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The changing face of Karachi bazars

December 22, 2008

Memories of shopping with my mother at Bohri Bazaar for items as varied as clothes, pots and pans, plastic ware, and even school uniforms and satchels are as vivid as if they had happened only yesterday. I remember that much as I would love the trips to Saddar, and especially to Tit Bit Book Stall on Frere Street (now Daudpota Road) over looking Bohri Bazaar, where I would be allowed to pick up as many comics as I fancied, I would dread the trips to Bohri Bazaar, where I would invariably find myself getting pinched by some frustrated youth or the other.
But, the crowded, narrow lanes aside, there was no better shopping experience than a trip to Bohri Bazaar, as my cousins visiting from Dhaka  (then Dacca) would assure me.  The quaint shops, practically all owned by the gentle Bohra community (thus the name of the bazaar); the many open air stalls; the coolies carrying our shopping for us, were all an indelible part of this shopping area. We knew exactly which shop to go to for which item — where the best bargains could be had for linen, glassware, and so on.
As I grew older, and learnt to fend for myself and deal effectively with the constant jostling and pushing that I would have to suffer in the narrow lanes making up the bazaar, I found myself actually enjoying these trips, which invariably ended at the chaatwalla. And no trip would be complete without a stop at our favourite amrood walla who would be planted on the floor with his basket of guavas at the entrance of one of the busiest gallis in the bazaar.
In fact, it was not just Bohri Bazaar, but the entire Saddar area that used to be our regular haunt. P F Pereira and United Bakery were the stops for the most delightful pastries and chicken patties, and Trampatta — a street where trams used to once run, and which still had the tracks running through it - was a must-visit for the best bhel puri in town. Saris could only be bought at Mehboob Market, while Moosajee and Sanaulla were the most distinguished shops to frequent for sartorial and ladies wear, respectively.
Sadly though, over the years, Saddar began to lose its charm for many of us living in residential areas far from the heart of the city. The prime reason for this was the slow but steady development of an alternate, more modern shopping area in the vicinity of the relatively posh residential area of PECHS. As Tariq Road began to sprout shops of all kinds, people found it easier to shop there, in the comfort of broad roads, allowing for easy parking and carefree walking. Saddar, for most, was reduced to an occasional stop, when something needed to be bought that Tariq Road couldnt cater — like degchis, for instance — or a particular shop (read jeweller) had to be visited that could only be found there.
Among the shops that Tariq Road particularly became popular for were footwear, its main artery soon becoming dotted with a mind-boggling variety of shoe shops. For many years there was no competition for Tariq Road with regard to shoes, and regardless of which part of the city a person hailed from, that was the place to go for the best variety.
Fabric stores and jewellers too, began to abound, and as is the wont wherever shops proliferate, eateries mushroomed in the area. I remember, the first ever kebab roll joint, Silver Spoon, opened up there, offering its hot, tantalising kebabs to weary shoppers.
Chinese restaurants followed close on its heels, offering shoppers the more comfortable option of dining indoors and relaxing before attacking the shops again. Parlours too, mostly run by Chinese women, became an intrinsic part of Tariq Road, so that a trip to this part of the city became much more than just a shopping experience.
Gradually, Tariq Road started witnessing major transformations. While Saddar saw the closing down of some of its prominent shops, by and large, it didnt lose its identity, and looks much like it used to say 25 years ago. However, Tariq Roads landscape underwent massive changes over time, with the shopping area giving way to more and more malls, so that those visiting it after long intervals, invariably found some new building or the other, full of shops waiting to be discovered.
It was only a matter of time though, before Tariq Road too, became sidelined, as all major residential localities such as Bahadurabad, Mohammed Ali Society, Clifton, Nazimabad, Haidri and Gulshan-e-Iqbal began to develop their own thriving commercial areas within their midst. Again, people from far-flung areas began restricting their shopping trips to Tariq Road, and for the most part, opted to shop in their own areas.
Another factor that contributed greatly to shoppers adhering to their own areas for shopping was the proliferation of the weekly bazaars all over the city. The Tuesday and Sunday Bazaars have become no less than socialising grounds for residents within their own areas, and become immensely popular, offering practically everything under the sun from groceries to stitched and unstitched clothes to crockery to furniture - all at affordable prices. 
However, when Zamzama came up in the posh Defence locality, it was another story. Known as the Rodeo Drive of Karachi, the upscale Zamzama offered to customers what none of the other shopping areas could dream of - boutiques stocked by the top designers of the country. Shoppers once again began to flock from all directions to this busy boulevard which boasted exclusive shopping, so that rapidly the lanes became too narrow and congested for the heavy flow of traffic it began to witness.
And that was probably the cue for Park Towers to step into the picture. A shopping centre designed on the lines of western malls; complete with play area, eatery, super-market and spacious parking area, and located in the upscale Clifton area, with easy access by public transport, including buses, this high-end outlet soon became the rage, even with people from distant areas. It is not difficult to guess why - not only does it offer the complete shopping experience in an air-conditioned, clean environment it has also become an ideal spot to spend an evening with the family.
Obviously, when a trend catches on, there are many to follow suit. The next shopping mall of this calibre to come up was the Forum in Clifton, and before long it too became a popular haunt with shoppers from all over the city. The fact that both these shopping centres offer different activities and marketing gimmicks every now and then has only served to increase their popularity with visitors, be they shoppers or not.
While markets offering specialised products - like Zainab Market and Co-operative market - also continue to thrive for the sheer variety of their specific products, they obviously dont have the same customers coming in with great frequency. Today, with the long commutes and heavy traffic plying practically all streets of Karachi, it is only those shopping centres or areas that offer value addition that can entice people to leave the comfort of their own areas and venture forth for shopping on a regular basis. Thus, it is not just Park Towers and Forum, but also Makro, which offers all kinds of shopping under one roof and at competitive rates that are now the in-places for shopping, no matter which area you live in.  
Otherwise, so spread out has Karachi become and so diverse and self-sufficient the commercial areas of each locality, that for someone hailing from Defence for instance, shopping in places like Bahadurabad or Dhoraji, what to talk of Gulshan and Nazimabad is akin to shopping abroad. Its like exploring a whole new world - so what if its in your own city! And, it sure beats the expense and hassles of travelling abroad particularly for shopping.