Amidst the Chaos of Jauhar Chowrangi

The setting for my ethnographic research is Jauhar Chowrangi. I have been visiting there at various times of the day between 09:00 A.M. to 7 P.M. in order to witness the place with depth and understand the changes that occur in the environment and culture at different time intervals.

Though, for people belonging to the middle or upper class, chowrangi is yet another urban space to pass through and does not in most ways appear to be a space that can be used as a steady placement for commercial purposes. However, on the very first day, it came to my attention that for many it is not just a space to pass through but it is a place to earn and make living out of it; a place that many consider their office or what they called it, an ‘Adda’. The chowrangi is not just a space they will utilize to earn money today only and then switch to somewhere else similar. But it is a permanent adda where most of the people belonging to a lower socio-economic class are coming to earn for around 20 to 30 years and even before them someone from their family used to earn from the same place.

Jauhar Chowrangi, the hub of Jauhar where four major crossroads, each of them divided further into a two-way road, having a left and right side, with a traffic signal present at each of them and they intersect at the small roundabout. The left-side-road of each two-way road has a cut or turn that leads to the right-side-road of the other two-way road present next to it on the left. The roundabout also has a signal containing four facades, facing all four roads that the chowrangi connect. Right across the roundabout, there is an enormously tall pole with Pakistan’s flag waving in the direction of the wind. Each corner of the chowrangi has a triangular space often called ‘choki’ which is occupied by different sellers selling items such as newspapers, magazines, books, ice slabs, car towels etc. While some are labors that work on daily wages such as painters, house maintenance laborers, tilers, the Suzuki men who help in moving furniture from one place to another called removalist. These labors and sellers are all men whereas the beggars on chowrangi are mostly women and children but rarely men. The choki of the chowrangi is the safest place to sit and sell because by occupying it they do not block the roads and flow of traffic. Whereas the hawkers and other vendors who keep their barrows besides the pavement of the roads are often thrown out by the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC), therefore, the chowrangi is not the Adda for them to earn. In addition to these people, there are always two traffic policemen who keep on changing at different times and days. They usually stand on the roundabout in the morning and then switch to one of the sides of the road for shade as the midday arrives.

Despite the fact that the chokis are occupied by the crowd of sellers, labors, and beggars, the small booths of different welfare organizations are still very prominent. There are three booths namely, Chhipa Welfare Organization, Edhi Welfare Centre and JDC Ambulance Service, each present on one of the chokis whereas the fourth choki consists of the rangers’ check post. Chhipa appeared to be the major one and had the largest booth as compared to the other two organizations’. Moreover, it was not only the size that increased the importance of Chhipa’s booth but the activities they offer on daily basis have added to their significance. They provide the labors, beggars and other needy people with lunch, have a place where people submit their charity animals (Sadqe ka Janwar) and a cradle for orphans or abandoned children. In addition to that, all three organizations have one or two attendants at their stall who collects the donations and other charity materials and an ambulance marked with the symbols and name of the organization they belong to.

I devoted the first few days solely to the quiet observation of the place, observing the behavior, manner, language, and environment of the place. In the beginning, the labors approached me considering a client and asked if I am looking for any specific maintenance work to be done. However, after few days their gaze turned into a suspicion since I have been visiting the place frequently without having a conversation with anyone. The sight of chowrangi is amusing, on one hand you witness a large group of people rushing in their vehicles, in such a hurry that even the traffic signals along with the traffic police are sometimes unable to stop them from crossing the red light, driving in the wrong direction and from keeping their hands off the horns while the signal is red. Contrary to them you watch these labors who come to the chowrangi around 7 or 8 in the morning and sit there leisurely under burning heat of the sun and the screeching sound of the horns till the evening. The only time you see beggars or some seller rushing is when the signal goes red and they spot a client who is driving a shiny, expensive, air-conditioned car with tinted glass windows. They do not try to peek through the tinted windows but bluntly looks through the front shield, the beggars perform their gesture of pleading by pointing towards their stomach and spreading the other hand in front after which the knock the windows whereas the seller displays his/her item nicely stands for a while and move to the next car.

After a few days, the first conversation that I had was with the attendants sitting at Chhipa’s booth wearing blue t-shirts that are printed with organizations name and number: CHHIPA 1020. These attendants appear to change every alternate day, therefore, upon approaching I enquired if they have duty somewhere else on the alternate days to which one of them called Irshad answered, “Chobees ghantay (Twenty-four hours ) kaam aur chobees ghantay araam.” But the other men named Faizan who was entering the booth replied, “That can be one of the reasons, but the real reason is that we just don’t stand here, we have the records of the donations and charity, the timings of the food delivered, the emergency records and other similar things for the whole day.” The shifts were purposely made for twenty-four hours so that the attendants have a complete record of the events happening around for the whole day in case of any emergency or a case. They also mentioned that they have been working here for 10 years with this same alternate day at work schedule.

Similar to them are the sellers who have also been working from the chowrangi for 15 to 20 years now. Two brothers present at the Chippa’s choki sell ice slabs. They have a table covered with a red bedsheet and a blue cloth that protects the ice slabs from the sun. They are the only one there who was earning from chowrangi for 5 years only, therefore, I asked one of them whose name was Kashif that where he worked before to which he replied, “We used to work for dukans and similar places to that… Per apna karobar (business) tou apna hota hai, kisi ki mohtaji (dependency) nahi hoti.” Though he was the part of the adda for the least amount of years, however, he looked like the leader of that choki. He instructed and helped me in taking the interviews and everyone else listened to his requests. It was only due to the fact that he was a little literate whereas the others were not at all, which has made him a little superior to the others. While I was interviewing him his brother sold two or three slabs already, since it was a very hot day and those ice slabs looked as if they are sent from heaven. He mentioned that Ramzan, Moharram, and summers, are the seasons when they earn the most. I asked him if the frequency of their business is affected severely in winters and he told that it decreases but does not completely cease since they have contacts with the nearby hotels, flower vendors, and the Chhipa attendants also, who are their permanent clients and therefore, they do not face difficulty in winters.

Another vendor across the road sells newspapers, magazines, digests, and some English novels. Their stall is under the shade of a huge old tree and is made of old-fashioned mahogany woods and some wood tables on which digests and novels rest. When I went there, I saw a man in his forties sitting on a chair whereas the other one, much older and looked like his father was continuously rearranging the books and swiping the dust away from them. Most of their stall was covered with colorful magazines hanging on ropes hiding the scrape marks on the stall and the fading of the mahogany wood. At first I asked the man, sitting on the chair, if he has Harry Potter Series to which he pointed at the section where some of the English novels were lying and said “Haan wo rahi Harry Potter” His voice has such surety that though there were only a few novels lying on the bench and none of them were Harry Potter, I still searched thoroughly. However, soon I realized that they do not know names of the English novels they sell, hence, they randomly pointed to that section. I started asking them questions like, since how long you have this stall here?. The younger man called Uzair said “35 years.” Where do you guys buy these items from? He said, “Urdu Bazaar.” While I was questioning Uzair, the older man looked as if he was not interested at all in this conversation and kept dusting, however, as soon as I asked, “Oh Urdu Bazaar? It is a big market and must have more people, so why don’t you set your stall there? Why this Chowrangi?” While Uzair was about to answer the older man interrupted. “You study at Habib University right? So why you did not learn A, B, C from there? … Do not ask us stupid questions! Do you know how expensive is the rent of a shop in Urdu Bazaar? It is six crores and here we sit under the shade for free. Don’t ask questions if you don’t know anything.” Though I was a bit upset at his reply I still got my answer. I sat down to observe the stall on my own. Several people came to buy newspapers and Akhbar-e-Jahan. Most of the aunties bought Urdu digests. I asked him if I can take a picture to which he happily agreed and said, “Okay, but we expect our promotion and new clients if you take a picture.” I laughed and said, “I don’t promise but I will try my best.”

In addition to vendors and beggars, the front side of the Chhipa’s choki is also the place where most of the labors sit, in shade and facing the main roads. They display their tools and equipment in front of them in an extremely symmetrical and rhythmic pattern. While some of them sit at the back side of the choki and across it, where there is no shade. These spots are not fixed but are subjected to first come, first served basis. Therefore, those who come early get the front side of the road and a place in the shade which opens the possibility of getting approached by the clients first and increases the level of comfortability respectively.

This was one of the rules that these labors follow without any conflicts. However, in one of the conversations with these labors, one of them exasperatedly said, “We do not sit with Pathans” I asked, Why? To which he replied, “We usually get into disputes if we do so”, and after a short pause he said, “Pathans (Pushtoons) and Balochs both are hot-headed peoples and therefore we Balochs prefer to sit at the back side rather getting into arguments.” This explained to me that though the outer layer appears very clean and calm and you may not see differences on the surface but the ethnic differences and the othering of people belonging to different tribes live inside some of them. Despite all the things that bind them together such as living in the same area that is Pehalwan Goth, eating from the same Dastarkhwan, earning from the same chowrangi the only thing that splits them apart is the language they speak. However, the case was not the same for all of them since many of them belonging to different tribes mentioned that they do not believe in such differences and are friends with everyone. Yet again being friends and trusting them with their jobs is another issue that also speaks for the differences that exist. Most of them prefer to work with their relatives or people belonging from the same tribe as theirs because they are only able to trust them and thinks that the others are highly likely to harm their work and clients. This was mentioned by the labors in their individual interviews. The Suzuki men also mentioned the similar case that they strictly work with only those people who belong to their village which is Parachinar and does not trust people from different ethnicity or even different village.

As interesting as it sounds, these workers have several other rules as well that they have made, incorporated and followed since many years. One of them is that when a labor is approached by a client for a specific job that he does not offer but next to him are two or more labors that do offer it, he must only refer the labor sitting very next to him and is not allowed to refer the one sitting somewhere else even he is a friend or relative. Another similar rule is that if a client approaches a labor for a job and the person sitting next to him also does the same work he will not in any way tries to intrude and talk to the client, even if he does it better or in less amount. However, all of them should charge the same amount for the same job was not the part of the rules and have caused minor disputes among them. It is also because to incorporate such rule may result harmful for labors in times of severe need of money. One last but rule that is applied widely among all the labors including those who may sit at different adda is that they do not allow new groups that do the same jobs to earn from their Adda. Hence, these are the rules that make the chowrangi a more systematic and a safe place to earn. The rules and regulations make the chowrangi a secure and permanent Adda to make their living.

The chowrangi, not only serves as a source of income but also as a place to socialize and have their meal for free. Every day, a van marked Chhipa comes at noon with large steel containers filled with food. There is also a large orange cooler, taking rest on the pole present at the choki and filled with water which is chilled with the help of the ice slabs provided by Kashif. It serves as a source of motivation for beggars and other sellers who would drink water from it while waiting for the signals to go red, and prepare for another trip to the road hoping that this time they will be able to sell their items and will convince the people to give them some alms. By 1:30 PM a long red Dastarkhwan (tablecloth) is set by the workers of Chhipa, with huge steel plates curved from the edges, and distributed with equal gaps over the dastarkhwan. All the laborers, sellers and beggars sit together and have food. They share some stories and discuss some mutual issues such as the seasonal crisis of work which means that there usually comes a season in which the demand for labor work decreases and sellers have to alter their selling items according to the season and requirements of that season. They also discuss clients not paying them the remaining or enough money, debts that they have to clear, and the problems they face due to current dearness and scarcity of money and resources. These compelling conversations often end with, “Khair, everything is going to be fine since everything is in God’s hands.”

However, the most interesting part of this lunch, which ceased my attention was that the Suzuki men or removalists do not participate in the lunch at dastarkhwan. They go to a nearby hotel to have lunch at the very same time, which enticed me to follow them and inquire the reason for it; the reason was so humble that it really stunned me. One of the men said, “Dastarkhwan se chotay chotay ghareeb bachay bhi khatay hain, the people who eat there are more needy and helpless than us. Hum kisi ghareeb aur zarurat mand ka haq kese marlen.” These words were so empathetic and servile that they had me thinking that people who themselves are underprivileged are thankful for having better than many others out there who cannot even afford to have lunch at a cheap hotel and consider themselves fortunate. Whereas on the other hand there are people like us who, in spite of being privileged in many ways still complain about not having enough and tries to bargain with these labors and sellers. Not only this but we also often refused to give alms to the beggars saying that they all belong to some mafia.

As the sun goes down and the sound of Azaan-e-Maghrib start echoing from different directions, the number of beggars increase. They come from different places and sit on pavements. The lights from the shops and markets by the streets illuminate the place as most of the street lights do not work. The traffic increases and so as the crowd. Meanwhile, the vendors start to wrap up their stalls, and the labors pick up their tools. Most of them take the Qinqis going towards the Pehalwan Goth, while some of them prefer to walk to their homes. Passing through the Jauhar Chowrangi in our vehicles it is invisible to us that how it is a major part of many peoples’ lives. I wonder that the chowrangi will remain same after 20 years from now and the children of these labors will take over their elder’s place like they did. Despite the diversity in ethnicities and occupation, there seems an element of harmony on the chowangi; a particular routine that is followed which gives a liveliness to that place, the liveliness that the moving cars, their horns or even the trees alone might not bring to this roundabout that is famously known by many as Jauhar Chowrangi.