In Coocoo’s Den, portrait of an ‘outsider’ in Pakistan

June 1st, 2008 - 12:16 pm ICT by admin  

Manish Chand
Lahore, June 1 (IANS) Statuettes of Shiva-Parvati and the Buddha jostle for space with paintings of pensive prostitutes in the eclectic studio of maverick painter Iqbal Hussain housed in Coocoo’s Den, the famous restaurant founded by him in the heart of Lahore’s red light district. “I am an outsider. I paint what I see. I don’t care what others think of me,” says the painter, the proud son of a courtesan, as he takes you to the lantern-lit terrace of the restaurant that offers a unique view of the Badshahi Mosque and Lahore Fort - two prized landmarks of a city that parties well past midnight.

Incidentally, Coocoo’s is the setting of a much-hyped novel about Mohsin Hamid that dramatises a conversation between a reluctant fundamentalist in Pakistan with an unidentified American.

“The sad thing is Pakistan can’t stand up to American double standards. Equating Pakistan with terrorism is a very wrong thing. We are a peaceful country. Radicals are in a minority,” Hussain told IANS.

A born iconoclast, he has some straight-from-the-heart things to say about Pakistan’s “love-hate” affair with India.

“I love India. We are the same family and we enjoy each other’s company,” says Hussain, an avid fan of Indian film legends Dilip Kumar and Saira Bano, while recalling his last visit to India three years ago with relish.

“Politicians have created a rift or divide. Let’s us get rid of visas and let people and dreams flow,” says the painter and restaurateur.

“Coocoo’s embraces the sacred and the profane,” says Hussain, pointing to the city’s oldest gurdwara nearby and Hira Mandi at the back - full of dimly-lit narrow alleys that once flaunted some of Pakistan’s most beautiful dancing girls but has now become the refuge of painted, gaudy prostitutes.

“My passion is painting. If I am honest to myself and observe the life around me honestly, I don’t care about fashions and fads,” Hussain says as he walks among rich Lahoris and expatriates busily tucking into kebabs and other delicacies that have made Coocoo’s a status symbol, a foodie’s delight and a haunt for expatriates.

“Hira Mandi culture is on the wane. People are no longer fond of classical music and dance. Pornography has become very common,” says Hussain, who still lives in the same house where his mother entertained in the heyday of Hira Mandi.

“In Islamic countries, prostitution is illegal. Most of my life, I faced the stigma of being a prostitute’s son,” says Hussain in a voice bleached of all emotion, tracing his life as a street kid from Hira Mandi who studied at the National College of Arts to become a painter only to be despised by the prima donnas of society.

“But I never gave up. I was harassed by fanatics, some of whom even threatened to kill me,” Hussain says recalling his early struggling days as a painter when he mostly painted suicidal, sad women peeping out of kothis in Hira Mandi.

“I am portraying reality. I was tired of double standards. I paint from life.”

Being perennially starved of money, 12 years ago Hussain thought of starting a restaurant in his mother’s house with a small loan from his mentor in the local arts college. But the stigma and the taint caught up with him in his new venture as well.

“I started off with selling burgers in 1996. Initially, the press also played a negative role. It wasn’t recommended for families because of its location,” he said.

“The restaurant’s turning point came when the then US ambassador Robert Oakley visited Coocoo’s in 1996. It’s the typical South Asian psychology. Once the gora says yes, things start happening.”

“Now, it’s a status symbol - the rich and the well-heeled ask: Oh, have you been to Coocoo’s?” he says with a touch of pride.

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