HARKING BACK: Changing world of eunuchs, call girls and pickpockets

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Nov 2, 2014


Two stories that I loved writing as a young crime reporter was about pick-pockets and eunuchs. Recently I revisited these stories to get material for this column. What emerged is a vivid picture of how we have ‘progressed’ as a people. The change is quantum.

In my fledgling days, as is the wont of all journalists, the very first thing a newspaper reporter does is to sympathise with prostitutes as being a misunderstood and exploited species. With time attitudes harden and by the time one graduates to senior positions they become part of the larger picture, a missing piece of the jigsaw of life that is fitted into balance society. They are the safety valve. I have actually seen late one night, just opposite Tehsil Bazaar going into Tibbi, a long line of daily wagers each with a Rs10 note proudly in hand. At the other end was a fat lady reading a newspaper who would periodically shout: “next”. It was “routine” I was told by the local policeman. I went home in a daze then. But I will return to this story at the end of this piece.

My proudest ‘exclusive’ story for ‘The Pakistan Times’ was when I discovered a school for pickpockets that had a printed ‘Qaida’ with hand and finger positions and terms used by pickpockets. That school was run by the local police station. It all started when my younger brother, a master of the streets and lanes around the Data Darbar area, introduced me to a friend. “He is a simple pickpocket,” I was told. “What, are you crazy, the guy is a criminal,” I retorted. He looked at me in amazement and said: “But he is a human being and very honest with me”. “Rogues honour I presume,” I said wanting to sound witty. He smiled back and introduced the little chap. I almost counted my fingers on the rebound.

As we conversed I got to know that he was run by the police, and that every morning he would submit his earnings to his ‘ustad’- teacher – who would then submit to the police connection his portion, which then was 70 per cent of the total earnings. I was then taken to a house in a lane just opposite the Data Darbar, and in one room sat seven children, including a little girl, being taught by the ‘ustad’. I managed to get a ‘Qaida’ and the next day PT ran a full page story with pictures of the ‘Qaida’ about the ‘school for pickpockets run by the police’. Oh, all hell broke loose and the late ZA Bhutto actually rang me up to tell me it was a great story. He had a great sense of humour and the IG Police went flying the next day. The school was raided and huge claims were made. Then the story simmered, sputtered and died out and has never been heard of again. Such is life.

Just next to that lane is the ‘Khusrianwali Gali’, where lived most of the eunuchs of Lahore. They were a merry lot who turned up at every house each time a child was born, or was to be born. The ladies of the house would invite them in and ask all male members to leave. Then followed a rollicking session in which a peel of laughter often rang out. They were great fun and would leave loaded with money and gifts and a hearty meal.

Mind you in Mughal days the eunuchs of Lahore held positions of great power. As was the Turkish tradition they were mostly castrated and hence never had their own children. The theory was that without children they would not conspire. I always was curious about their ‘real sex’. It was a let-down when a doctor told me they are normal males but loaded with female hormones, but they can reproduce like normal males. That is why in days of old they were castrated and assigned to guard the harems, where they made friends with bored and neglected royalty. It was this connection that propelled them to positions of strength. They were invariably highly educated and tutored the high and mighty. One eunuch was promoted as Governor of Lahore and the city progressed immensely in his reign. This is food for thought.

How do we treat eunuchs today? A friend described their present plight as having been consigned to begging at street corners for their role has been taken over by local prostitutes who have been replaced by foreign call girls living in posh areas. The Russian invasion of Afghanistan not only saw the emergence of religious extremism, but also of the heroin plague as well as of the spread of foreign call girls. It comes with the territory. The same thing happened with the US invasion of Vietnam. Happily there the Communist regime returned society to a new ‘normal’ and today they are progressing economically at a ferocious pace.

In Lahore this religious extremist way of thinking saw a ban on ‘the world’s oldest profession’, which in turn saw them migrate to smaller colonies outside the Walled City. They are now in almost every area operating under the umbrella of respectability. The same is the case of alcohol, whose consumption has increased and the government now does not get a single rupee as tax. It is a warped morality that we just refuse to discuss. So with our once cultured eunuchs reduced to begging and the top end of the prostitution market cornered by foreigners, Lahore is a very different place in terms of its confused semi-literate social jigsaw.

I walked through the Data Darbar streets after a body search by the police, another gift of the Afghan wars. After a search I met my old ‘retired’ pickpocket. I never knew they retired. We had a good laugh and exchanged jokes. Their world is the same. Their controllers are the same. The pickings are good and the students are plentiful. “We now have as many girls as boys, and we have shifted from ‘qaidas’ to computer classes,” he said. I looked at him in utter surprise. He smiled and said: “I can now also offer you coffee instead of truck driver’s tea”. I went for the tea.

Published in Dawn, November 2nd, 2014




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