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Tucked away under the chaos of Karachi, every so often, you’ll turn a corner and stumble upon pure brilliance.

One such place is a small shop on the second floor of the Hashmi Centre at Regal Chowk, Saddar. Located on Preedy Street, Hashmi Centre is Pakistan’s premier camera market. Here, you can find virtually every camera and lens in the world.

From the latest Canon professional 1Dx (with a Rs6 lacs price tag), to a used more humble point-and-shoot for Rs2,000, everything is available. High-end lenses from Zeiss, Canon and Nikon are always in stock, just waiting to be plucked from the shelves in small stores that belie the riches they hold.

Along with the equipment sellers, are myriad little shops for camera repair. But of these, there is one that is a cut above the rest.

Take the dark, paan-spittle-stained stairs to the third floor and turn right. You'll see a small store that is within another small store. If you peep inside, you will find a very humble looking man of about 60 years of age, bent over the deepest entrails of a lens or a camera.

With the tenderness of a lover, he handles the electronic mess spread before him. Say hello to Mr. Riaz, the genius of the camera market!

Mr Riaz, better known as Riaz bhai, is something of a legend. If any photographic equipment is fixable, Riaz bhai can fix it.

Conversely, if Riaz bhai declares it beyond repair, you may as well throw the camera in the nearest garbage dump.

I first made acquaintance with Riaz bhai when my camera went on the blink. I was busy clicking away at the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi when the shutter of my camera froze and all I could see through the lens was a black curtain. I felt a cold sweat on my brow.

After a restless night, I rushed off to the camera market with my gravely wounded camera in tow. Nadeem bhai of 'Camera World', my favourite camera shop, was quite sanguine about my problem.

“Go and see Riaz bhai, he will fix it”, he said casually.

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I trotted up the stairs and found a serious looking gentleman working away on a seemingly irreparable object that looked like it must have been a camera at one time. His little shop was a true house of wonders, with bits and pieces from cameras all over the worktable.

I breathlessly explained my problem to him. He listened patiently, without interrupting, then calmly looked at the camera and told me to come back in two days time.

Two days later, I entered the shop with great trepidation, convinced that there was little chance of my sophisticated camera ever returning to full health.

My fears were unfounded and my camera was working perfectly. The price charged was very reasonable and about a tenth of what it would have cost me to get it fixed in Canada.

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Apparently, the problem with my camera paled in comparison to the one faced by a British journalist. According to the camera market folklore, the man had dropped his camera and damaged the zoom lens mounted on the camera. Now, a Canon 24-70mm f2.8L is a complex piece of high quality glass, costing nearly $1,900.

The journalist was convinced that the lens could not be repaired in Pakistan. And then. of course, someone sent him over to Riaz bhai. The journalist insisted that he would like to stay and watch the repair work happen with his own eyes.

So Riaz bhai sat him down and went about fixing the lens. It took eight long hours, during which the whole lens was disassembled, fixed and re-assembled. The reporter was so taken by the skill that he paid Riaz bhai four times what he had asked for.

Riaz bhai at work. —Photo by author
Riaz bhai at work. —Photo by author

I often have long chats with Riaz bhai in which he shares fascinating stories about the time he was working for Canon.

My favourite Riaz bhai story is about Canon sending him to Hong Kong for a month-long training.

Mr Riaz, much to his trainer’s surprise, finished all the course content in under a week. Having time on his hand, he went on to fix all the office staff’s cameras.

The head of Canon, Hong Kong, Mr Awata, was so amazed that he wrote a letter to the head of Canon Pakistan that Mr Riaz had finished the training program in only one week but he will still return after one month, as Canon Hong Kong would use the rest of the time to take him on a free tour of the city!

After two days of sight seeing, Mr Riaz got bored and insisted on taking on the repair of an esoteric Canon model the AF 35 ML f1.9. The canon chief and 12 technicians sat around a table to watch Mr Riaz take apart the camera and work on it. One hour later, he closed the camera and handed it over to the big boss.

Mr Awata pressed the shutter with bated breath. The camera worked perfectly and the whole room broke out in a round of applause!

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Sometimes, I go to Riaz bhai's shop just for a chat over a cup of tea. We talk about cameras, lenses, politics, life, death; basically anything under the sun.

I always come out of that dingy little shop feeling inspired. I guess the exposure to both technical excellence and a kindred human spirit is a rare and fine medicine.

Looking for a successor...

Like a true artist, Riaz bhai comes to work only when he feels like, so he can be hard to get hold of. But he will always turn up if a friend needs something repaired.

Recently, someone I know had a problem with his camera. I sent him straight to Riaz bhai. The next day, my delighted friend told me that his camera was fixed perfectly for a very fair price; and to top it all, when he mentioned that I had sent him, Riaz bhai returned him half of what he had charged!

The only Canon-trained technician left in Pakistan

Riaz bhai's biggest concern is that there is no one whom he could pass on his knowledge to.

He now has a small video recorder with which he records complex repair procedures. “Perhaps someone will learn from these videos when I am gone,” he says wistfully.

Perhaps someone will, but I doubt another Riaz bhai will ever be produced. So of one thing, I am certain: the camera market will be a much lesser place when its resident genius is no more.

Riaz bhai, the genius of Karachi's camera market. —Photo by author
Riaz bhai, the genius of Karachi's camera market. —Photo by author

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