Samosas are a great leveller and perhaps an even better ice-breaker.
As young Murshid Hasan walks into a bakery on Karachi’s Sindhi Muslim chowrangi with two girls in tow, a slender 40-something man is arguing with the baker over new samosa prices.
“Do you even understand how much a man has to calculate expenses?” booms Mohammad Ishaq, the 40-something client.
Ishaq works inside a kitchen in one of the dhabas nearby — a rarity in the locality that has seen great commercialisation in recent times. Larger food businesses have moved into the shops on the main road, leaving Ishaq’s dhaba and others like them to operate in the by-lanes.
“It is only three rupees more,” retorts the baker. “Only 18 rupees now. Your daal prices have risen by five rupees, how can you tell us that we are being greedy?!”
Before Ishaq can retort, the baker taunts him for bringing hardship on to himself: “Who told you to vote for Imran Khan? This [inflation] is tabdeeli [change], deal with it.”
Across Pakistan, markets wear a deserted look as customers choose to prioritise their spending during a financial crunch. Inflationary pressures are also biting the shopkeepers
Murshid Hasan and his daughters have watched the entire exchange in Punjabi play out, and waited patiently for their turn. Hasan places an order for six samosas instead of the usual dozen. The girls protest but the father tells them, “You are getting two samosas each, what are you complaining about?”
“Why aren’t you buying it for everyone else at home?” asks the elder daughter.
“I didn’t bring enough money and we have to pay the rickshaw fare back home,” replies a frustrated Hasan.
Samosas are great levellers but if bakers are to be believed, they haven’t levelled in a good way. Whether it’s a service-sector employee such as Ishaq or a professional such as Murshid, many in Karachi have had to cut down on their expenses. Samosas, it seems, are among the casualties of the financial crunch being faced in many homes across Pakistan. A luxury item now, so to speak.
“Evening business has definitely been hit and customers are disappearing,” describes baker Mohammad Nasim. “Because, put in a few extra rupees and you can have a plate of daal chawal at the dhaba.”
Nasim’s costs have increased recently which, in turn, has resulted in some items’ prices being increased. “Not too much, but marginally.” But even these costs have seen households recalibrate their spending. As with Murshid, those buying 12 samosas are now buying six or less.
“Our evening business, with a live karrahi, used to be our most lucrative,” says the baker, “because the clientele was a mix of households and office-goers. Now we don’t waste cooking samosas in advance. Only five trays of 24 samosas each and we’ll fry more if need be.”
Markets across Karachi have seen a dip in activity ever since the stock market has started misbehaving. And with the new government trying to cut its cloth with inflationary measures, ordinary homes have been hit with a burden that seems unmanageable. The crunch at home, in turn, is also being reflected in the markets — “business thapp parra hai, market thapp parri hai [business is down, the market is down],” as pharmacist Mohammad Owais put it.
ESSENTIALS AND LUXURIES
Owais voted for Imran Khan in the elections earlier this year. His medical and general store is situated in Karachi’s Nursery furniture market. He runs the shop along with his two cousins; while the cousins run a grocery business, Owais runs a pharmacy.
Owais and his two brothers are engrossed in a conversation about tax returns. Earlier that morning, they had received a letter from the government telling them it was returning money to their business in tax returns. The conversation revolved around whether to claim the returns or to let it go — being entitled to money in Karachi is one thing but getting it released is altogether different.
“The business isn’t doing too badly but this money is a timely boost,” argues one cousin.
“Unless we know someone, we shouldn’t be going near that money,” says another.
Eventually they call someone who works in the tax department. He tells them to come over the next morning but tells them that some bribes might still have to be paid. The cousins nod and agree to go the next morning.
“Our customers had been complaining of inflation for many months,” says Owais. “But the big change ever since the new government has come in is that traders have started getting squeezed. And because we are now feeling the pinch of inflation, we are realising that our customers are losing their power of purchasing.”
Owais’ shop is one of the many in the furniture market. The main bazaar actually sells no furniture but almost everything else to do with carpentry, electric wiring, construction, renovation and painting of houses. Then it has repairmen and plumbers available for hire. A few shops exist that sell items of everyday use and consumption. The furniture market exists around the bazaar.
Many vendors in Lahore and Faisalabad repeat the claim that the stock markets’ volatility has created uncertainty. An electronics shop owner in Lahore, Salman Hasan, laid off two workers last week to prepare for the “drought that is coming.”
In principle, this is wedding season and business should be booming. These days, however, there are more shopkeepers in the market than there are customers.
“Gone are the days of the four ‘seasons’ — Eidul Fitr, Eidul Azha, Moharram and shaadi,” says Mohammad Saqib of Shagufta Paint House. “For the past few years, we have become accustomed to the idea that people won’t repaint their houses in shaadi season. Unlike the past, now only whoever has collected enough money will come and buy paint.”
Saqib boasts about having clients that have been loyal customers for decades but even he admits that those from middle-class backgrounds have been decreasing since the past two years.
“Sometimes we are asked for an estimate of how much it’d cost to paint four rooms,” he narrates, “but eventually the client buys paint only for two rooms. That has been happening a lot recently.”
The Nursery furniture market has historically catered more to an upper middle-class clientele, both homes and offices. It remains among the most popular markets in the city for bedroom furniture since some of the oldest vendors carry a reputation for using the best wood. Some brand outlets recently set up shop in the market recently but they, too, have only a few clients.
Mohammad Ajmal and his wife are among the handful of customers roaming the furniture market. They, like other middle-class families in the market, insist on “discussing our options” before making a purchase and are returning home for the night.
“Turkish furniture is completely out of our range,” says Mrs Ajmal, “but the local variety is still affordable.”
PAKISTAN IN A PINCH
While Saqib claims not to have laid off any staff — “these boys lounge around all day but I haven’t laid them off yet” — others in the market have begun to let go of their employees. Shop owners lounging about on the street, and on the sofas and beds for sale, is now a common sight. And any extra labour needed to transport furniture is carried out by van drivers hired by these shops.
Across town, vendors in Karachi’s Jama Cloth Market, Boulton Market and Denso Hall — all markets selling in wholesale — have begun chopping staff to save costs. The idea is that with people not spending, traders will have to dig in for a while. And in order to do so, they’ll have to trim any and all extra costs, of which labour is one.
This theme of labour being laid off is a recurring one across the country, particularly among small or family-owned businesses.
Many vendors interviewed for this story in Lahore and Faisalabad repeat the claim that the stock markets’ volatility has created uncertainty. An electronics shop owner in Lahore, Salman Hasan, laid off two workers last week to prepare for the “drought that is coming.” Almost everyone is expecting more inflation and more taxes.
“Most of what I am selling is Chinese,” explains Hasan. “That means high-specification products at an affordable rate. We have been seeing a decline in sales even before the new government came in. With the stock markets fiasco, though, I have only made three sales in the past two weeks. That has never happened.”
Indeed, items usually imported have seen a premium levied on them after the dollar became more expensive. Prices of fast-moving consumer goods, such as cheese, energy drinks, sandwich spreads, pet food and accessories have all risen. The same is the case for commodities such as sweaters imported from Thailand. Some traders have refused to buy various items at those prices, leaving importers in a bind about what to do with the merchandise stranded at the port.
“Sweaters and cardigans for adults have been low in demand,” says Shahrukh Azeem from Ghazi Fabrics in Lahore’s old Anarkali market. “The highest demand has been for children’s sweaters and boys’ jackets. But the actual number of pieces sold is not too high — maybe 20 or 25 pieces in a week.”
Azeem doesn’t want to lose his help, hired at 20,000 rupees per month, but he fears that he might not have any other choice if people don’t start buying new clothes for the winters. “If I am unable to feed my own family, how can I take responsibility for someone else’s?” he argues.
The shopkeeper next door, Mohammad Latif, has already let his cousin go. “We can’t afford for family not to go and seek more money elsewhere,” he says. “In today’s climate, the more sources of income a family has the better.”
Meanwhile, in Faisalabad, Usman Virk from an auto-spare parts shop on Sargodha Road notes that business has picked up as vehicle and bike owners are choosing to tune their vehicles ahead of and during winter. But car showroom owner Ghulam Mujtaba Sahu has seen orders for new cars dwindle.
“People seem to have tightened their spending habits and the market may have to respond accordingly,” Sahu says. “The economy will implode if people are not spending and we are not selling.”
Both cities, however, share a commonality: roadside street vendors have started seeing more customers.
Saleem Butt and Irfan Ali sell tea at seven rupees a cup, near Faisalabad’s Ghantaghar market, for example, and longer queues have started forming. Similarly, Mohammad Junaid Butt sells chana daal on his pushcart on the corner of the road leading towards Lahore’s Gawalmandi food street. He sells during the day, at a time when he doesn’t have much competition around. Earlier, his clientele was largely working-class but of late, he has been noticing gentlemen from nearby offices “dressed in shirts and ties” also come to his pushcart. “My food is the same but perhaps I have become affordable now,” he chuckles.
PUBLIC IS PRIVATE
Back in Karachi, the Bohri Bazaar remains a market of quality crockery and other household items. The elder traders in the market had started retiring some time ago but some have returned to offer a helping hand. Like the Nursery market, business is slow and the lanes are nearly empty.
Across town, Muneer Khan and Javed Khan are two brothers who own a furniture shop in Liaquatabad and live nearby. For the past two months, there have been no customers in their shop. For the class of consumer they were targeting, money is in short supply. And there are simply no extra funds in many middle- and lower-middle-class households to buy new furniture. Such is their financial bind.
But for the two brothers, matters are made more complicated by the fact that, apart from sharing their business, they also live in the same house. Many of their expenses are shared — water supply, for example. And so are their life choices — both withdrew their children from school last month because they didn’t have money to pay school fees.
“We have been debating whether we should change trade — set up a grocery store here, perhaps? — or should we ride it out?” narrates Muneer. “Many others are also holding firm but for how long? We need to earn and soon.”
With no money coming in, both families are in trouble. These families haven’t entirely been flush with money but would earn enough to live comfortably. A large chunk of their incomes would go towards procuring water as supply to the locality is low and tankers charge exorbitant rates.
“I don’t want to be in a situation to have to sell valuables to stay afloat,” argues Javed. “We need to make decisions latest by the end of the month to avert that eventuality.”
The writer is a member of staff.
He tweets @ASYusuf.
Additional reporting by Mohammad Asif, Leena Javed (Lahore) and Mohammad Afzal Hussain (Faisalabad).
Published in Dawn, EOS, December 16th, 2018