As the winter chill begins to bite, sooner up here in the mountains than down in the relative warmth of the plains, the second-hand shoes and clothes market has swooped into Murree with a vengeance.

Largely hidden away in Lower Bazaar and Ring Road Bazaar, although the odds are that they will appear on The Mall itself before temperatures drop much further, these stores are very welcome havens in times of economic stress, a crippling stress for all except the ultra-rich right now, as without them it would be next to impossible to survive the cruel winter to come.

With the asking price for a maund of ‘wet’ firewood already at Rs 370 upwards, this will increase in line with the temperature decrease, the illegal refill of a gas cylinder at Rs1,650 and electricity being both unreliable and exorbitantly expensive, warm clothes and extra blankets have become a survival essential as has, unfortunately, the need of the less well off to steal trees in order to be able to both keep warm and to cook.

It used to be that members of the so-called ‘middle class’ - I loathe this stereotyping, but the description is fairly apt - turned their noses up at even the thought of wearing second-hand apparel. However, those days are long gone and searching through heaps of garments on the hunt for hidden treasure is, especially if something spectacular is unearthed, now viewed as not just an acceptable but even an exciting pastime which, sadly, has tended to inflate prices higher than they conceivably should be.

Just last year for example, a pair of foreign made hiking boots in good condition cost somewhere between Rs 800-Rs 1,500 depending on how hard, and long, a bargaining session went on for. But this year, the starting price – just at the beginning of the season - is Rs 1,000 with a hefty top price of as much as Rs 2,000, which nobody in their right mind is going to pay. True to say that the international price of bales of second-hand clothes and shoes or boots has increased since last year as has the cost of transport, but not by the percentage being added on, rent of premises allowed for, by the sellers who, like so many others, consider fleecing their customers to be their automatic right and privilege. Profit where profit is due, of course, but - within acceptably honest limits!

Profiteers are not the only societal segment to have proliferated in Murree in recent months, as so too has the number of beggars, which situation surely is an indication that mindsets and intentions have indubitably changed. Although, it must be said, not everyone has caught the disease as there are still a reasonable percentage of ‘good’ people around: the butchers who help feed the poor, the fruit and vegetable man who hands out enough fresh produce to cook a decent meal, the tea seller allowing ‘working children’ to help themselves et al.

The strangely noticeable thing is that, as those doing reasonably well in this cruel world become even slightly better off than they used to be, instead of giving thanks and extending a helping hand to those less fortunate than themselves, they do exactly the reverse: they suddenly become so taken up with acquiring possessions that they don’t really need, other than to impress the neighbours of course, that those struggling to make ends meet are suddenly, or so it seems completely, invisible as being able to splash out on ‘stuff’ like overly expensive joras for upcoming shaadis is awarded blind priority over their fellow human beings.

In an ‘upcoming’ household with servants, be these full or part time, a financial improvement, no matter how large in size, is rarely, if ever, passed on down the line and the servants, usually poorly paid at the best of times, are unlikely to get any sort of bonus let alone an increase in basic pay although, to be fair, they just may be given a few cast off joras that are being replaced with ultra-expensive ones. It used to be, in days gone by, that servants were considered to be part of the ‘family’ and treated as such. However, as societal mores swung towards selfish consumerism, the once ‘comfortable’ lot of the servant was drastically downgraded to that of to be taken advantage of serf.

Family servants used to be just that, being a helpful, irreplaceable part of the family they were happy to consider their own and vice-a-versa and generations of the two, ‘servants’ and families, depended on each other for sustenance and survival. But sadly, this has largely, not completely, gone by the board and servant ‘turnover’ is increasingly commonplace.

It must also be observed that those feeling the financial crunch can no longer afford to employ the same number of servants as in days of yore. but this should not debar them from giving a helping hand as and when they can. Rs 50 thrown away in a second on sweeties or chips is enough to purchase half a dozen rogni naan that, with sugary tea, is a meal for six low or none income people, who would relish it with joy. Extending a helping hand is such a simple gesture as is treating all people with equality and respect: this way lies peace and happiness whilst sticking to the raging road of selfish consumerism leads to more and more unrest and misery for all.

The writer is author of The Gun Tree: One Woman’s War (Oxford University Press, 2001) and lives in Bhurban.

Email: zahrahnasir@hotmail.com