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

By Louise Brown

Fourth Estate. 311 pp. $23.95

The life of the prostitute holds a tawdry fascination for many. The rituals and intrigues of Parisian courtesans, saloon maids in America's Wild West, Korean comfort women and Thai bar girls seize the imagination. Their glitter-and-tears dramas have a palm-dampening appeal, like a cut-rate trip to another land. For voyeurs, the juicy details lurking within the hidden worlds of these women offer a cheap thrill beyond compare.

But Louise Brown, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Birmingham in England, is less concerned with titillation than consciousness-raising in "The Dancing Girls of Lahore." For this, her first book written for a general audience, Brown spent four years in Heera Mandi, the historic red-light district in Lahore, Pakistan. Her main subject is Maha, a fading beauty with a romantic soul and a fair amount of pizazz, who struggles with her own dwindling market appeal as she prepares her daughters to enter their prescribed life as prostitutes. A woman who hustles as hard as she dreams, Maha is not a whore with a heart of gold. As depicted by Brown, if Maha had a heart of gold, she would probably rip the organ from her chest cavity and crow about its worth.

At its core, Maha's story is one of survival. Like her peers in the brothel district, she was born to a prostitute mother, and it is expected that her daughters will enter the trade as well. To Maha, securing a better life means fetching the highest bidder for her daughters' sexual charms, with the claim of virginity ensuring a hefty price.

There is no avoiding the brutal fact that in the Heera Mandi flesh racket, younger is better. Brown describes the daughter of a neighboring family: She "is about 12 but very small and delicate. She has the body of a 9-year-old but a sexual precociousness that could make her pass for 30. She has full lips, wears a lot of makeup, and totters around on platform shoes that raise her to about five feet tall. It's disturbing to watch her play with the younger children because she moves so provocatively. She has been 'dancing' for about a year and is the 'baby' pimped by her father on the street corner. Not all the babies that the pimps offer are quite as young. They often try to pass off older girls and young women as younger than they really are. It's good for business to say a 20-year-old is actually only 13."

Living and dying, literally, by their sexual appeal, the women of Heera Mandi show the stress of such a precarious life. Brown exposes their gossip, sabotage and petty jealousies, as well as their vanity.

"On first acquaintance all the women claim that they are expensive, and they inflate their prices to astronomic figures. To admit that they sell sex for five hundred rupees ($8) would lower their izzat (honor) and so reduce their real price. Their emphasis on creating an invulnerable and successful image means that women perceive everyone else to be enjoying good business and having a happy life. . . . They don't believe me when I tell them that the lives of other women are equally blighted, and they say I mustn't let anyone know of their own difficulties. They are 'ten-thousand-rupee women' ($169) and they have a reputation to preserve."

Brown lingers over the squalor of Heera Mandi -- toilets overflowing with fermenting waste, rats so bold they pick over scraps at her feet as she stands in Maha's kitchen, the pus oozing from a wound in a daughter's foot. For all her dedication to detail, however, she never stoops to sexual titillation -- the content of the transaction is never described, only its negotiation, preparation and effects. 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.

The technicolor tragedy of Maha and her daughters doesn't offer much optimism or hope for a happy ending. "Pretty Woman" it isn't.

If disheartened by the lack of a magically reassuring conclusion to "The Dancing Girls of Lahore," one must steel oneself and consider Maha's words describing the hard truth of being born into a culture where female sexuality is so tightly controlled and the social order near-impossible to transcend:

" 'The daughter of a tawaif [prostitute] is always a tawaif,' she sighs. 'Marriage costs lots of money and we don't have any. And even if we did, who would want her?' " she says of her daughter Nena. " 'She's a kanjri [whore].' "