In Search of Abbajan

In Search of Abbajan

Hira Mandi 


This afternoon, everyone at the kotha, including me, is irked by a reporter, but we can’t get rid of him. The long hours of load shedding in Lahore’s summers make it difficult to tolerate people in our small rooms, and there is hardly any ventilation. Yet, he walks in saying he has come to interview the walled city’s famous courtesan, Shama Jaan, me.

Gulshan Jaan’s daughter calls out to me, ” Shama aunty someone wants to see you.”

A middle-aged man and a young woman with a camera are ushered in; he mops his forehead before beginning his interview: 

“When did you become the famous Shama Jaan?”

I reply, “When I turned to the famed Shama Jaan, I do not remember. Perhaps ten years ago.

 There is no time for memories, sahib, one client arrives, another one leaves.” 

He stares at me long and hard, but I don’t bat an eyelid, then he asks his next question—

“What brought you to these infamous Lahore lanes? To Hira Mandi?”

A smile briefly flies across my face. “My search for abbajan brought me here. Shahi Mohalla is, paradoxically, the only home for cast away urchins.” I continue to play with my young son.

The disbelief on his face prompts me to add

“It is a very long story. It must be accompanied by something to drink? What would you like, janab? Tea or sherbet?”

I yawn dismissing any other queries but the reporter is persistent. 

“Don’t you, for your son’s sake, wish to escape from these seedy gullies?”

I frown at his question but continue to play with my son who smiles at me.

Sahib, who’ll give me a home? Like the other girls, I have tried numerous times to escape the kotha, but these lanes will never leave me! Professional responsibilities are such, ji. 

“I know Hira Mandi turns young boys into wastrels, criminals, drunken ruffians, pimps, or money extracting brokers. There are plenty of men who would cheat you outside too. 

I see cunning in almost all men.”

My heart was singed by the betrayals I faced at the hands of the men in my life. It is the reason I find myself living in this filth. 

From the deepest recesses of my mind spill out some of the most unpleasant memories: I recall my life ten years ago, Baba Habib, my eyes glow with a ferocity, and I wonder how he has escaped from the filth that I am buried in. My face tightens with pain, but I’ve learnt to conceal it all with a smile.

My mind delves on how the Baba’s smile and gestures, eyes and deportment duped me. Mistaking his calculated gestures as concern, I fell into his trap.  

And then Najma’s words resound in my ears as a warning: “Baba’s taweez is all hocus pocus, through his Sufi garb and his magical chants he deceives you.”

 I pause the game with my son and turn my face towards the reporter. The venom in my eyes shocks him as I ask.

“Can men be trusted?” 

Sweat pools on his forehead. He is uneasy, and thrusts an Urdu newspaper into my hands. I look at my picture in the paper, a painting by the famous Iqbal Hussain, titled Reflection.

Before he throws a barrage of questions at me, I gaze reflectively and think to myself: 

Now what was I looking at that moment, perhaps, at myself in the mirror. Here is the famed Shama Jaan, from Hira Mandi, sitting idly before a mirror for a moment, staring emptily, as her fulfilled client gets dressed to leave. After ten years of drudgery in this mohalla, I don’t have time to think, after my body’s stroked, pummelled, pushed, and guided by the clients’ needs. I sit in my chair, a few moments before another client will abuse and injure my body. Dare I  speak my thoughts out loud?

“Iqbal Hussain sahib offered to paint me. He shared his mother’s story and said he too hailed from these gullies. He bribed me with a promise to pay my son’s school fees, or else I’d have never agreed to pose for him.” 

I hear the sound of music, tinkling bells, as the sun sets over the dome of the Badshahi Mosque,  and the muezzin recites the Azaan; the faithful rush to pray.

And gradually a billion lights flicker through the ramshackle, rundown houses of Hira Mandi.


Meeting Abbajan 


The full moon spreads its pearly light over the maqbara turning it serene. As an eighteen-year-old, I soaked myself in its tranquillity, I know my quest is  finally over. That day, Uzma and I were jubilant that I would finally meet my abbajan.

We had come to partake in the festivities, after which, I move purposefully, parting the confused milling crowd. I walk towards the  shrine, and  bow my head to pray. Upon opening my eyes, I see Baba, who appears in a green outfit, followed by two men, swaying peacock feathers, chanting something in Arabic.  Baba holds a bronze vessel of water,  and chants a  dua: as if to cast a spell over the water. That night, he thrusts it  to my lips:

 “Abbajan chahiye, beta, drink this magical portion. It will take you nearer to him…

 And then in his booming voice he orders me: “Drink, you foolish girl! Drink and you’ll meet your Abbajan in a day.” 

I gulp the water and feel dizzy. Is it the maqbara that is reeling or is it me who  is swaying?

All I could remember was calling out to Uzma but only heard  the Baba whisper:

“The world is an illusion, like grains of sand this illusion slips through our fingers.”

And then my body becomes limp, a haze  envelops my eyes. Before I could scream, I realised I was  being bundled up. Someone’s rough hands were bundling me up in a dirty, dusty carpet. I heard low voices speaking Pashto, but could not utter anything, they were putting my drugged body onto a truck heading for Afghanistan.

I wished Najma would save me. My thoughts focused on my mother’s brokenness when she would  find out that I, her daughter, too would never return like abbajan

Soon the truck hit the road and I could only moan.  Much later, when I was barely conscious, I recollected that Baba had thumped  Uzma 

Shabaash meri jaan! Shabaash!” 

And then he’d palmed some money into her hand that night as I was being muffled.

Shahji’s Sufi Maqbara


Every evening Uzma would lead me to the maqbara. Baba would start his sermon with the lines I loved to hear the most. I felt, I strangely belonged here. At seventeen I felt entranced, captivated by his words and gestures.  What pleasure it was to hear the opening words I loved: 

“The world is an illusion, like grains of sand this illusion slips through our fingers.”

The masses amongst whom I sat absorbed each word, each dhikr that fell from his lips. 

 Initially I sat in the last row, quietly: listening to his words. 

His smile, and palm cupping my head felt so reassuring, as if his hands were my abbajan’s.  And that taweez it was doing wonders, I knew he’d lead me to Abbajan soon.

Soon after the school bell struck four, I’d come to the maqbara by myself or with Uzma. Crowds milled around lost in prayers. Women tied red mannat threads on the marble jaali

And then when it was Shahji’s Urs: qawwals sang eulogies to  celebrate the mighty saint of Punjab, men danced in a frenzy to the beat of drums, and women watched as men bore rose and jasmine chaddars and gilaafs to the sacrosanct of shrine. 

At times I would watch Baba hold the chillum while he was engrossed, listening to a woman ridden by spirits. His eyes would shut in deep thought, and then as he exhaled, his thundering voice would command the spirit to leave the  swaying woman’s frail body. 

Nikal abhi, varna Jahannum ki sair karega!” 

And soon the swaying woman would faint… Echoes of mubaraka would echo through the shrine as the family bore the unconscious woman’s frail body away.

I didn’t realise when I had moved from the edge of his circumference right into the centre of his universe. This evening I’d meet my abba, the baba promised.

To hear this news, I waited for more than twelve months.  A year had passed, and now my mother planned to get me married. And to reassure me, mother would say Abbajan would be there finally. But I could sight a lie….at least my mother’s.

Prayers answered


When Uzma had first taken me to his maqbara Baba Habib’s eyes had gleamed with other worldly knowledge, he had recited an ayat blowing over a cup of water, signalling Uzma, 

” This will calm her down.” 

Then he looked at me directly in the eye,

” Eh girl what are you yearning for, what is it that you desire, speak, speak up or leave!” 

“Shama speak  up! Baba is asking.” Uzma shook me.

My skin was beaded with dots of sweat, my dusky complexion glowed in the pearly light of the new moon. 

“Baba I want my Abbajan, ” I whimpered brokenly. 

Abbajan ….has left us for the city, Islamabad. I want to meet him. ” 

The Baba closed his eyes and chanted in his mesmerising voice: 

“The world is an illusion, like grains of sand this illusion slips through our fingers.”

 Soon, all I remembered was his rumbling voice:

Aal tu,  Jalal tu, aayi bala ko taal tu! Uske panjein se hamein nikaal tu!” 

He shook his prayer beads in a frenzy, whilst muttering under his breath. I watched in awe a host of spectators awaiting his answers,  yet, they dared not rouse him when he sat in deep contemplation.

Then after half an hour he opened his eyes and called out, 

“Get that girl, Shama! Tell her to drink this water now.”

After this incident I began to frequent Shahji Sufi Baba’s Maqbara, despite Najma telling me not to. 

“This is a dhongi Baba, his taweez is hocus pocus, through his Sufi garb and his magical chants he deceives you.”

I knew my mother would never know, I shed that fear because Uzma accompanied me during what was supposed to be tuition hours.

In search of Abbajan

1991- 1995

I felt orphaned at eleven. Ammi worked in too many houses to give me time, Asif was orbiting between college and late night work; he returned too weary. 

Home was not home without abbajan. Meals, clothes and the few toys that I had had, slowly grew sparser. 

Every evening I nagged my mother for abbajan’s letter because she had written several letters to him, and received none.

Finally, one evening Amma, came with a letter, his sole reply: 

Pyari Shama, 

Abbajani is  very busy in Islamabad, and he thinks of you all the time, he knows you are growing up. Each time he really misses you, he holds your photos that amma has sent. 

He has seen your report card too and it makes him  very happy.

He’ll return soon with the gudiya you asked for, and some salwars for you and amma. Abba is sending a small gift- twenty rupees only for you.


I gleefully read the contents of this letter to Najma, my best friend. 

Najma had watched Shama  cluelessly at first.  

In the sixth standard her crush on their Math teacher, Sultan sir, was noticed by all. “Possibly this was a sign of imbalance in teen hormones- or the gaping emptiness in her life.” Najma wondered now.

Shama’s academic performance was brilliant because of Sultan sir. A couple of years later Shama’s performance deteriorated slowly, because her eyes fell on the next door tuition master- Sharif Khan Noor, and  perhaps, Shama found her abba in him; but, she was in for some disconcerting truth.

Sharif Khan was forty five-ish: salt and pepper hair, brown warm eyes, broad gleaming forehead…he wore a kind and encouraging smile.

 Shama’s mother, Zubeda knew her daughter was a waif, she thought tuition next door would anchor her.

She mused to herself: “Sharif Khan will take care of her through her long evenings…..” 

 She requested him ” Khan Sahib let Shama study with other children till I return.” 

A few months this worked: Shama would walk into Khan Sahib’s house after school.

One evening Shama noticed a haggard, kohl-eyed  woman glaring at her, measuring her from head to toe sharply: ” Hain Miya Sharif, kaha se is bala ko utha laayein ho?” 

Khan Sahib retorted: “Badi Ammi, aapki teekhi zaban ko lagam dijiyein!”

And then Badi Ammi whispered loudly to his wife: ” Aye, beti,  sunti ho,  yeh toh chingari hain, jawani phoot phoot kar ubhar rahi hain!”

Nothing could curb her caustic tongue after she saw Shama.

The next day, it was decided that Khan Sahib’s wife,  tutor Shama, and Baddi Ammi’s eyes danced with a derisive smile. 

Shama had sobbed her heart out to Najma; she refused to venture into Sahib’s house from that day on. Najma tried to calm her broken friend, but knew she couldn’t accompany her through this journey….

Such a figment of her imagination her Abbajan was! And Islamabad, a city she’d never visited yet she held onto this last straw… 

That letter, too, must have been written at the behest of Shama’ s mother. Poor lady, trying to make two ends meet and, yet, every day she was reminded of her husband’s absence by Shama’s foolish ideas. 

Hidden in the shadows of trees, Uzma had overheard Shama sharing her story with Najma.

After school she consoled Shama, “There is a taweez that will do wonders. Perhaps you can actually meet your Abbajan!”  Her broad grin reassured Shama, 

Uzma thought to herself – such is homelessness, it makes one a waif, pariah who blindly traipses into a tunnel thinking there’s light at the other end.

And then she quickly guarded her thoughts before speaking aloud: “For this taweez, Shama, you must accompany me to Baba Habib this evening.”



That evening, Shaziabad was filled with a disquiet, the sound of nervous pigeons flapping their wings, and a murder of crows weighing down the electric cable in front of Zubeda’s house.

As one entered the dinghy room, a charpoy stood beside the broken window. An earthen pot stood behind a broken-legged stool, the light of the aggabatti swayed as passersby crept in.

Zubeda’s eyes stared vacantly at the ceiling, a shadow loomed and moved in her faintly lit room.

Today she had ignored the muezzin’s call for prayers. 

Her neighbours shuffled in soon after the magrib prayers, and they had slowly brought his body down.

Zubeda was dumbstruck…. her pain numbed- because she was waiting for Shama, her nine-year-old daughter to return.

Soon after his body was wrapped in a shroud, in a hush, no mourning, suicides were forbidden, deemed a cardinal sin. This, she didn’t want her daughter to hear. As the maulvi walked in, he snubbed her, poverty was the worst curse. Had they been an affluent family, better treatment would have been meted to them.

They lifted his body without any recital of prayer, embalming, or sign of mourning. This was ordained, a few angry words, insults in the form of a sermon were thrown at her. The bulb swayed, casting long shadows in their sparsely furnished tenement. 

And then a pigtailed Shama walked in giggling and muttering something about her day at school. She sensed from the stares thrown at her that something was wrong. But when her eyes fell on the mat that held Abbajan’s body she screamed loudly: hysteric sobs filled the room

Abbajan – I want my abba, don’t take him away, where are you taking him…he’s not dead” 

Zubeda plucked her before she could lift the shroud, and rocked Shama’s body… she signalled her son, Asif to ask the bearers to take the body to that part of the cemetery where it would lay without a stone.

How she invented this story she couldn’t fathom

“That is not  Abbajan! Abbajan has left for Islamabad.

 That dead body….is not his…. Farhad bhaijan died today….they are bearing him away.” 

Did Shama fathom through this lie ?

Shama’s body collapsed into sobs, as if she half knew but dared not believe.

Her mother stifled her, taking her in her arms, 

“Don’t, don’t cry, that is not your abba, ” her mother comforted her, handing her to her sister, “Shhh, Shama beta, listen, if you want your father to come back, write a letter to him…tell him to come back.” 

Tears streamed down Zubeda’s cheeks, drenching her lips and chadar, as she said: “Shama, your Abbajan’s not dead, he has gone to Islamabad!”  

And then she steeled herself, ordering her sister ” Aapi please, take Shama home for a few days, get her back on Friday, when her abba returns from Islamabad.”
Iqbal Hussain is a famous Pakistani artist who paints the courtesans of Hira Mandi.

  1. Hira Mandi:  a redlight area in Lahore, also known as Shahi Mohalla
  2.  kotha: brothel
  3. sahib: sir
  4. mohalla: area
  5. Azaan: Islamic call for prayers
  6. taweez: amulet, locket worn for luck
  7. dhongi: fake, cheat
  8. abba/Abbajan: father
  9. Abbajan chahiye, beta: Do you want your father child?
  10. maqbara- mausoleum
  11. Shabaash meri jaan: well done/ Bravo my dear
  12. Jaali: intricate ornamental openwork in wood, metal, stone, etc.
  13. Urs: Festival to commemorate death of a  Sufi Saint
  14. qawwals: singers
  15. Chadar: duppata, a sheet of flowers for tombs
  16. Gilaaf : rich material that covers a saints tomb
  17. Chillum: a small pipe used to smoke cannabis
  18. Nikal abhi, Varna Jahannum ki sair karega.- A term used to exorcise
    • Come out, or else you’ll tour through the hell!
  19. Aal tu,  Jalal tu, aayi bala ko taal tu! Uske panjein se hamein nikaal tu : invocation to Allah
    • You are omnipresent, you are omnipotent, you have the power to obstruct this evil from visiting us, and the power to release us from its claws.
  20. Hain Miya Sharif, kaha se is bala ko utha laayein ho?
    • Oh Mr Sharif from where have brought this evil/ misfortune
  21. Badi Ammi, aapki teekhi zaban ko lagam dijiyein!
    Mother control your hot temper.
  22. Aye, beti,  sunti ho,  yeh toh chingari hain, jawani phoot phoot kar ubhar rahi hain!
    Listen, O daughter , this girl is an ember, blossoming in youth
  23. magrib : evening prayer time
  24. Maulvi: religious cleric
  25. aapi: elder sister
  26. ayat: a verse from Quran
  27. dhikr: a quote from the hadith

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