Rizwan Talib pulled into the bustling commercial area in phase 2. He was picking up his wife for lunch. He was the Regional Manager at one of the Big 5 banks in the country, and his schedule was relentless. But Tuesday afternoons were dedicated with focused zeal to having lunch together; to making the time to talk, and keeping the mad whirl of their lives at bay for ninety minutes.

He looked at his phone for a bit and then put it away. He was fastidious about the subtle lines that separated so many things from each other; that when observed gave meaning to the essential nuances of life: the line between work and pleasure; a drink or five; pain and agony; and the line between optimal and disproportionate time spent on electronic devices.

He looked out of the window of his car at the tinted scene before him. His eye caught a dog-eared poster that had obviously been reposing in the corner of the wall for a while now. It had the smiling face of a prominent Pakistani television actress extolling the benefits of Astra margarine. That smile suddenly kindled a stream of memories; images that he had assiduously stored away in the corners of his mind where they were difficult to find, to relive. Without warning, they now gathered together and assailed him like a swarm of locusts … of springtime butterflies … swarming, flooding, pervading. Sana’s face skipped right up to his retina as he saw her smiling back at him from the poster on the wall. He was caught unaware, unprepared for the emotional whiplash as he stared at the image. He looked away, willing the experience to abate, to flicker out of his mind like that of any random hoarding that is passed on the road. He took a deep breath steadying his nerves. He had not even spoken to Amara of that episode in his life. He had bound his mother to secrecy over the matter too.

Amara finally came down from her third floor office and smiled her brilliant smile at her husband. They’d been married five years now and as marriages go, theirs was now definitely on the healthy, non toxic side she thought gratefully. It wasn’t a perfect union but they’d learned to respect each other and to be aware of the complacency and entitlement that usually crept into the territory. She had insisted in fact that they get their equation right before producing the next generation. Five years on, she felt readier, easier with the concept of being parents to a happy brood of their own. She thought she may bring it up at today’s lunch. Rizwan would be thrilled. He had wanted to don the mantle of fatherhood as soon as they’d got married. Well, if she was completely honest, it was his father’s heartfelt desire for his son, driven in large part, by the age old patriarchal urge to continue the male lineage. Her father-in-law in fact, was absolutely sure it was going to be a grandson whenever they did have their first child – Biology and the Y chromosome-donor be damned she thought ruefully. Her mother-in-law was less demanding. She in fact, was a breath of fresh air as mothers-in-law went. She was largely non-interfering, easy to be with and had a wise, grownup relationship with her son; a surprising contrast to the majority of the apron string-tied, mother and son affiliations she was privy to around her.

‘Hello darling, how’s the day looking so far?’, asked Rizwan as Amara sat in the car. He looked at her familiar, endearing face, testing his own stoicism against the assault of unsolicited flashbacks.

She kissed him on the cheek, a fleeting socially conscious graze befitting the environment around them: Family run grocery stores, a few cloth merchants, a DVD store and a small madrassah occupied the block where she perched in her third floor office.

‘Good! Good! It’s been a productive day!’ Amara responded settling back into her seat.

Amara was a social worker and was passionate about her call of duty. For that was what she considered her profession to be: her moral duty to the beleagured world around her. Her influential business family background had played no small part in forging the success of her NGO as she continually shattered the proverbial glass ceilings around her, taking on one thorny, controversial issue after another. Her latest foray was into the shadowy lives of the women that filled the doorways of the city brothels. She had painstakingly established trust amongst a few of the women who were at that age where being labelled pariahs by their community for telling their story was a small price to pay for the 20 odd years they’d spent in its onerous, unyielding clutches. She had by some happenstance also discovered another critical lead, a woman who had broken her own shackles of subjugation and stigma and was now a thriving entrepreneur in the city. She was going to meet her next week.

They went to Freddy’s Cafe that day. They also spoke of finally breaking the sound and comfortable stalemate of their couplehood and starting a family soon.


On Tuesday morning, Amara walked into the flagship Gulberg branch of Rose Beauty Salon. The salon girls were still in the process of dusting shelves, setting down magazines on the ledges in front of customer seats and organizing manicure and pedicure trays. A waif of a girl walked up to her smilingly and took her to an office at the back when she told her that she had an appointment with Sana Khan.

Sana smiled at her visitor and immediately offered her a hot beverage – her regular start of day stimulant. A hot cup of tea, in fact, was the national panacea for many a weary work day, while also making conversations of the heart easier, wrapping them as it so wonderfully did, in its steam-misted cloaks.

‘I wanted to tell my story … my mother’s story to the world’, said Sana simply, once pleasantries were exchanged and they were both settled with their mugs of tea.

‘And that’s what we’re going to do’, Amara said smiling at the beautiful, serene woman in front of her.

On Wednesday afternoon, Rizwan left for Singapore for a sales conference. He would be gone for fortnight. Those became the momentous two weeks when all the stars aligned just so to lead up to a watershed moment for the man who had wanted to forget it all and for the woman who was finally memorialising it all.

Sana had asked Amara for a platform to speak from. And Amara had chosen the Pakistan Tedx* stage to bring Sana’s story to not only the Pakistani community of thinkers and innovators, but also to the world that believed the Pakistani woman was besieged and beset by the most toxic patriarchy. She was going to present the antithesis of this stereotype to the world; to show them how even the most afflicted, stigmatized Pakistani woman could rise like a phoenix from the ashes. She had a veritable fairy tale to share in the vastness of their imperfect world.


Rizwan walked into the hall at the Gadaffi stadium and sat right in front, courtesy of the organizing committee led by his wife. The hall, seating three hundred people, was brimful, with some of the well connected but late-to-the-ticket-stands, even sitting on the steps in the aisles.

The lights dimmed and Amara came onto the stage to make the introductions. The spot light then panned onto the wings on the right from where emerged a resplendent, beautiful woman. She smiled at the audience and began to speak.

Rizwan together with hundreds of others watched as the woman spoke with an honesty that was raw, brave and painful. As she strung together bruised bead after bead of the story of her life, there was uncomfortable fidgeting and the turning away of ashamed, embarrassed eyes, but there was no one left in the hall to don the mantle of virtuous patriarchy. The woman in front of them had stripped away any veneers of morality and rectitude.

‘I have never met my father. In fact, I have no idea who he is. I was born in a brothel in Qaisery Gate in Faisalabad to a woman who was a dancing girl by night and a dreamer, a rebel by day. She had dreams, big dangerous, formidable dreams of being more than a dancing girl. So when I was eight years old, my mother escaped with me. We came to Lahore, and ran into shackles of a different kind – the judging eyes of society. This time however, we stayed. We dug our heels into the ground that we called home and we persisted; my mother and I, we toughed it out’.

‘Today I will share with you the story of how two women from a red light dsitrict have survived and thrived in our beautiful City of Gardens’.

* Tedx: TED Conferences - Technology, Entertainment, Design is an American media organization that posts talks online for free distribution under the slogan "ideas worth spreading". TEDx is focused on a local, geographic area. It is a local gathering where TED-like talks and presentations are shared with the community.

Read Part One here:


The tinny sing-song bell tinkled in the background as Sana looked over the accounts. She was sitting in the little back office of her Gulberg salon looking over the business books as she always did the first Monday of the month. She sat back after a while and stretched languidly, resting her head on the back of her chair. She let her mind break free from its leathery restraints of reality and flit into her teeming world of reminiscences. It used to be fantasy yarns that she used to spin when she was younger. Now she traipsed through the past, reliving the potent, vital parts of it, sometimes with a “what if” twist to a particular memory that could have been better, happier. But her trips down memory lane now were almost always analytical, controlled, without the painful bite of emotion. Time had shown her how to purposefully navigate through the spaces of her heart and mind

That morning while she was looking through her desk drawer for the ever elusive stapler, she had come upon a vestige of her old life; from ten years ago in fact: A certificate of achievement for participating in the Banking Ethics and Fair Conduct seminar. She was working in a bank then as a Customer Service Officer. Young, hopeful … deluded. Naive, she thought allowing the wisdom of the years to soften her self deprecation. That had been a short lived career spanning a mostly uneventful two years and ending with the finale of an Indian soap opera.

She smiled gently. What a journey it had been since her childhood at Qaisery Gate in Faisalabad. Her mother had been a dancing girl with big personal dreams. The two were paradoxes that were bound to create storms, tsunamis. But they had escaped their two room hovel and made it to Lahore; their city of dreams, aspirations and independence. Their city of a different kind of enterprise, for she had a long time ago, ceased to regard her mother’s earlier profession with the outraged, judging eyes of society. It had been Zulaikha’s enterprise, honest and true. Colouring it with any palate but that of earnest, tenacious survival was not in the purview of imperfect men. Or women. Over the years, Lahore had truly become their city of joyful gardens.

Sana Khan, together with her mother, Zulaikha, now managed six salons across the city. The last ten years had been momentous in the lives of the two women. Every star in the firmament had shone brightly upon their endeavours as they leaped and bounded to the very top of the burgeoning beauty industry of their city of gardens, and of world class brides and begums.

Sana had got a myriad qualifications as a cosmetologist and an aesthetician. She was hands down, one of the best beauticians in town and often led the charge in introducing cutting edge western cosmetic procedures to the city, or even artfully modifying them to better suit the Asian hair and skin aesthetic. Her bold hold of her art form combined with her unrelenting perseverance had even won Sana a number of international beauty entrepreneurship awards. She and her mother were now working on a line of artisanal hair and skin care products with Saleh Hussain, a leading industrialist in the city.

It was Saleh Hussain’s first foray into the beauty industry, urged on as much by the familiar thrill of entrepreneurship as the peculiar new pull of his heart strings. He was “developing feelings” for Sana as he liked to muse in quiet moments. Her pride, her carriage, her focus, her forthrightness …. her laugh, her imagination and that translucent skin had all evoked feelings he had only ever experienced once before. He had been in relationships of course, ample and assorted, but his heart had beaten only for one other woman in this way. He had lost her to cervical cancer before they were even married. It had been an arid, drab relationship terrain that had spread out in his heart over the last 15 years. Until he had met Sana. The woman had beetled over his dreary, joyless core, scarab style: iridiscent, bold and beautiful. But it had only been six months since he’d met her and he wanted to be very sure he didn’t rush anything into the pitfalls of oblivion or worse still, enduring, abiding resentment.

Zulaikha had watched the business interest taking a secret little personal turn as the usually unflappable Saleh Hussain had begun to flap ever so slightly when her daughter was around. Minute nervous gestures, careful forebearance even during light moments, and the look of adoration that lit up his eyes every time the dignified, restrained expression momentarily dissolved. Almost imperceptibly but surely, the man was falling in love. She smiled her own little smile as she recalled another incident from ten years ago. That fateful day that another love interest had summarily walked out of their door, branding their threshold with the savage cross of stigma and disgrace.

Sana had been inconsolable for months afterwards. She had resigned her job at the bank and had stayed in the apartment, confining herself to her room for days at a time. Deep wounds of the spirit and the heart had been inflicted and it took time, togetherness and the absolute will to go on that had finally ended her daughter’s tragedy. She had in her role as the mother, the protector and the caregiver, found ever new stores of tenacity and toughness. And one day, her daughter had emerged from her all-encompassing grief like a butterfly from her cocoon. She had soared into the brightness of the sky, not looking down, heedless of the gravity and the noise of society and of their circumstances.

They had then together, taken the oars of their lifeboat and had rowed through the cresting and crashing waves of the next four years. And finally, the universe was appeased, fickle fates were pacified and six years ago, the tide had turned.

What a journey it had been since her days at Nizam’s Guest house of Gems in Qaisery Gate.

Read Part Two here: