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Travel A Walk In The Shah Alam Market


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Stepping into the winding lanes inside Shah Alam Market is like stepping back in time. The streets at some points are barely a yard wide with buildings rising four stories on both sides. And the market is congested like no other place here. It's a glimpse of Lahore as it existed nearly a hundred years ago; some of the buildings still retain their facades from when they were constructed.

On a scorching hot day, I made my way to Shah Alam Market to explore one of the few places that has escaped the ravages of "modernization". It's a place that has changed little over the decades, save for a few glass towers built in place of crumbling old buildings. The streets are lined with carts selling everything under the sun, and the stuff is dirt cheap, too. Merchandise is one-third of its price elsewhere in the city. It's a wholesale market, frequented mostly by people from other cities and villages of Punjab.

Even a small shop here, measuring just 200 square feet, is worth tens of millions of rupees.

The market stands in the place of the Shah Alam garden, named after the third son of Aurangzeb, just outside Mochi Gate. The market has enriched generations of merchants, the Sikhs and Hindus before Partition, and the Pathans, Afghans and current residents, all of whom came to the market later. Among the older businessmen of the Shah Alam market are the Oberois - a clan of recently-converted Muslims. In the late 1930s, Sheikh Rehmatullah Oberoi, a young Westernized Muslim from Gurdaspur, took out a loan to invest in the transport business. Major cities of the Punjab had been recently connected through a network of highways, creating the opportunity of a booming transport business. Soon the tall and handsome young man had expanded to his business 5 buses operating on the major highways in Punjab. With business on the rise, S.R. Oberoi, imitating the wealthier Hindu transport business barons, began dressing in bespoke suits from Savile Row and learned to speak an accent-less Urdu. That won him favor with the exclusive club of wealthy Hindu and Sikh businessmen of the transporters' association. Young, energetic and serious, S.R. Oberoi became the only Muslim ever to be elected president of the association. Soon afterwards, as part of his plans to expand his business to Lahore, S.R. Oberoi bought two large office buildings, across the street from each other, in the Shah Alam Market. One building was for the clerical staff of his Asiatic Transport Company, the other building was for his large office, decorated with fine wood furniture and Persian carpets. Hindus and Sikhs dominated all businesses in Shah Alam Market, with very few exceptions. As 1947 neared, S.R. Oberoi could sense the growing communal tension in the over-crowded area. The area did have a reputation for communal tensions, with Muslims and Hindus wrangling over the minutest of perceived offences to their faiths. In the early part of the twentieth century, at one corner of the main street of Shah Alam Market stood a temple that had grown too small for the expanding Hindu community. So the Hindus began planning to expand the temple, which would have meant that it would extend across the street. The Muslim residents were perturbed when they learned of the Hindus' plans. A sign of increasing hostility among the communities, Muslims and Hindus both laid claim to a piece of land that measured less than five marlas. The dispute eventually made it to court, and the British judge decided to visit the site before issuing a final judgment. So, under advice from their counsel, Muslims constructed a small mosque at the spot in just one night. The story is now recalled reverently by the residents of the area. To illustrate that intolerance is unbecoming of adherent Muslims, Allama Iqbal quoted the story to lament: Masjid tou banna dey shab bhar mein, iman ke herarat walon nei, Man apna purana paapi hai, barson se namazi ban na saka. You can still see the beautiful small mosque from the corner of the Shah Alam Street. The exterior is now lined with white marble and it has a small terrace. The temple, on the other end of the street, lies abandoned and indistinguishable. Moving to Lahore after Partition, S.R. Oberoi began to see his business flourish even more. He managed to set up a monopoly on routes between cities with the blessing of the local officials. His buses had transported Muslim refugees from East Punjab to Pakistan free of cost during the migration and the officials felt they had to reward him for that.

S.R. Oberoi, imitating the wealthier Hindu transport business barons, began dressing in bespoke suits from Savile Row and learned to speak an accent-less Urdu

Nowadays the renovated office building of the Asiatic Transport Company is run by the Oberoi family's scion, Javed. A polite, grey-haired man, Javed grew up in the lap of luxury: going to school at Aitchison College and playing sports at Lahore Gymkhana. "This place runs in my blood. I would never think of moving our office elsewhere," said Javed, seated against the backdrop of a large oil painting of S.R. Oberoi in a three-piece suit with a felt-top hat on his right knee. "I love the people of this town."

That's not the only reason he has chosen to stay, however. Real estate is exorbitantly expensive in Shah Alam market. Even a small shop, measuring just 200 square feet, is worth tens of millions of rupees. S.R. Oberoi's investment of less than a hundred thousand rupees in Shah Alam Market paid off really well for generations of his family.

The end of Shah Alam Market has another small mosque built in the middle of a roundabout. It's painted red and the first floor of the mosque has a little over a dozen small jewelry shops. One lane from the circle goes to the Soha Bazaar, the famous gold market of Lahore; another lane goes to Azam Market, a famous street lined with garment shops. To navigate through the congested streets requires the presence of mind you would need to solve a puzzle. I had barely gone a few meters in the direction of the Soha Bazaar when I heard somebody say, "Bach!" (be safe) and immediately got hit, in the back of my head, by a giant load of metal pans!

It's a place that has changed little over the decades, save for a few glass towers built in place of crumbling old buildings

The only means of transporting goods in and out of the shops of Shah Alam Market is on the backs of sturdy men. The streets are too narrow to allow vans to go through. You would be surprised to see the size of the loads laborers carry on their backs. From a distance, I couldn't even see the men who were bent over and holding up heavy piles of plastic toys, pots, pans and sports kits on their backs. They have to bend over so much that they can only see your feet. "Bach", it turns out, is a way to warn people to watch their backs.

A more serious safety hazard in the bazaar is the absence of any escape route in case of fire, which had just a few months ago claimed nearly five lives. The narrow streets had made it impossible for fire fighters to reach the building on fire in time. The financial loss was reported to be in tens of millions rupees. Shah Alam Market is a romantic place if you don't mind the dust and smells. It conjures up memories of bazaars as they might have been a hundred years ago in Lahore's walled city. Besides household items, electronic goods, toys, stationery and clothes, you'll find an increasing number of people selling knock-offs of local brands. From water bottles of famous local brands to soap bars, vendors are selling fake everything.

I had walked into the bazaar with fifteen hundred rupees in my wallet. With the skills of persuasion and persistence honed from decades of street experience, vendors convinced me to spend it on a small plastic spider man that can climb walls, a dozen lighters, three torches that work without batteries, a dozen pens, notebooks and a couple of flip-flops that have been lying untouched since I came home. That's Shah Alam Market for you!

Amir Qureshi, is a resident of Lahore and a regular contributor to The Friday Times.



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