When I last lived in Lahore there were no proper malls to speak of, other than the likes of Pace which had burned down, so often few people even went to shop there let alone loiter.
I first saw what are referred to as ordinary people, a term that does a priori injustice to their personalities, riding on bikes, rickshaws, walking in without much fanfare and walking out without any shopping bags, at Dolmen Mall in Karachi. They just sat around on the marble platforms on the ground floor, families, boys in skin-tight shirts that had glitter-ink patches, girls in lawn, not designer thankfully.
When I moved back last year, the HyperStar at Fortress was now joined by a mall nearby. There was the Emporium monstrosity with its, let’s say, ‘unique’ architecture to it in Johar Town. Now there’s a Packages Mall right next to their factory. Cinemas were taking over every building with a third floor. The air-conditioned Metro Bus was up and running, and about 200 air-conditioned feeder buses to the Metro route have been introduced recently.
The operative word here being ‘air-conditioned.’ These malls, shopping plazas and even buses have started attracting loiterers, and I don’t mean that in any negative connotation, because they provide refuge from the summer heat and the loadshedding at homes.
Karachi’s summers are extremely humid, ceiling fans simply don’t cut it. There are hydration campaigns on the street by NGOs and volunteer groups, so people don’t pass out by losing a lot of water from their bodies. Dolmen is open to public, no rights of admission reserved, so it makes sense for people to spend their days there.
Lahore’s heat is drier but even more brutal, with a higher absolute temperature. It’s the auspicious month of Ramzan as well, when hydration is religiously forbidden and morally policed. I took the Metro the other day and spotted quite a few people just getting out of the sun. I saw a man sleeping on a seat but he did get off at the Nishtar Colony stop. The driver told me there are a few people who do round trips just to sit in the air conditioner. They are usually Metro Card holders who just have to swipe at a terminal whenever they want a breather.
Bus stands also provide the only reliable shade out on the streets. In the summers they are packed with people, few of them actually waiting for buses, most of them wiping the sweat from their brow, checking their phones, having a sip of bottled water.
Malls, however, remain the number one heat escape here as well. The Packages Mall in Lahore is new and very shiny. Just a few months old, it’s still trying to attract a large customer base, and is thus open till sehri this Ramzan. So, people loiter and lounge around, come in, sit about just to use the free wifi connection and so much more.
Muhammad Nadeem Awan is a young man of 25 and a security guard at an upscale shopping mall in the city. His duty starts at 1 in the afternoon, a couple of hours before sehri. He’s a former military man, not a commissioned officer, but the security manager here is a retired captain. They say part of their job is to look out for people who’ve been coming for 4-5 days without going to any shops, and just hanging out in the main lobby, mostly on their phones.
“When we notice them the 5th time over, we ask, ‘Haan bai, we’ve been watching you, you don’t buy anything why do you keep coming here?’” Awan tells me.
Personally, he doesn’t mind people stepping in to enjoy the air-conditioning and just roaming around. The shopkeepers also don’t seem to mind it. Somebody loitering outside is still more likely to buy something than someone who isn’t even there. But he must obey the captain’s orders, Awan says. “Security is a tense affair, anywhere, these days.
At Emporium, the roof is impossibly high, and the food court impossibly loud. Most people aren’t eating anything. I talk to some young boys who are there only to use the wifi. “It works faster here,” they tell me. “Earlier, we would go to the Alhamra Cultural Centre; it also has free wifi but lots of people are using it over there. We’d sit outside on our bikes but it’s hot and the internet is slow, so we come here now.”
They don’t have wifi at their homes, or much electricity given how LESCO is punishing low-recovery areas now, which are normally lower-income neighbourhoods, while rewarding the higher bill paying areas such as Defence and Model Town.
The HyperStar at Fortress is mostly free of shoppers at daytime but there still are a lot of people inside. There’s no food court as such but there is one restaurant and other stalls with eateries. People are sitting in the air-conditioned restaurant watching the cricket between Bangladesh and England. Bangladesh is playing well, a young man named Abdul Waleed tells me. He has been sitting here watching the entire innings. He owns a little street side barbecue restaurant. But he comes here to pick up some cheap ingredients, like sauces and condiments, to marinate the seekhs. And he often ends up staying back for the comfortably cool environment, as opposed to the seething sun outside.
“I have outdoor seating, so no air-conditioner there. Besides, we’re a small establishment, it would cost us too much. So, I sometimes sit here, even bring my kids, I open the restaurant late, even later now that Ramzan is here.”
It used to be that swimming in the Lahore canal was considered the only reprieve from the sun for ordinary people. But supermarkets, malls and even cinemas are beginning to change all that. A family friend who owns a franchise of cinemas says he hears of people sleeping through Indian movies after paying the Rs300 ticket. Why, because the films are normally three hours long and that’s a good, comfortable nap without the heat outside.
“We can’t do anything to stop this,” he says. “They’ve bought the ticket. Aagay jo kerna hai woh unki marzi.”
Unki marz indeed. People are using public entry malls for things that the owners and shop renters would never have expected in the first place, and now everyone’s a bit unsure as to what to do about them.