The walls of Cooco's Den & Caf?re emblazoned with Hussain's searing portraits of the district's denizens?from teenage prostitutes and thickset madams to wizened harmonium players. But the most stunning treasure is found on the top floor, where the open terrace looks down into the vast sandstone courtyard of the 17th century Badshahi mosque. While the terrace is usually booked for dinner by fashionable Lahoris eager to sample the caf? home-style Pakistani fare, the best time to go is for tea in the early evenings. This is when the setting sun tints Badshahi's minarets a deep rose, just as the muezzin starts the call to prayer. From one side of the terrace, you can watch as the mosque's fairy lights are illuminated, circling it with a corona of gold. From the other side, you catch glimpses of the windows of the Heera Mandi, flickering with lamplight as the women take up their positions in the district's doorways. And in the midst of all this is Cooco's Den & Caf?perched between the debased and the divine.
Most visitors to Lahore's Heera Mandi aren't interested in the history of this onetime diamond district. Nor do they come to contemplate the baroque fa?es of the quarter's gracefully decayed, 17th century haveli, or historic residences. Instead, visitors to the Heera Mandi are here for cheap sex, for this is the city's red-light area, and gaudily dressed prostitutes beckon from beneath the battered wooden archways of almost every door. Many are or claim to be descendants of the nautch?the fabled royal courtesans famed for their mesmerizing dances and stirring songs?but the best that any of them can manage today is a few desultory shimmies to a well-worn Bollywood cassette. Enter Iqbal Hussain, one of Pakistan's most controversial painters and the bona fide descendant of a long line of nautch. Hussain has returned to his boyhood home to rescue one last gem from the Heera Mandi, painstakingly restoring his family's haveli and turning it into a four-story gallery and restaurant with decor that could be called bordello kitsch were it not 300 years old.