music, and dance, is their distant legacy. But the life of the pampered courtesan is not the one now being lived by Maha and her three girls. What they do is forbidden by Islam, though tolerated; but they are gandi, "unclean," and Maha's daughters, like her, are born into the business and will not leave it.

Sociologist Louise Brown spent four years in the most intimate study of the family life of a Lahori dancing girl. With beautiful understatement, she turns a novelist's eye on a true story that beggars the imagination. Maha, a classically trained dancer of exquisite grace, had her virginity sold to a powerful Arab sheikh at the age of twelve; when her own daughter Nena comes of age and Maha cannot bring in the money she once did, she faces a terrible decision as the agents of the sheikh come calling once more.

"We Were Artists . . . Not Gandi Kanjri"
(Hot Season: April - June 2000)

Lahore is a wonderful city with rich character and a worn charm. The Mughal Empire has bequeathed some glories to the modern city: the awe-inspiring Badshahi Masjid; the imposing Shahi Quila, or Royal Fort; the pretty Shalamar Gardens; and the now dilapidated tombs of Emperor Jahangir and his empress, Nur Jahan. Grand buildings inherited from the British raj sit in stately, shabby order on the broad, leafy Mall Road running through the center of town. New suburbs have grown -- some affluent and some not. The streets and markets bustle and hum with life and the mosques and mausoleums are always busy. Best of all, though, is this ancient place -- the Walled City -- a quarter of a million people squeezed into a square mile of congested tenements and shops. It is the heart of Lahore and it carries the city's soul.

Old Lahore can't have changed much for centuries. The moat was filled ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Introduction

In Heera Mandi, the red-light district of Lahore, Pakistan, sociologist Louise Brown examines the fate of the beautiful and tragic dancing girls. Once the courtesans of kings, graceful and erudite, contemporary dancing girls find themselves in dire straits, clinging to an ancient romantic identity while facing a destitute future.

Central to Brown's study is Maha, a middle-aged dancing girl of increasing girth who must auction her daughter's virginity to the highest bidder. Tasneem, a young khusra, navigates the demarcation between male and female at will, yet is doomed to be less than either. Tariq, of the untouchable sweeper caste, Maha's increasingly uninterested "husband" Adnan, Laila, the former ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

I lost an entire afternoon to this book - I picked it up expecting to skim a few pages and found myself totally absorbed.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

Full Review Members Only (366 words).

Media Reviews
The New York Times - William Grimes

Ms. Brown, author of Sex Slaves: The Trafficking of Women in Asia, has a sociologist's eye and a novelist's appreciation of her surroundings and the human drama that plays out before her. She spends nearly as much time describing the street foods of Lahore and the excitement of religious festivals as she does analyzing the grim economics of the sex trade. Her main character, Maha, a prostitute on the downward side of her career, comes alive in all three dimensions, fully realized in the circumscribed world that has defined life for her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother before her. Prostitution, in Heera Mandi, is a family profession.

The Washington Post - Lily Burana

Brown's sensual acuity -- detailing the smell and texture of spiced gravy, the intricate embroidery on a dress, the gritty dankness of the alleyways -- make this a fascinating ethnography with Bollywood flair, even at its darkest moments. At times, the author trips over herself -- she knows she's supposed to be an impartial observer, but the hardships weigh her down. Her vulnerability adds to her authority, however. In circumstances as grim as these, a dispassionate tour guide is not to be trusted.

Library Journal - Lisa Klopfer

The book is painful, verging on the voyeuristic, and unedifying. Libraries with an audience interested in women's roles or prostitution in Lahore should select instead Jasmin Mirza's Between Chaddor and Market and Fouzia Saeed's Taboo!: The Hidden Culture of a Red Light Area

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Riveting and important. Even readers who don't think they're interested in Pakistani prostitution will find themselves engrossed.

Booklist - Alan Moores

Starred Review. Brown is unsparing in relating the casual violence Maha and her children inflict on one another, and that befalls them from their circumstances, but she also can't help but be invested in their futures. Readers of this excellent account will feel the same way.

Reader Reviews
sahar

deeply moving
Excellent work. Great observations without any prejudice. I had tears in my eyes. Must read

Kamii

enthralling!
I deeply recommend this book. Brown is a sharp observer of details, and blends the complexity of past and current social issues with an own sense of humour, and unsentimental yet moving depicting of different lives she comes across over time. Her ...   Read More

john

agree!
Sam! I agree with you! I am so hooked! amazing work Brown!!

sam

wow!
What a book! Hats off a thousand times to Ms brown for publishing such a fantastic book! I read the first page and was hooked until I had finished. everyone should read this book, truly soul shaking!!

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Beyond the Book

Louise Brown is an academic at Birmingham University in England and the author of several books on Asia. She frequently returns to Lahore, Pakistan.

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