The Cantonment in Lahore is still one of the few areas in the city that has retained its character over the years. The trees are tall and old and aplenty, the traffic isn’t that thick yet and there’s a tidiness that only army organization can manage. However, in a twist of strange fate, the Cantonment Board is planning to knock down the Girja Chowk bazaar. The bazaar is built around the perimeter of the church that faces the old airport roundabout. On the main road side it features prominent bakeries and pharmacies. On the other—the ‘backside’—is a string of small shops: a few tailors, the neighbourhood dry cleaner, a cigarette corner shop, a beauty parlor, the fruit and vegetable selling father-and-son, an optician and an ancient photographer.

There is Jamil the darner—a pleasant young man who was in a terrible motorcycle accident that left him unable to walk. He and his assistant Sadiq sit on a few planks in the Girja Chowk market and are expert darners. They have been mending clothes for years now, always courteous and always smiling. Tariq and his crotchety father are familiar fixtures to Cantt. residents. The left side of their little shop is dedicated to fruit and the right side to vegetables, and if one goes across to them in the evening it is very likely that they will have run out of cucumbers or eggplants. Theirs is not a fancy establishment, unlike their high-flying Main Market counterparts—there is no broccoli or iceberg lettuce to ever be had at their shop, but their produce is always fresh even if it isn’t always dispensed with a smile.

One of the tailors is the grand sounding Poshak Mehal and another is the enigmatic Noof tailors (nobody knows what or who ‘noof’ is, or means, or whether it’s an anagram). There are a few more towards the back of the bazaar, near Pine beauty salon. The salon has got a separate men’s and women’s setup because it is aspirational like that. The head honcho at Pine is an efficient, bossy and thoroughly indomitable woman called Rita who will advise one on eyebrow shapes and scrape your hair back into the most tightly-controlled French braid you will ever experience. Shiny with gel and expertly plaited, that braid will see you through many hours of mehndi dancing with nary a strand escaping. Pine Beauty Parlour has also provided the basic trim of hair and bangs to legions of little girls and is the go-to for the various little beauty tasks women need doing very often.

Blue Star dry cleaners is right next to the corner cigarette-and-bottle shop. While men and a few guilty-looking but defiant gangly youths purchase their Bensons and Gold Leaf and glug down a Mountain Dew in a returnable bottle, the dry cleaner is a tidy, tiny setup with its racks of plastic-covered shirts, shalwars and sweaters rustling as the owner goes to and fro behind the long counter. They recognize the regulars, and if you’ve lost your parchee they will oblige you with your clothes nonetheless. They also run a little side business that sends a very efficient two-man team to one’s home for whatever sofas and carpets need cleaning. The owner of Blue Star is diabetic, and has been for many years.

Then there is Sunny the photographer. He is an ancient old man, inside his ancient shop that is hung thickly with portraits of generals and ministers that he has photographed over the years. Ayub Khan is one of them, chest medalled and gaze lidded. Sunny Photographers used to be in the Jamsetjee Building on Sarwar Road proper, but once the Zakir Tikka wallahs edged everyone out of that area, Sunny came across to Girja Chowk.

The Shaukat Khanum Hospital has a collection centre here too. It’s the only centre in the area—the nearest one after this is on Jail Road. By some lucky chance, the staff at the Girja Chowk collection centre have got a gentle, deft hand—my two year old once needed a blood test and they were so swift and sure-handed that she didn’t even cry. Most people who frequent the collection centre are frequently younger people escorting old relatives.

One of the newer additions to the market is the glorious Kitchen Cuisine, giving the already-present Shezan and Gourmet a run for their money with their classic chocolate cupcakes and interesting breads. A shawerma-and-fries guy tried to set up shop, but his success was short-lived. There are also the usual smattering of beggars. Somehow the Girja Chowk market attracts three or four young boys, who sell colouring books and plastic balls that have little disco lights inside after school. One of them is called Usman, who is a bright, polite and persuasive young man with three little sisters and no father. He’s going to school in the daytime, and often needs help with buying schoolbooks.

The reason I’m telling you these stories is because the Girja Chowk market is slated for demolishment. All of these shopkeepers have been served a month’s notice and told to pack up and go. Where, they don’t know, because in place of the shops they have been running for decades some kind of new shopping mall is going to be erected. The army may be efficient and organized, but it certainly lacks a sense of irony. The owners of these small businesses have not been offered shop space elsewhere in the vicinity, or even assured a place in the new mall. They have only been told that their shops will be knocked down. Where will Jamil and Sadiq go? How will their loyal clientele find them? Where will Tariq and his old father take their produce now? Where will the nice man at Standard Optics find another place to open up shop in? The PAF market that is around the corner is already full to the brim with shops and the strange abandoned plaza next to the Mall of Lahore doesn’t seem like it’s being prepared to accommodate these businesses. The Girja Chowk market is an institution, and has become an integral part of the community’s landscape. It is counter-intuitive to demolish a perfectly functioning and useful assortment of shops in order to build a horrible, hulking plaza that will invite more and more traffic and brash, shiny shops that sell yet more clothes. The Mall of Lahore is enough to make the corner of Tufail road a tribulation to navigate in the evenings, when the line of cars waiting to enter the Mall snakes well down the road. I shudder to think of what the traffic will be like if another shiny mall were to be set up at Girja Chowk. The rather nice ground there has a slide-set that many children, mine included, love playing on.

The Cantonment is the last bastion of genteel living in this city. The inner city and Gulberg have already been taken over by commercial buildings and Defence was never very interesting to begin with. I implore anyone who lives in the Cantonment (and even those who don’t) to try and help the men and women of the Girja Chowk market in any way they can. Their livelihoods are at stake, and while progress is an inevitable fact of our modern lives, it needn’t be at the cost of kindness and compassion. These shop-owners have been plying their trade here for generations. They cannot and must not be cast aside as if they were some faceless, dispensable nobodies. We care about them. We care about our way of life in the Cantonment. They have already knocked down the British-era water tanks that were on the corner of Sarwar and Allauddin Road after many years of Lahore Bachao foiling their plans. In the place of those three tall brickworks and the beautiful trees around them is a series of horrible, ugly little houses with no personality or aesthetic sense whatsoever. One can protest a water tank, but at the end of the day at least a water tank or a tree doesn’t have a family to feed and children to send to school.

The writer is a feminist based in Lahore. She can be contacted at m.malikhussain@gmail.com