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Shopping in Karachi - Will that be paper or plastic, Aunty?

by Mahim Maher

May 29, 2010 | 1:44 pm

The women of Mithi do the embroidery by hand and middlemen earn a fat profit in the cities by selling their work. One shirt piece costs about $30.

I went shopping today. With the exception of good bras, you can find pretty much anything you need in Karachi. One of the best markets for kitsch is Zainab market in downtown Saddar.
I park at the Karachi Press Club and walk over to the market. We’ve been getting pretty hot weather but what’s worse is the damn humidity. It’s completely impossible to stay ladylike when your whole body is covered with a thin film of sweat that will not disappear no matter how much you swot yourself.
I decided a long time ago that I wouldn’t let the heat bother me. It’s about 39 degrees Celsius these days in Karachi, which at least has a sea breeze. In the interior of the province people are dropping dead like flies in 53 degrees.
But nothing will come between me and my shopping. In particular I’m hoping to find a small embroidered bag for a little girl I’m planning on visiting in London in a week’s time. My boyfriend, also a journalist, is back there, packing up his life in London to return to Pakistan because the recession dried up whatever little work there was. The gift is for his goddaughter.
There are two types of shops in Zainab market – t-shirts and lounge wear and handicrafts. Men skinnier than alley cats call out for me to step into their stall as fat-bottomed women in black burqas rub past me. I’ve never been much of a haggler so I always feel a little infantalised when I venture into these areas. I feel they can tell by my face that I’m ready to part with my money if they give me a good enough excuse.
The handicraft shops stock silver filigree, wooden camels, Quran holders, rip-off Arab tea glasses, mother of pearl boxes, hookahs, stuffed cloth dolls in the traditional dress that bear more of a resemblance to Priscilla Queen of the Desert than anything else. There is even one shop I know where you can buy a Russian Matryushka doll set. The cute items are the mini rickshaw models, which I stop to consider. S said L was interested in fairies these days. Modes of transport might not amuse her. I move on.
I’m a sucker for handicrafts, cushion covers, batik, mirror work, shawls, bright baubles, beads, useless things that tend to look tacky the minute I bring them back home. My mother, who will buy nothing less than Hermes Birkin, scoffs at my more ‘slummy’ tastes. I generally like ‘slumming’ it whether it’s my choice of dates or clothes. I’d rather wear a glittery 200-rupee ($2.50) sandal covered in sequins than Nine West wedges.
Some of the shopkeepers call me ‘Baji’ or sister. Others call out ‘Aunty’ which reminds me that I’m no longer a spring chicken with my little pot belly and fleshy arms. At least I looked moneyed, I comfort myself and grip my 7,000-rupee fire engine red leather Jaferjees bag closer into my sweating armpit.
I get into one stall after I’ve decided that they all look the same anyway. I look around at his stacked shelf and remember I’ve been here before. This was the man with the necklines from Mithi, Tharparkar, a desert district nearly bordering India where the women do great work.
I sit down on a stool and he starts pulling the scraps of cloth out. They are tattered and old but the work is beautiful. I feel very vintage. Some of them are even fully stitched. I pull one up and the smell hits me. It’s a musty smell that you get if you’ve been layering rugs.
I pick out a few and decide that even if I’m being ripped off, which is most likely to be the case, I can get the work copied and still have emerged the winner. I barely haggle and he prepares a bill.
Listen, I tell him. If any fresh stuff comes in, call me. I hand him my visiting card and he goes off.
When he comes back, he looks a little perplexed.
“Aunty, the card isn’t working,” he says.
“What?”
“See… It’s not working.” He holds it out. I realize he’s running my visiting card through his handheld debit card machine.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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I am a 33-year-old journalist in Karachi, Pakistan where I work as the city or metropolitan editor for The Express Tribune, a daily national newspaper in English affiliated...

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