The Grand Bazaar


| This is the 598th story of Our Life Logs® |

Anyone who knows anything about the Grand Bazaar of Lahore will understand my story and the trials I faced. For those who don’t, the Grand Bazaar of Lahore is in one of the biggest cities in Pakistan (Lahore, that is) and it is a huge marketplace that was created hundreds of years ago during the reign of King Shah Jehan. It’s possible it was created even earlier than that. Some of the greatest cultural landmarks of Pakistan rest within its walls like the Lahore Fort, Badshahi Mosque, Hindu temple, and the very famous Diamond Market.

I think mere words are not enough to describe the beauty and significance of this place. And as such, simple sentences do not describe the darkness that can be found within. I hope through my retelling, I can paint a proper picture.

I was born and grew up in this Grand Bazaar in the 1970s. In fact, I was born within its reach. My mother was a famous prostitute of her time and when she was in business, the Diamond Market of the Grand Bazaar was the most exciting place and talk of the town. This market is called the Heera Mandi in Urdu. You aren't a Pakistani if you haven't heard this name. It’s actually a beautiful and colorful place. But as beautiful as this place is, the spectacle it holds within itself is pitiful. Based on several Kanals, this is one of the oldest markets to please men.

It is hard to do something you swore you never would. Reality has a way of coaxing you into painful decisions. Some of the women that you will find there might be abandoned or all alone. This is the place many women find refuge. Fifty-one years ago, things were very different. Indian and Pakistan had newly separated, and my mother was among the immigrants. She had suffered immense torture and hardships out of the hands of the Indians. She was forced out of her haveli in India and sent to Pakistan. With nothing to her name and a need to make money, she became a prostitute.

My mother got pregnant with me when she was around 30 years old. She was happy until she found out that the baby was going to be a boy. Prostitutes who conceived always hoped for a girl so she could eventually help run the business. But my mother’s dreams shattered when I was placed in her arms. They say that when a girl is born in a prostitution house, celebrations are in order. But when a boy is born, three days are spent mourning over it. I wonder how my mother mourned when I was born.

Her business started to suffer because of the presence of a small boy, and I outgrew the tiny space that was spared for me. My mother wasn’t willing to give up on her lifestyle as it was her only way of making money. The most hurtful thing in all of this is that she kept me with her for four years and then let me go.

I did not have a name in all those four years that I stayed in the house in Diamond Market. Perhaps my mother had already decided when I was born that she would give me up. I do not remember those four years, but I remember that I did not get the love I deserved from my mother. I don't know what a motherly figure is. What is it like being loved by a mother?

Despite all of this, I do not blame my mother for what she did. Not any of it. She had her reasons, and I think that is alright. She wasn't a bad person, you know. She just wasn't a good mother, and that is alright.

When I turned four, my mother went searching for a new home for me. She came upon a fruit seller not very far from the Diamond Market. He was a widower and lived all alone. He was another who migrated from India, so they knew each other. “He can be your son now,” she said to him desperately, giving me away. “When he grows up, he can help you out.” He could not bear her helplessness and my innocence and decided to accept me as his own. He had nobody else and was lonely. Now, he had me. His name was Muhammad Qayyum, and for me, he is my father.

He gave me my name. Sarfaraz Aslam. He loved me like his own, and I swear upon God that he never let me feel the absence of my mother. How much could a four-year-old boy know anyway? He gave me all the love he could. He didn't have much money to send me to school because we could hardly afford the food we ate, but we managed to survive anyway.

As I grew up, I wanted to know more about my mother and why we lived alone. He told me the truth when I was 13. By then, he was older, around 63, and had fallen extremely ill. Though I was still very young to understand this brutal reality, he wanted me to know the truth about my existence before it was too late.

I was shattered. I did not want to believe it, but when I saw the honesty and sadness in his eyes, I knew it was true. My mother was alive. After that, my baba (father) arranged a meeting for me to meet her. On the day we met, I could not control myself. I ran to her, hugging her tight. Before I could stop myself, the question spilled out, “Why did you abandon me?” I could tell by looking at her that she had forcefully contained herself from hugging me back. Her body was stiff, her arms hung at her sides, and she said to me, "Big boys don’t cry."

She explained to me that she had no other option because she could not have dragged me into the filthy world that she was in. She could have left me in a dumpster as an infant, or she could have let me fend for myself on the streets as soon as I could walk. Instead, she said she wanted to entrust me to someone she knew. Someone who had love to give. I believed her. Even today, when I am 51 years old and sensible, I think she loved me. Knowing that brought some comfort.

Unfortunately, that was my first and last meeting with my mother. After that, she refused to see me again because she didn't want my name to be associated with someone so disgraced. I was strictly forbidden to visit that area, let alone drop by for a quick chat. I knew that even though I could not see her, she was always watching out for me.

My baba passed away not long after that, and I was devastated. The feeling of abandonment hit me again, and this time, it was grave. It felt final. I had no job, no food, no source of income, and on top of that, no love and support. I was the only kid in the community who had nobody to look after him. I had no relatives and no siblings. I confined myself in the house for days, refusing to eat or drink anything. My nights were usually lonely. I thought if my mother heard about what happened, she would come. But she did not.

Neighbors who knew my baba visited me often and gave me food to eat, a few rupees from time to time, and some clothes to wear. Months passed, and I gradually started to come to my senses. I spent my time playing with friends on the streets of the Grand Bazaar. Often, I would stare at the Lahore Fort, thinking about my life and what could have been if I’d been born to a different woman. And with no one telling me not to travel to the Diamond Market, I would sometimes sit in front of the haveli where my mother lived, watching it for hours, wondering what my life would be like if she kept me.

In grief, we give in to speculation. It does not make things any easier. And yet…