January 2, 2017

When it comes to worldly matters
Look to those with less than you,
so you may be humbled.

Having heard this advice often, I thought I knew its meaning well: look at the people who have less because they don’t have as much as you. Simple enough? This morning though, I saw the words anew realizing what they may also mean: look at the people who have less, maybe they have more than you.

I gingerly walked up the white, tiled steps leading into the market. The complex was brightly lit and we appeared to have arrived early. Early meant noon—it’s when many places open here. Today we are in a clothing market lined with shops that sell unstitched material varying from cotton to silk, from organza to jaamawar. Embedded in between these shops are much smaller ones, almost stands against the wall that sell fancy buttons and laces. This is Aashiana (Urdu for ‘home’). And it kind of is one of our homes. Mona and I have been regulars here for years—annually that is—visiting certain spots for certain materials, having cold drinks and chai at places we spend more time at, and bargaining up storms.

The scene was serene and peaceful today. We were among a handful of customers roaming around. My mom and aunt fished out the silk store they buy from, and took their seats for what would likely be an era. Some things don’t change—this was always the dragging part during childhood. But then some things do change—because childhood has passed and I can go walk around instead.

Screen Shot 2017-01-15 at 11.51.58 PM.pngAashiana is set up in the floor plan of an old time Indian home. The central hall supported by large pillars is a courtyard full of shops facing each other. Towards one end, there is a little stand that sells baked snacks and cold drinks. When you get to the end of the hall in the back, both sides have little alleys that lead to another few rows of shops on each side of the courtyard as well as behind. There’s nowhere to walk without treading alongside a fabric shop. I made my way through the main courtyard shops, stopping longest at the ones with the Balochi-influence kaam. What’s with me, I wonder. No outfit-design epiphanies struck so I take the right side alley and look at the shops there. Colorful dupattas are hanging outside some stores. One store is selling fancy net. Another has kaamdaani. There’s color everywhere, sparkles everywhere.

I stop at a dupatta that has handwork done with thin yarn. I saw something like this in a picture and have wanted it since. Also Balochi. The storekeeper told me it’s 2500 rupees and he wasn’t feeling too inviting. I made a note of the location though and kept moving.

The other storekeepers were instantly activated by my walking by. “Yeh dekh lein baji…Ji Baji…Kya chahiye aapko…Aayiye na baji, bilkul nahi cheez hai…!” Dear me. Exploring on your own has its cost. But the fabrics weren’t as interesting as what else I saw. In one corner of an alley, a worker had a mask on and was sweeping accumulated dust and trash with his jhaaru, cleaning for the morning. My gaze on him was cut short when it was captured by a young boy with steaming tea mugs in a tray held above his shoulder, accompanied by baked patties. I looked down at a shopkeeper, sitting collected with a clear, glass mug of hot tea, and a single pattie sitting next to it. These shop owners were having their breakfast.

Other shopkeepers were setting up long thaans of fabric outside their stores. I walked by another, and the shopkeeper was turned away in a corner. I realized he was reading his morning Quran, seated on a tiny stool. I traveled from alleyway to alleyway, making turns, my fingers gently grazing different fabrics, marveling at the explosion of color. Shopkeepers talked and joked with each other in Pashto. It felt so warm. So happy.

The moms are still at the silk store. They’ve bought a ton of identical outfits by now. I’m forced to another round of exploring. This time I find the Balochi dupatta in the left side alley at another store. He’s a wholesaler, and selling for 1800. I go back to the right side alley shop from before, and ask another worker the price and he tells me 3000 something. I point out someone just told me 2500. They have a 3-second consultation in the air and tell me yes it’s 2500. I tell them about the 1800 guy and they say it’s not the same material. I insist it is, and he politely but coolly says something along the lines of “it’s upto you of course ma’am, wherever you buy from.” He has a black dupatta with multicolor kaam that the other guy didn’t have. But this customer service is entirely unappealing. After the moms are done I take them to the 1800 shop.

This guy is new here. Whoever owns his shop also owns 9 others in Islamabad and they’ve been here for a month now. They’re a wholesaler like I mentioned, which is why their prices are lower. He also told me that dupattas that are in white or black are rare, and only a few come in 100s. However, he sells them all at the wholesale rate to whoever is there at the time they happen to carry them. He had nothing in black while I was there. But there was a beautiful one in white with orange and pink and black and green kaam. We look at a few colors and it turns out he has many more dupattas in the back. And then more. One is bright cyan with yellow, black and magenta kaam. Another is olive green with red and brown kaam. Some are pinks, others green. Some have round motifs, others have paisleys. Each time he opens one, we look at each other and say “well gee, this one looks good too.”

He opened up for us every dupatta of the kind that he had I believe. He also tried them on over both his shoulders to show us how they look. Eventually I was behind the counter inside his shop, also trying them on. My aunt bought a warm shawl for our great aunt and a Balochi dupatta for her daughter. I walked out with two Balochi dupattas. It felt good and welcome in his store, and he was a very courteous young man. He told us about how important ikhlaaq is to their business. And we gave him duaas for the success of their new shop in Karachi.

We did a few other small errands—the moms bought dupattas that would be dyed for suits they purchased, I bought some buttons for a non-existent kurti—and we exited to go next door to The Forum. On the way out, I passed by two security guards outside. They were sitting in a tiny space atop the edge of the stairs. Facing each other and on small stools, they sat with a small, spongy loaf of unsliced bread between them, neatly wrapped in thin plastic. One of the guards was emptying a saalan out of a ziplock for them to share, and this would be their lunch. My mom said “nazar mat lagao.” But I couldn’t help staring. The smallest things here feel like moments of so much wealth from where I’m standing.

Seeing the beauty of people’s everyday lives in Karachi melts away the ugly magnification of what we feel are such large problems. I say this not because our problems are not valid, but the stress I feel from my own and other’s issues—Karachi cuts through that even.

People go about their day and their work, with such energy and such happiness. I haven’t seen a single person mope here, not even the poorest of the poor.

How beautifully people live here, despite all their troubles.