BookBrowse Reviews The Dancing Girls of Lahore by Louise Brown

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The Dancing Girls of Lahore

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

by Louise Brown

The Dancing Girls of Lahore by Louise Brown
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2005, 311 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2006, 336 pages

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

From the book jacket: 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.

Comment: I lost an entire afternoon to this book - I picked it up expecting to skim a few pages and found myself totally absorbed.  Both Kirkus Reviews and Booklist give it starred reviews, and the reviewers from The New York Times and Washington Post are also very positive.  The only negative, actually positively vitriolic, review comes from Library Journal who writes it off as ' painful, verging on the voyeuristic, and unedifying'.  

Of course, in reading this sort of work there is always an element of voyeurism but, personally, I side with Kirkus Reviews who describes it as 'riveting and important', and The Washington Post that says, '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.'

This review is from the November 9, 2005 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.



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