The Bargain from the Bazaar

A Family's Day of Reckoning in Lahore


By Haroon K. Ullah

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Awais Reza is a shopkeeper in Lahore’s Anarkali Bazaar — the largest open market in South Asia — whose labyrinthine streets teem with shoppers, rickshaws, and cacophonous music.

But Anarkali’s exuberant hubbub cannot conceal the fact that Pakistan is a country at the edge of a precipice. In recent years, the easy sociability that had once made up this vibrant community has been replaced with doubt and fear. Old-timers like Awais, who inherited his shop from his father and hopes one day to pass it on to his son, are being shouldered aside by easy money, discount stores, heroin peddlers, and the tyranny of fundamentalists.

Every night before Awais goes to bed, he plugs in his cell phone and hopes. He hopes that the city will not be plunged into a blackout, that the night will remain calm, that the following morning will bring affluent and happy customers to his shop and, most of all, that his three sons will safely return home. Each of the boys, though, has a very different vision of their, and Pakistan’s, future.

The Bargain from the Bazaar — the product of eight years of field research — is an intimate window onto ordinary middle-class lives caught in the maelstrom of a nation falling to pieces. It’s an absolutely compelling portrait of a family at risk — from a violently changing world on the outside and a growing terror from within.



Then which of the favors of your Lord will you deny?


A bold sun had clamped down on the city of Lahore that summer day in 1972. In a back alleyway in the Anarkali section, a neighborhood of modest homes and small apartment buildings, the merciless heat had driven almost everyone inside. Few people were around to notice the figure of a man who had materialized out of the blinding sunlight. Slowly he walked along the ancient cobblestones, his steps deliberate and careful. As he emerged from the sun’s glare, it was apparent that he was wearing the sand-colored uniform of the Pakistani army with the chevrons of a corporal, a lance naik. The uniform was ragged and filthy, the leggings muddy. The man’s toes poked through cracked and split combat boots. He was thin, almost emaciated, and his stringy hair and shaggy beard framed the bombed-out features of a lost soul.

An elderly woman sweeping her doorstep had been watching the man as he shuffled along the alley. As he got nearer, she moved back into the shadows of her doorway, but something made her pause. The man saw her and stopped. He opened his mouth, but no words came out. The old woman set aside her broom and stepped into the alley.

“Can I help you?”

The man strained to speak but couldn’t.

The old woman looked him up and down, then eyed his malnourished face. Gradually the shock of recognition began to show in her face. “Wait!” she cried, then rushed across the alley and into a little wood-frame house.

The bedraggled soldier did not move.

In a moment a handsome young woman hurried from the house, the old woman behind her, whispering, pushing her forward. Timidly, with palms pressed together piously, the younger one stared at the man. Finally she turned to the old woman, and they exchanged a few heated words.

Reluctantly venturing closer to the ghostly soldier, the young woman studied him for a very long moment. Abruptly her face became animated, her eyes big and bright as she erupted into tears. “Awais!” she screamed and fell forward, clutching at the man’s legs. Her crying quickly became a wailing that echoed down the alley.

“It’s him!” someone yelled from an upper floor. “It’s Awais Reza!”

THE REZA FAMILY was among the first to become citizens of the new country of Pakistan. They had migrated from Kashmir and Amritsar in north India and settled in the ancient inner core of Lahore following the historic Partition of Pakistan from India in 1947. The Reza family had moved to a land once ruled by a long series of empires, beginning in the eighth century and stretching into the nineteenth. The last of the devout Muslim dynasties, the Mughals, flourished from the mid-1500s to the mid-1800s, when the British took firm control. In 1858, the Crown issued the “Non-Interference Proclamation” throughout its Indian empire, which allowed local regions to organize and regulate commerce without undue imperial influence or interference. This created a favorable environment for Muslims to mobilize around distinct religious identities. However, subsequent ill-advised reforms by the British had powerful, unintended consequences. The Indian Councils Act of 1892 initiated a policy of separate representation on government councils for Hindus and Muslims. The Partition of Bengal in 1905 supported Muslim calls for separate political representation. The Morley-Minto reforms of 1909 further institutionalized religious divisions by forcing Muslims and Hindus to vote in separate electoral blocs.

The resulting political order was separate and unequal. Lines on the map relegated Muslims to the role of a permanent statistical minority in British India. The ascendant Hindu political class took advantage of its majority status and had little incentive to negotiate power-sharing agreements with its Muslim counterparts. This deepening political-religious identity spurred the rise of “confessional” Islamic parties, and over time the political landscape became fully polarized along religious lines.

After World War II, the British lost their will to hold on to India, and indeed their ability to do so. They proposed establishing a loose federation of Indian states with a weak national government of limited powers. But negotiations broke down when Muslim rights and certain traditions could not be guaranteed.

Political squabbling, gridlock, fog, and friction led the British to formally partition India to create West and East Pakistan. The country became a commonwealth in 1947 and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in 1956.

Like many of Britain’s cast-off colonies in South Asia, the independent Pakistan was not created as a true democratic republic. Its system of government was cobbled together from a host of competing traditions, including feudalism, Islamism, and Western-style representational government. Pakistan’s political structure from the very beginning was a grab bag of high-minded ideals, local pragmatism, and a need for strength at a vulnerable time.

AWAIS REZA WAS BORN in the year of the Partition, 1947, the same year that his family took up residence in Lahore. Lahore was still reeling from the aftermath of violence and bloodshed between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. This ancient Punjabi site had once been the capital of the great Mughal empire. Known as the Paris of the East, Lahore was one of the sparkling jewels of British India; young army officers considered it a choice posting. T. E. Lawrence and many other soldiers journeyed to Lahore for R and R. Indeed, Lawrence was said to have briefly married in Lahore. Over time the city became almost Anglicized in some respects, from architecture to fashion. For more than a hundred years, Lahore was the cultural capital of South Asia, and its polyglot society was well-to-do and cosmopolitan.

However, in 1947, when land was carved out of India during the British withdrawal and the commonwealth was founded, Lahore and other cities became the scenes of ferocious factional fighting. People who had always respected each other’s religious freedom, who had lived in harmony for centuries, began turning on each other with sabers and shotguns. Thousands were ruthlessly murdered and thousands more horribly maimed. The upheaval was colossal, like something out of the Bible. The Partition that hacked Pakistan from two sides of India and uprooted more than six million people has been called the greatest landmass transfer in recorded history.

The Reza family walked into the wreckage of Partition, visible everywhere by the time they arrived in Lahore. In those early days, newcomers found accommodation in homes abandoned by owners who had either fled or been killed. The Rezas had cousins already living in Lahore’s Anarkali section, so they were able to get settled relatively quickly. However, their new home, a three-room ground-floor apartment, bore disturbing traces of its previous inhabitants. Some of the walls had bloodstains that refused to wash away in spite of repeated scrubbings. It seemed as if the very air were full of terror and heartbreak. As Awais grew up during the 1950s, he heard stories of knife fights, shootings, and murder. Once, near the Anarkali bazaar, Awais’s father was an eyewitness when a man casually walked up behind another and shot him in the back of the head. Even in the mid-1960s, old bloodstains and bullet holes were still visible around the city. Partition had spurred the kind of violence that never really washes away. Some nights Awais would lie awake, imagining an unknown boy his own age. Was that his blood on the wall? He often wondered: What was it all about? Why all the hatred? Try as he might, he could never understand killing anyone on the basis of geography, religion, caste, or creed. Yet the aftermath of such killings was all around him.

It was a testing time for a young man, as it was for the young nation. Fortunately, the Rezas were skillful entrepreneurs and had been for several generations in their original homeland in Kashmir and northern India. They had the know-how needed to work the market—any market. The old inner city, including Anarkali, was still a vibrant and lively place in those days, with the bazaar at its hub. It is the largest open market in South Asia, occupying the length and breadth of several inner-city blocks. With seed money from acquaintances who had chosen to remain in India after Partition, Awais’s father was able to set up a cloth and rug shop in the bazaar and later expanded it to offer high-end perfume, jewelry, and wristwatches. Despite the political turmoil, there were opportunities for money-making. In general, the war of the late 1940s and the sporadic fighting in the years that followed did little to damage business throughout Lahore. Indeed, a bit of chaos provided a legitimate opportunity to raise prices.

Working daily beside his father, Daniyal, from the age of twelve, interacting with customers and merchants from all over the region, Awais Reza learned the important lessons and insights of the shopkeeper’s trade. “When a man comes to the shop with his wife,” his father instructed, “you must immediately decide which of the two has the say-so about money.”

“How can you tell?”

“You can’t. But if you assume it is the wife, you will be right 95 percent of the time.”

“So always play to the wife.”

“No. You play to the wife through the husband. You act as if he’s really the one holding the purse strings, as rare as that would be.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You will if you ever get married.” Daniyal Reza reached under the counter and took out a glittering bracelet. “These silver items are more attractive to the female than gold. Why is this so?”

Awais came back quickly: “Because silver is a woman’s metal, and gold is a man’s metal. You said because silver reflects more light.”

His father patted him on the back. “Very good. Now, go unpack those new throw rugs. And when you put them on the display table—”

“I know. Bright ones on top.”

As he grew through his teens and into young manhood, Awais Reza learned from his father all the ins and outs of running a successful shop as well as the Reza family tradition of fair and honest dealings. “No matter if it be peace or war,” the old man would say, “there is always a reliable market for the right goods. The key is to know what the right goods are before the customer knows.”

Awais loved the excitement of the busy, noisy bazaar and became friendly with many of the other merchants. From them he learned something of the bazaar’s history.

It is uncertain exactly how and when the renowned Anarkali bazaar first came to be a popular trading and retail center. It is likely that distant settlers used the spot as a convenient marketplace, and the venue simply persisted and expanded over the years. There are clear historical references to the bazaar going back at least two centuries. Its narrow, labyrinthine streets are lined with hundreds of tiny shops and stalls with every imaginable offering—books and electrical parts, clothes and cutlery, television sets and motor scooters, and much more. Some shops are tiny “boutiques” selling T-shirts and jeans, while other businesses are larger and fancier, with modern display racks and colorful awnings. Crowds swarm amid the jumble of shops and merchandise. The rickshaws and mini–delivery vans are all adorned with colorful artwork, slogans, and signs and symbols of the trade. The minivans have horns that tap out a musical tune instead of a simple honk. These vans also offer irregular bus transportation for shoppers bound for the bazaar, providing drivers with a few extra rupees.

The marketplace is an assault on the senses. All kinds of food is prepared in front of the customer, from shish kebab to hamburgers, pakoras to samosas. Other stalls are devoted to fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, dates, figs, olives, spices, sweet treats, and on and on. There are general merchandise shops resembling rundown 7-Elevens. The Coca-Cola Company’s famous Spencerian logotype is seen everywhere in both English and Urdu.

Since it is stiflingly hot many months of the year, canvas-topped refreshment booths are everywhere around the bazaar, offering icy lemonade, plum juice, falsa juice, sugarcane juice, and the pride of Lahore, a yogurt-milk drink known as “lassi,” which tastes like a tangy milkshake. Husbands who have been dragged along by their wives tend to gravitate to the lassi booths and sit around sipping the “white wine of the East.” While the women are off shopping, the men debate everything from cricket scores to the latest government stupidities.

The bazaar opens for business around 9:30 in the morning, and shops often remain open until midnight. Awais Reza liked best the hours after sundown, when the shop was cooler and people were in a better mood to buy. He also liked how the lights and the noise of the Anarkali bazaar drowned out the honking traffic and neon signage from the surrounding metropolis. For Awais, the bazaar was its own little world.

Shop owners would sit outside together in the evening and sip endless cups of tea. While their children played nearby, the men would discuss the business of the day and the affairs of the world. The newspapers were passed around, and the radio gave them the BBC News station. Awais would listen respectfully to his elders but early on developed the habit of forming his own opinions, taking his own counsel. In that sense, he was very much his father’s son.

AT THE TIME OF PARTITION, the newly formed commonwealth of Pakistan consisted of two noncontiguous regions, West and East Pakistan, which were separated by a thousand miles of ancient India. There had always been ethnic and linguistic differences between the nation’s two halves. West Pakistan was dominated by Punjabis and Northern Pashtuns, whereas East Pakistan, also known as East Bengal, was the intellectual center of Bengali poetry, arts, and humanities. The politically dominant West had a history of widespread religious and economic discrimination against the Eastern section. In 1956, when the Islamic Republic of Pakistan was formally founded, the leaders of West Pakistan were accused of massive neglect toward the East. Eventually resentment and old feuds boiled over, and agitation and fighting broke out. In a long-building separatist movement led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, East Pakistan issued a declaration of independence, which led to the Bangladesh Liberation War. Formal hostilities commenced on March 26, 1971.

Until that time, Awais Reza had been a Pakistani only by the United Nations decree of 1947, not by any special belief or patriotic conviction. His spiritual homeland was still in the lush valleys of Kashmir. But the young country called out to its able men to stand up for the glory of a unified Pakistan. For the first time, Awais was seized with a sense of national pride. And so, heeding his country’s call and closing his ears to the advice of his family, Awais enlisted in the army a few months before his twenty-fourth birthday.

The Eastern secessionists had assembled a hardy force of some four hundred thousand troops, and the Western army moved quickly to come up to strength. Awais Reza’s company was rushed through boot camp in just four weeks instead of the regulation nine. Those destined for the theater of operations were advanced quickly in rank; in just two months, Awais went from recruit to lance corporal. While home on leave, he met and impulsively married a girl he had just met.

By summer, the new bridegroom was stationed at a garrison inside East Pakistan near the border with India. He might have been green, hardly prepared for warfare, but Awais proved himself an able machine gunner for a mechanized unit. In a single, unforgettable day, he took part in two running gun battles with the well-equipped and dug-in guerrillas. Beyond the battlefields, chaos prevailed across East Pakistan. People murdered and pillaged with a warped and lawless sense of retribution and revenge. Allied with bloodthirsty religious militias, the West Pakistan army repeatedly carried out massacres of civilians and minorities, such as the minority Hindus. Ultimately, the fighting and atrocities caused the displacement of millions, with over ten million fleeing East Pakistan for safety in India.

Early in the conflict, India had recognized the independent nation of Bangladesh and was supplying it with funds and military hardware, including advanced fighter aircraft. The Bangladesh government-in-exile was established at Calcutta as the West Pakistan army faced an increasingly strengthening guerrilla force. The bloodshed and violence in which Awais took part were things he would not speak of for years to come—not just what he had seen but what he had done.


I have seen the movement of the sinews of the sky, And the blood coursing in the veins of the moon.


In mid-October 1971, Lance Corporal Reza was among a contingent of soldiers who had surrounded an insurgent camp on the outskirts of Dacca, the largest city in East Pakistan and the rebel capital. What had started out as a straightforward seek-and-destroy mission quickly turned sour when the insurgents launched a surprise counterattack. Awais Reza’s squad found itself trapped in triangular fire but managed to stage a bold retreat in armored cars. Even with the rebels swarming everywhere, they nearly made it back to their staging area. But when the ammunition ran out, so did their luck. Many of Awais’s comrades were killed in the shoot-out, and the captured survivors were given a stark choice—surrender or die on the spot. Awais and half-a-dozen other men gave up. There was no disgrace in choosing to live.

Lance Corporal Reza and his surviving squad members were held at a repulsive prisoner-of-war camp overflowing with West Pakistan soldiers, where food was scarce, shelter and medical care were nonexistent, and the treatment was brutal. They heard about a preemptive strike made by the West Pakistan air force against a military target, and this gave them a jolt of hope that the rebellion would soon be put down.

That hope was demolished when the Indian army entered the war on the side of Bangladesh on December 3, 1971. This created two fronts, and the Western forces were rapidly outgunned and outmaneuvered—and finally out of time. Late in December, the Allied Forces of Bangladesh and India accepted the formal surrender of the West Pakistan army, resulting in the highest number of POWs since World War II. The apocalyptic civil upheaval had lasted almost nine months. The exact death toll would never be known, but official estimates range from two hundred thousand to a ghoulish three million.

The weeks wore on, and conditions at Awais’s camp grew worse with every truckload of new prisoners. As 1972 rolled through January, the Western soldiers were still prisoners, and no one knew when they would be released. The war was over, but diplomatic talks were not. Out of sheer desperation, on the verge of starving, Awais and four others used clothing and a camera to bribe a guard to leave a rear gate unlocked.

Late one moonless night, the prisoners escaped by simply walking away. The five soldiers then began a nightmarish, months-long trek across the forbidding, vast enemy territory of India. The escapees kept to the wilderness and off the main roads, seeking handouts of food where they could, stealing if they had to. When there was nothing else to eat, they foraged for plants and roots. In the more temperate regions they passed through, they sometimes found a mango or plum tree and gorged themselves on the fruit. In other regions, they fought rain and cold. Always there were long hours of walking, and the constant fear of being caught and sent back to the POW camp. Once they swiped a pickup truck from a remote farm but had to abandon it when the gasoline ran out.

“It will be too much risk going into town for fuel,” Awais insisted.

“We don’t have a rupee between the five of us. We’d have to steal it.”

“Forget such things,” Awais said. “We stay safe when no one sees us. That means we must walk.”

And so the walking went on and on. The soldiers hid by day, traveled by night, always hungry, with blistered feet, suffering hacking coughs from the cold and damp. They lost track of time and finally of the calendar. When they crossed the border from India into West Pakistan, Awais did not realize it was his twenty-fifth birthday.

SHEZ AKBAR WAS BORN in 1956, just after Pakistan formally became a republic, and grew up in a low-income section of Lahore called Krishan Nagar, which took its name from the ancient Hindu temple of Krishna. Krishan Nagar was originally highly diverse, with Christians, Hindus, and Muslims living and working side by side, but by the late 1950s, it was racked by religious violence rivaling the time of Partition a decade earlier. Shez’s father had been a career railroad engineer, but when the rail system was disrupted in the 1960s and the trains couldn’t run, he was thrown out of work and had to scrounge around for odd jobs to feed his six children. Shez was the oldest.

Her parents knew that education was the only way for those of their class to climb up in the world. So sacrifices were made and attention focused on Shez. She was a sweet-natured and industrious student with a strong will to succeed, determined to make her parents proud and to help her family survive the harsh conditions of post-Partition Pakistan. Certainly the odds were against her. But she had a few “tricks up her sleeve”—a phrase she had learned from her American pen pal, Lois, in Cincinnati. Through Lois, Shez was picking up not only English-language skills but also a sense of a wider world.

“Let’s be realistic,” Shez told her mother. “It’ll cost too much and take too long for me to become a lawyer or a doctor or anything fancy like that. It’s reaching too high.”

“Then what do you want to be?”

Shez explained that when she and her girlfriends walked by the big Punjab Medical Center on the way to school, they often saw women in white uniforms scurrying between the buildings. “I want to be one of them, a nurse. I’d like that very much.” This was a sensible and attainable goal, typical of Shez’s pragmatic personality. So it was more or less settled: Shez would go on to nursing college after high school.

During her early teenaged years, Shez would spend long hours at the library in addition to helping her mother with chores and taking care of her younger brothers and sisters, scolding them when they neglected their homework and praising them when they did well on tests. “If you don’t know your lessons,” Shez would tell them, “it is an insult to your teacher. That is not a smart thing to do.”

When Shez was in her second year of high school, her parents began to be concerned that her studies and career plans might be an obstacle to an even more important ambition. She was spending so much time on academic work that they feared she was jeopardizing her chance for a good marriage. The pretty teenager had already turned down two possible suitors from families in Anarkali. “I have to feel something special for a husband,” Shez explained. “Marriage is for life. Please understand; I want to make the right choice.”

Shez Akbar was fifteen in March 1971 when the war over Bangladesh broke out. That made her situation more complicated because many eligible young men were off to battlefields in the East, and many would not be coming back. With every passing day, her chances for a good marriage were reduced. Her parents’ mood ranged from concern to alarm.

“We have to do something, and we must do it soon,” Mr. Akbar said to his wife and daughter.

But Shez was strong-willed, even stubborn, on the subject of a husband. “I won’t be like other girls who are forced into an arranged marriage to a man they don’t truly love.”

Love?” her father scoffed. “In the name of Allah, what does love have to do with it?”

Shez and her mother exchanged looks and burst out laughing.

“Well, I didn’t mean it quite that way. Of course love is a factor, among others.”

“Didn’t you love Mother when you got married?”

“Naturally, but there were other considerations, my child.”

“Such as?”

“We don’t need to get into all that. You’re very clever at changing the subject, aren’t you?”

But the subject could not be avoided for long.

One of Shez’s schoolmates in Lahore announced that she was getting married and asked Shez to be in the formal procession. “But I have nothing to wear,” Shez complained. In fact, she had no need to worry; her mother was an expert seamstress who regularly made school clothes for her three girls. She set about retailoring an old gown of her own for Shez, decorating it with rhinestones and sashes picked up cheaply at the Anarkali bazaar. On the day of the wedding, friends told Shez she was the best-dressed of all the girls.

After the wedding ceremony at the bride’s home, the younger boys and girls gathered around the refreshment tables and socialized while the older folks sat nearby, watching to make sure all proprieties were observed. It was then that Shez caught sight of a handsome young man in an army uniform.


On Sale
Mar 11, 2014
Page Count
256 pages

Haroon K. Ullah

About the Author

Haroon K. Ullah is a scholar, diplomat, and field researcher specializing in South Asia and the Middle East. Born to South Asian parents, Haroon grew up in a farming community in Washington State and was trained at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he served as a senior fellow and completed his MPA. He was a William J. Fulbright fellow, a Harvard University presidential scholar, a National Security Education Program fellow, and a Woodrow Wilson Public Service fellow. He is also the author of Vying for Allah’s Vote.

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