Cantt Bazaar

The locality I have focused this particular ethnographic assessment in is Cantt Bazaar, the central marketplace in the military cantonment where I live. Up until as recently as ten years ago, it was confined to only a single street’s worth of space, but it has expanded almost dramatically since then, as the community of residents in the neighbourhood has expanded. It now occupies three separate roads, right in the very middle of a busy intersection. To most people, a landscape change such as this would signify a substantial increase in economic opportunity, which has thus led to greater urban development and an amassment of working-class individuals within this vicinity. This explains why as urban settlements around the bazaar area have grown, so has the bazaar itself.

The ethos of the bazaar itself is almost infectious what with the kind of energy that one can feel emanating from this place – it is chaotic and bustles with activity round-the-clock. Interestingly, the only time when this place seems to have a sleepy look and feel about it is early in the morning, from dawn till around 9 am, which is when most shopkeepers usually begin opening their stores up for business for the day. However, the bazaar stays open well into the dead of night, until the wee hours of the morning, till, say, 3am.

While many of the shops here may be newly-built, this community of shopkeepers has existed in this very place for years and is incredibly closely-knit, in that everyone here is well-acquainted with one another, and there seems to be a bond between these people that is almost familial in nature. They greet each other warmly, exchange stories of happenings back home, ask how the other’s business is doing, tell jokes and make merry until they get on with their own respective itineraries for the day.

Most of the cantonment’s denizens have been living here for quite a long period of time, which explains why the shopkeepers are familiar with nearly all of their customers – often to the extent that they know significant details about their customers’ family life and are acquainted with members of their immediate family as well. One very noticeable way in which these buyers and sellers break the ice and come to establish a degree of fraternity with each other is by conversing in regional vernacular language if both of them happen to have the same ethnic background, e.g. in my observation I witnessed a fruit-seller making cheerful conversation with a customer, a housewife who frequents this particular fruit-seller’s kiosk, in colloquial Punjabi. Both seemed utterly at ease with each other, and appeared to be enjoying themselves while the transaction was being conducted as well.

Since the cantonment is a relatively small, peaceful area with a moderately-sized population, the bazaar here is far “tamer” than the other major marketplaces that are situated across the city, in that there is not nearly as much commotion and discord as one would encounter in the various other major marketplaces situated across the city, and there is a homely sort of feeling about the place, because it the go-to, one-stop market for the locals’ every household need. This also means that one is quite likely to run into friends or neighbours while shopping. In the course of my observances I came across several small congregations of both men and women, and boys and girls who had stopped to meet and greet and chat with familiar faces that they had bumped into whilst out shopping for groceries.

Although women are also a far more familiar sight here than they usually are in other bazaars in Karachi, there remains a marked difference between how the male and female shoppers go about conducting whatever business it is that brings them to the bazaar. The men walk about confidently; they talk amongst themselves in loud, raised voices, run from one end of the street to another if they happen to be visiting shops that are located at a considerable distance from each other, and some of the younger men can be seen dressed in a rather flamboyant fashion, whooping and whistling as they tear down the lanes on their motorbikes, much to the annoyance and chagrin of some of the older residents and the military police officers who are designated specifically for patrolling the streets in Malir Cantt. They are another one of the familiar sights that the town has to offer. In contrast, the women go about their business hurriedly, seriously, with their mouths set in determination and brows knit together in a frown, as if they are trying to keep track of their schedule and trying to remember what errands they are supposed to be running. They tend not to linger about the shops once they have finished completing their transactions, and their walk is brisk and focused. This is especially noticeable at one of the more popular milk shops here, which also operates as a fresh juice and lassi corner and attracts swarms of hot and wearied shoppers from all over the bazaar. The men who frequent this kiosk sit down on the benches right next to the shop, in the courtyard beside it, while the women prefer to have their beverages packaged or send for the bearer to deliver it to them in the parking area outside, where they then enjoy them in the privacy and secluded environment that their own cars provide.

Since this locality is considered to be reasonably safe and secure, to see a large number of young children around the bazaar is not unusual. They come here to ride their bikes, purchase candy bars and toys and kites, to meet up with their friends at pre-determined rendezvous points, or they have been sent out to perform shopping-related chores for their families. Often some children will spend a good couple of hours just wandering about the bazaar before they depart for their homes again.

As I navigate the bazaar, it strikes me how certain sections of the area are quieter than others – most of the activity that goes on around here is concentrated at the small inns, motels and restaurants that locals frequent for lunch or tea or snacks throughout the day. Women’s clothing stores and shops selling different kinds of colourful cloth and lace and embroidered patterns also attract a large portion of the crowd. At around 5pm in the evenings, the bakeries begin frying samosas and preparing sandwiches and pastries and all sorts of other confectioneries, and so one finds a great deal of clamour and hordes of customers surrounding these places as mouth-watering scents of spiced chicken and crisp bread and cocoa appeal to nearby customers, drawing them inside the bakeries. In contrast to this, the places I found to be the serenest in terms of noise level and crowds of people, were the dilapidated tents which the cobblers have used to set up shop, and where they sit in silence, patching and darning away at worn-out shoes and slippers and moth-eaten schoolbags.

A fascinating sight for me was to see young boys, not more than ten or twelve years of age, expertly maneuvering their way through heavy incoming traffic and navigating their path through a bevy of buy customers to transport small, colourful pots of tea and glass tumblers from door to door, as a welcome energizing drink for the tired shopkeepers. I was stunned at how they seemed least bothered by the blaring horns and noise and smoke and congestion of vehicles that surrounded them, and seemed quite content to be running around performing deliverymen duties in such a potentially dangerous environment. On another occasion I noticed an elderly, long-bearded man who appeared to be sitting quite contentedly on the sidewalk, swaying to the rhythm of the Bollywood music tape playing in a nearby thrift shop for secondhand books and odds and ends, smoking his cigarette, remain completely unfazed when a jeep roared by right next to him, and only just missed running over his stretched-out feet on the road. The driver yelled an angry insult out at him, but he didn’t seem to hear and continued blithely puffing away at his cigarette.

All in all, I suppose that the bazaar here is not all that different from the other ones that we have around the city, but it differs greatly from them in terms of ambience and general ethos. This is something that perhaps might change over the years as more people eventually settle down in these parts of the city, but for now, it is clearly a tightly-knit community of people who genuinely care for each other’s well-being and have come to develop friendships and close bonds with each other as they perform as basic a task as shopping for bare necessities.