Unfamiliar territories

July 5, 2020

Covid-19 has changed quite a lot, for a lot of people — from their daily routines to their outlook on life and patterns of behaviour. But what happens when you are forced — by circumstance — to switch your ‘chosen’ profession, what you always thought was your true calling, a career you had spent a lifetime in and mastered all the skills needed to achieve success? Sure, it takes guts and more, to tread into an unfamiliar territory, or to change tracks. Shehr profiles a few such people, picked at random, who dared to step up to the plate

— Image by Rahat Dar

The ride just got


Like many of his fellow Uber drivers, 27 years old Shehzad Ali suddenly found himself out of work when Lahore’s popular ride-hailing service was discontinued in lockdown, in late March this year. But Ali didn’t sit back at home, sulking. To put it otherwise, he didn’t have the luxury to do so. He knew he had a family to tend — being married, with three kids — but wasn’t sure if he’d fit anywhere else; Uber, he feels, permitted him the kind of “freedom in job” he didn’t expect at a regular workplace. Also, he didn’t boast a bankable college degree. Having driven the cab for well over three years, he says, “[driving] is the only thing I know.”

To his credit, Ali was smart enough to find a way to carry on in the same field. He immediately rented out his mid-range Suzuki car that he used for Uber rides, and from his monthly earnings coupled with a small loan that he got, he was able to buy himself a loader/pickup which he now uses to transport goods from Mandi to an upscale shopping mart in a posh locality of Lahore. Today, he is happy that he “didn’t try to change tracks”. And he is “most likely not to quit, even after the lockdown is over!”

— Usman Ghafoor

For Ijaz Ali Khan, a middle-class resident of Beghum Pura Morr, pushing 50, “everything came crashing down” with the Covid

The privilege is gone, but…

epidemic. “I was compelled to do what I hadn’t imagined [for myself],” he says, ruefully. From being a successful cloth merchant to a low-paid worker in a factory of auto parts, these past few months have seen him hit the lowest point in his life, something he says he took some time to grapple with.

What helped him all along was his love for his family of five — “I knew that if I collapsed, there would be no one to fend for my mother, my wife and my three children.” The house rent needed to be paid, and if he didn’t pull himself together, things could get out of control. With a heavy heart, he took the first job offer that came his way — that of a factory worker.

“I was so used to being my own boss,” he recalls. “And here I was answerable to a host of people [at the factory]. Every day has been a test of my patience and nerves.

“Earlier, I had my own routine; I’d get up at around 9 in the morning and open my shop at 12 noon. At my age, adopting new habits and assuming new roles in life don’t come easy, do they? There are times in the course of a regular workday when my body requires some rest, but I can’t afford it. The privilege is gone.”

All said and done, Khan is happy that he is able to take care of his loved ones. “That’s the reality of life, and the sooner we embrace it, the better,” he says.

— Yasir Habib Khan

A significant portion of Lahore’s working-class people was made redundant on the fateful day of March 24 when the city was locked down. One such unfortunate person was the 40-year-old Muhammad Arif, a cashier at a Metro Bus Station. As the bus service was halted, due to the coronavirus

A daily wager — or struggler, if you like!outbreak, and all its stations were shut, Arif found himself without work.

What was equally distressing for him was the fact that his long-held job (at the station) had ended without any compensation or benefits. But it didn’t break him to the point where he wouldn’t be able to pick up the pieces. For the past three months or so, he’s been going to the Timber Market every single day, in search of work in different factories. Often he is hired for a temporary position as a machine operator, where he makes up to 600 bucks a day. But there are days when he can’t find work. Those are the days he dreads the most.

After all, Arif is not just a daily wager, but a daily struggler.

— Saniya Nasir

Choosing where to shop is always a tricky business in Askari V. Out of the 10 shops that pepper the entrance of the gated community, six are general stores selling the same daily-use household items. Each of these shops offers an assortment of home delivery and mysterious credit tabs. These shops know which home to deliver orders to without ever noting the

Comfortable but not too comfortable

address and are also well-versed in the art of recovering credit from adolescents without ever alerting their parents. Each of these six shops maintains a unique base of customers. Those who shop at Bakemens (no, they don’t sell any baked items) never shop at Askari Medical, and vice versa. Brand loyalty here is a lesson taught from the day one gains consciousness.

Another general store by the name of Costco Express opened in Askari V on the New Year’s eve. Costco stocks Vimto, Everest Club Soda, Lychee juice, and so on. The new owners attract a younger set of customers: couples who’ve just moved into their first home, folks in their 20s who seem to enjoy Pringles more than Lays and prefer American Garden over Mitchells.

The owner of this enterprise is a hilarious woman who switches from Punjabi to English without turning a hair and appears to be especially popular with the female smoking population of Askari V, who can now buy their cigarettes on their own, without fearing the judgment of overtly religious males who operate the other stores.

Come March, Lahore went into lockdown and non-essential small-businesses were forced to close down. General stores including Costco Express took a massive hit during this period and weren’t allowed to resume operations until the beginning of Ramazan. Upon resumption, the transformation in operations at Costco demonstrated the toll the pandemic had taken on the business. The owner who was previously seen chatting at the cash register was now usually at the back of the store managing the inventory, on a ladder stocking the shelves, and disinfecting supplies as they arrived.

While other stores were able to afford delivery boys and cashiers, the lady managing Costco was joined by her daughter who attended to the customers while her mother took care of managing the affairs of the store.

When orders to close businesses at 7 took effect, Costco’s owners shuttered in after hours, cleaning the gutters, preparing orders, and organising supplies late into the night to prepare for operations the following day.

Askari V for me, has always mirrored the evolution of Lahore and its urban middle class. On my daily evening walk, I notice a newer set of residents, more dynamic than the ones I grew up around; multitasking as they try to wrap up work during their evening walk, parents who are riding bikes with their children, groups of women jogging without (hopefully) feeling uncomfortable in public. Costco Express’s owners, and its clientele represent the tenacity of many Pakistanis who try to better themselves in the face of adversity, rapidly adapt to changing circumstances, and truly believe that no task is too small or too big for them. There’s a familiarity in these groups of people, who are comfortable but never too comfortable and prepared but never too prepared. They are a growing class of Pakistanis who will hopefully be better represented in a post-Covid world.

— Alhan Fakhr

Unfamiliar territories: Covid-19 has changed quite a lot, for a lot of people