Memoirs of a Geisha


One of the books I absolutely fell in love in….and remain in love to this day!


Nitta Sayuri reveals how she transcended her fishing-village roots and became one of Japan’s most celebrated geisha. I came across some interesting back ground info as to how women become a geisha from a SITE ‘Japanese Culture-Geisha’ and share extracts:

“But like their male counterpart the samurai, the geisha and her world continue to fascinate people around the world as part of their image of a mysterious and timeless Japan. Prostitution is of course referred to as the “oldest profession,” and the history of the geisha stretches back several centuries. But while many people assume that geisha is just a Japanese word for a prostitute, the somewhat more romantic word ‘courtesan’ is probably closer in nuance, though even that is misleading when you consider their history. The word geisha itself literally means ‘person of the arts’ – indeed the earliest geisha were men – and it is as performers of dance, music and poetry that they actually spend most of their working time.The two most famous hanamichi (geisha quarters) can be found in the capital cities of today and yesteryear, Tokyo and Kyoto. Medieval Edo, as Tokyo was formerly known, had the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters, where kabuki actors and artists would mingle with the evolving merchant class. The Edo period (1600-1868) was a time when Japan was largely closed to the outside world and also an era of great cultural development. Actors, sumo wrestlers and geisha were often the subjects of colorful ukiyo-e, woodblock prints whose name literally means ‘pictures of the floating world,’ a wonderful euphemism for the world of carnal desires.

History of geisha:

“Geisha have their roots in female entertainers such as the Saburuko of the 7th century and the Shirabyoshi, who emerged around the early 13th century. They would perform for the nobility and some even became concubines to the emperor. It was in the late 16th century that the first walled-in pleasure quarters were built in Japan. Like so many aspects of Japanese culture, they were modelled after those of Ming Dynasty China. After they were relocated in the mid-1600s, they became known as Shimabara (after a fortress in Kyushu).

Meanwhile a marshy patch of land (Yoshi-wara) in Edo had been designated as the site for a brothel district under the auspices of the Tokugawa shogunate. Brothels and the like were not allowed to operate outside the district and strict rules were applied. Included among these were that no customers were allowed to stay in a brothel more than 24 hours; courtesans were to wear simple dyed kimonos; and any suspicious or unknown visitors were to be reported to the Office of the City Governor.

With Japan enjoying a long-awaited period of peace following centuries of civil war, many samurai found that society no longer had such need of their services. It’s thought that many daughters of these formerly noble families became courtesans, with the result that quarters such as Yoshiwara and Shimabara were places of refinement and culture. Peace also brought an increase in prosperity and the rise of the merchant class, or chonin. Add that to the presence of artists and an atmosphere free of the strictures of the outside world, and it truly was something of an adult amusement park, with culture thrown in for good measure.

Within the hanamichi there were many different classes of courtesans, and over the decades the hierarchy and the standards expected of them changed many times, not always for the better. The situation deteriorated in the mid-18th century to the extent that a new form of entertainer emerged in Kyoto and Osaka. The earliest geiko were men, while the first females, who appeared shortly after, were odoriko (dancers) or played the shamisen. Female geisha soon became popular enough to be able to steal clients from the courtesans, and in the case of Yoshiwara it was decided to start a kenban, or registration system, to keep them under control and force them to pay taxes. It strictly controlled their dress, behaviour and movements and was considered so successful that it quickly became the norm at hanamichi across Japan.

These strict rules in fact allowed the geisha to flourish as artists and entertainers. Though more simply dressed than the courtesans, they became regarded as fashion leaders. But many aspects of the lifestyle itself were less glamorous. Young girls were sold into the geisha life by their families until the mid-20th century and were often subject to the ritual of ‘mizu-age,’ whereby their virginity was sold to the highest bidder. Such practices were eradicated after World War II and the geisha profession went into a steady decline. Today, if geisha are hired to entertain at a private party outside the upper eschelons of society, they are most likely to be seasoned veterans, more akin to your favorite aunt or even grandmother than the girl next door.”



The greatest loss?



“Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.” OK12

(Norman Cousins)

But does not a lot of times, something dies in us as we live because someone dies? Someone we may have cherished? A light may go out- a fire extinguished as a life is snuffed out. And then there can be an instance, an incident in one’s life that destroy’s something. That feeling; of trust, of friendship…of love. 

Once this happens..things change.Our life changes. 

Yasmeen Aftab ali


The Lesson in Leaves


By: Yasmeen Aftab Ali

Potted PlantI love the huge clay pot that holds the leafy plant, the leaves gracefully long but flaring out wide in the middle like generous hips of a dancer then tapering to a narrower size. It is placed slightly behind and to the right of my favorite chair in the lounge where I sit every morning with the breakfast tray placed in front, reading the newspaper.

Its a tall clay pot, beautifully hand made, taller than the chair in which I sit.

I derive great pleasure looking at it. A new leaf, gracefully unfurling, growing stronger in color…the older ones; paling to a light green then gold and then a light beige losing their goldness, to fall down. Fresh leaves quickly replace the ones gone.

A lesson in leaves. The cycle of life?

Danial Abraham in “The Price of Spring” :

“The flower that wilted last year is gone. Petals once fallen are fallen forever. Flowers do not return in the spring, rather they are replaced. It is in this difference between returned and replaced that the price of renewal is paid.”


Me and Myself!


Yasmeen Aftab Ali

I changed. Self

I do not know when I changed.

I just know I did.

The priorities in my life have changed. 

My choice of how I want to spend my time has changed.

It’s not important to feel ‘accepted’ by those who do not figure in my life.

It’s not important to be seen mingling with the ‘in’ crowd. 

But the change is not as superficial as one may feel as reflected above. It goes deep.It’s been there for years.It shows no indication of going away. What’s more I’m happy with the person I have become. Happier than I was when I was a decade ago.

Happy with a good book, quietness of the house after it falls silent once the daily chores are done, a cup of steaming coffee- what more can I ask? Solitude.

Peoples’ expectations of me do not bother me any more. My own expectations from myself have become important.

My world shrunk to a  few who have been with me in this journey of life. Those who have not touched me in this journey are those I know, not those who figure anywhere in my life.

Vision of viewing life has become sharper, the colors more vibrant than they were ever before. A few days ago, my daughter asked me where I would like to visit if I had a chance. To my utter surprise, my answer was,” Interior Lahore. Alone.” She looked at me, a little too wisely for her years, and said, “You want to be with people but not interact.To feel the throb of life. Touch base” She caught it perfectly.

Peace with myself and at peace with the universe.

Toni Morrison in ‘Beloved’ expresses it beautifully, ‘“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”

I do not know if this makes sense to you.

More important; it makes sense to me.


Grace of the gharara


Yasmeen Aftab Ali

GhararaI have always loved the gharara. A traditionally Lucknowi dress. made up of  a loose pant, at the knee it flares into cascading swirl of fabric stitched to the straight pants in pleats and pleats of gorgeously rich fabric. Brocades, Chinese brocades, ‘poat silks’, another one known as the ‘patta-patti;’ consists of vertically cut six inch silks in vibrant colors stitched together  to form the swirling ‘skirt’ of the pants and resplendent to behold. All twelve meters of it!  It is worn with either a short kuti or a long shirt and a long, trailing duppata (or veil). It is often worked over with traditional zari, dabka, zardozi.

Once they were worn as a daily wear.The dress would be simpler; plain satins for gharara with a white chicken-fabric shirt and a dupatta (veil) of white malmal ( a soft lawn) The duppata would more often than not be of ‘chunnat’.

When I was younger, young girls, older girls, aunts, all wore this timelessly graceful outfit not only for special occasions but also at Gao Takyathe ‘meelad’ held at houses. A regular feature. A meelad is traditionally a gathering of women, reciting events from the lives of The Holy Prophet and reciting ‘naats’. Guests turned up in their gharars, the lady of the house of course  would also be dressed in one. It was a special occasion.  White sheets were spread on carpets for seating- to ease an aching back; round traditional cushions known as ‘gao takyas’ were put against the wall.

A low stool would hold the books from which the ladies who were to recite, were placed.Placed also on the table would be two ‘agar-batti’ or incense. On another low stool stood a silver ‘gulab pash’. This was used to sprinkle rose water on the guests. The gulab pash has been used  since the Mughal Empire  (1526-1857). They were used in the Gulab PashMughal court to sprinkle rose water on the guests upon their arrival.  I share here the picture of my  gulab pash . This is an over two hundred and fifty years old piece- from Kashmir. Note the peacock design and dangling fishes. With the gulab pash would be a silver platter containing sweet and ‘sadda’ pan (beetlenut leaves) with an alcove holding ‘ilaichi’ and ‘misri ki dall’i’. This would be passed around to all to sweeten the mouth.

The first formal function of a wedding, started with the ‘mayoun’. The meelad would always precede the rasm-e-mayoun itself. Eids were another occasion we would look forward to; we all got a new gharara, of course with the accompanying kurti and veil. In those days all my maternal aunts would work with my maternal grandmother to prepare ghararas for all the girls of the family. They were of course, identical. Hours of fabric cutting and whirring away on sewing machines, family chit chat,snacks marked the happy occasion of their preparation. One I particularly loved was when I was eight or nine years old maybe. A pale pink taffeta with silver ‘gota’ at the knee of the joining pant-flare with a pink lace and silk kurti and a silk duppata of co-ordinating color.

It seems, gone are the days of the graceful gharara. New fads have taken over. Even the brides seem to wear new fangled dresses instead of the graceful gharara. As I opened my cabin trunk today to air the gorgeous ghararas I have-I could not but have a sigh of regret. Unwrapping each piece lovingly wrapped individually in a delicate white ‘mulmal’ with a silver gota runner around it- I think of Gharara2those days….

My world that I understood seem to have changed!

The joy of flowers…


Yasmeen Aftab Ali

‘Flowers… are a proud assertion that a ray of beauty outvalues all the utilities of the world.’ Ralph Waldo Emerson

One of the most fond memories of my maternal grandmother is weaving the small and beautifully smelling ‘motia’ flowers in a long rope to wind around her hair bun or as a bracelet for her arm. The soft but long staying smell will always remind me of my childhood. MOTIAMy mother inherited the love for this particular flower. Our home had many bushes of motia flower. Every morning, she would take delicate china bowls and fill it with the flowers from the backyard placing a bowl in every room. The love of motia passed down to the third generation ; me. Rambling creepers of the flower climb the artfully placed arches outside my bedroom window, filling the senses with such beauty and wonderful smell. Like my mother, I too, fill a bowl with them,early morning and put it on the dressing table. What joy it brings! What memories!

Then there is the beautiful intricately worked silver urn. About six inches tall. One of the pieces that came to me as a legacy from my paternal grandfather. I have spent many hours enjoying its craftsmanship. The hand made etched tree leaves, the delicate flowers and intertwining branches. A masterpiece indeed.  NARGISWhen the season for the ‘nargis’ flower is here, it is filled with a fresh daily supply.The lovely, delicate stems, the frankly open white petals, the proud crown of gold. What grace. What beauty. Placed next to a pile of unread books on a shelf, balm for the eyes! Flowers always have the power to chase away my blues. Dissipate depression.

Mother Teresa was right when she said, “We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass- grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence… We need silence to be able to touch souls.”

Return to the Stone Age!


This is a TW Exclusive

By Yasmeen Ali

Who is afraid of being bombed to the stone age by a nuclear war? There was a time when nations were afraid that nuclear proliferation will lead to one. Israel never tires to needling US to issue statements 24/7 against how horrible it will be if Iran was to go nuclear. No worst catastrophe can befall the world was this to happen.

In Pakistan, we are free from such heavy questions. For the people of Pakistan are being electrocuted to the stone age by absence of electricity. We wake up without light, it comes and goes after every hour, for one hour much like a coy mistress.

You can forget about watching TV, entertaining, ironing clothes, and doing many other tasks that need electricity at time of your choice. You need to time yourself for breakfast too if you want toasts golden brown from the toaster. You dare not go in for a shower if you are the type who uses a hair dryer after hair wash. You must put on the water motor to chug water to the overhead tank when light s there.Otherwise, you may well be without water too!

Of course you can avoid all the pain above, if you have generators and can afford to run it 12 hours a day. If you have a UPS, it won’t charge itself in the time electricity winks at it. And if you are from the 99% population who can neither afford to buy a generator or a UPS, well, buddy you can just swelter it out.

Of course, you must cater for power outrages when in hotels,departmental stores, hospitals. Make sure you check from staff timings of power outrage in the area or you might find yourself trapped in an escalator. If you like solitude and do not mind the situation, make sure you are armed with a paper back at all times!

If there is a power outrage and its after sun down, keep a pain ointment handy. It helps when you crash into tables, trip over wires, walk your shoulder in a wall you thought was not there as you grope your way to a candle or the switch for the light connected to the UPS or generator.

As for running ACs this summer, forget it. You will be lucky to get electricity to run the fans. And for storing weekly supplies in your fridge, I strongly recommend otherwise. Your food will not last for two days much less a week, unless you have a penchant for rotten gola kebabs, soft tomatoes in gravy and soggy fruits.Make a daily trip to the store of your choice for the supplies.

Now all we need to do is to cultivate hobbies that are not dependent on electric power! Is that good bye to computer?

The writer is a university professor & lawyer based in Lahore.She may be reached at