Daily Times: Sunday, December 10, 2006

Lahore Lahore Aye: Anarkali, the bazaar that never shuts shop

By A Hamid

Lahore’s Anarkali is always full of life and people. Even on the day when its shops and stores close, it remains open for business. Let me explain how. Sunday, the day on which the legendary bazaar is officially closed, there arrive on the scene what can only be called its gypsy traders who spread out their wares wherever they can find space, generally on store plinths.

It is said that Nizam the water-carrier issued a leather coin for the one day he was king of India, declared so by a grateful emperor whose life he had saved. The “gypsy” traders are the equivalent of Nizam the water-carrier. Their kingdom too lasts for a day, but unlike his, returns after a six-day interval, week after week. I recall a visit to Anarkali one Sunday many years ago. I was attracted to an old gentleman selling perfumes. He originally came from Lucknow and said in his faultless Urdu that his family had sold perfumes for hundreds of years. There was a wide variety of them on display, each with its own corked bottle and its own name. Some bottles were green, some red, others yellow. The shop in front of which the elderly gentleman from Lucknow had laid out his treasures was actually a shoe store during week days, which is why the first thing he said to every customer was, “Since I chose this spot, the shoe stench that used to hang in the air has disappeared. That is the power and miracle of my perfumes.”

I greeted the old man and asked to be shown a perfume. “Look, young man, my perfumes are not to be looked at. I have to know what particular perfume you want.” He followed this by reciting the Arabic and Persian names of nearly a dozen perfumes. I asked him for henna perfume. “Young man, that is a perfume for winter months, not for this time of year. Come to me in winter.” After saying this, he turned away from me and began to leaf through a book. Realising that I no longer was of any interest to him, I walked to the next spot, which was a pharmaceutical store during the week. On display here was hair dye, henna, combs, women’s ponytail-holders and items of makeup. I spotted a face cream of English make. “Do you import this from England?” I asked. “Those times, my dear sir, are gone when we used to import these things from England. These days, we make these preparations right here at home,” he replied. “But the brand name is English,” I could not help pointing out. “You better read it carefully, my friend,” he said irately. “The English face cream is called Pond’s; ours is called Pound. Understand?”

Another gypsy trader was selling wonder glue in both small and large bottles. Some people were eyeing his wares with a suspicious eye. A whole range of broken glass and china pieces had been laid out in front of him for customers to examine. I joined the few who were watching the man but not buying. He picked up a broken cup, applied his glue to the broken parts that needed to be joined together and declared, “Remember, apply my wonder glue with an applicator. If you ever try to apply it with your finger, it would not be the broken part that will join the other broken part, but it will be your finger. And no matter what you do, you won’t be able to unjoin the two. Be warned. You will end up in hospital. You must, therefore, be extremely careful. After you have applied the glue with an applicator and joined the broken parts, count up to ten and then throw the cup on the floor. It will break but never at the spot where my solution has been applied. And remember that if my wonder glue has been applied correctly, no matter how hard you try, you would not be able to detect the join. You never have to worry about broken dishes once you have bought my wonder glue.”

Another man was selling hosiery and makeup preparations. He was also selling other oddities, such as nets hung over beds as defence against mosquitoes. He unfolded one and set it up. He then crawled under the canopy himself and said in a ringing voice, “Friends and customers, the special quality of my mosquito net is that the mosquito that could penetrate its weave has yet to be born. And in case, one does manage to get in, he will never be able to get out. Little will he have realised when buzzing in that he was flying into his graveyard.” Another gypsy was selling diaries and calendars, some of them hanging by the boarded-up door of the store in front of which he had installed himself. Next to the calendar bearing Allama Iqbal’s picture, cheek by jowl, as it were, hung one that showed toothsome Japanese girls in itsy-bitsy swimsuits. Another showed half-dressed women rolling on the sand by the seashore, apparently sunbathing. It was clear that the Poet of the East had tough competition. “Please move on, my friends,” the calendar man would declare every now and then, but it was hard for the onlookers to take their eyes off those lissome Japanese beauties in skimpy swimsuits.

Then there was the bookseller. His display included astrological guides and penny dreadful detective, historical and social novels. There were also works of poetry. The owner of these treasures sat on a cushion reading a detective novel with great concentration. So absorbed was he in his book that he continued to ignore a customer who was inquiring about some book. Finally, in exasperation, he put the book down and hissed, “One trouble with this business is that you have hardly opened for the day when customers begin to materialise.” Another gypsy trader had a sign nailed to a shop door that said, “We don’t close on Sundays.”

A Hamid, the distinguished Urdu novelist and short story writer, writes a column every week based on his memories of old Lahore. Translated from the Urdu by Khalid Hasan

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