“You can’t take pictures here!” says a shopkeeper aggressively, paan sliding out of the corner of his mouth. “You’ll show these pictures on TV, and then we’ll get into trouble.”
You’d think something sinister was going on — but there is nothing more suspect on sale in this corner of Empress Market than some poor, malnourished animals. If you can stand the stench, the animal stalls in Empress Market are worth a visit, if only to get an insight into the sad lives of the animals that end up here. You’ll find every conceivable kind of animal on sale, from cuddly little Labradors to turtles. You’ll see exotic birds everywhere you look, dismally stuffed into tiny cages — I spot a peacock, flamingos, and a huge pelican within five minutes of my walk through the market.
Most shopkeepers shy away from having their own pictures taken — but love to show off their wares. “Take a picture of this cute wolf-pup I recently acquired — but leave me out of the frame,” says Asif, who sells dogs out of a dingy stall. Asif is in a chatty mood, but won’t say anything about how he gets his hands on the animals, except for telling me that he breeds the dogs himself. If you’re actually looking to buy, then you aren’t limited to what you see in the shop — Asif says he can get his customers any breed they’d like, even the most expensive.
In this little corner of the market, dogs live right beside rabbits, who are stacked next to cats, who cosy up to ducks. I ask a shopkeeper about the fate of the poor pelican in the corner — the majestic, big-beaked bird has been stuffed into a cage hardly larger than its own size, and peers out at me over its beak with angry, weepy eyes. “This bird is very expensive, and eats only fish,” proclaims the shopkeeper. “But no one will buy it as a pet. People want it for its flesh, and the oil it produces … it will be chopped up,” he concludes with relish.
On our way out, I spy an elderly man lovingly feeding a monkey pieces of paratha, and petting the animal through the bars of a cage in a corner shop. This is the first time I have seen a shopkeeper here display affection for his charges. “Is this monkey your pet?” I ask. “No, but he is so cute,” the man replies. “And he loves paratha, see?” I do see, I say. If only all the problems here in Empress Market’s animal section were that easy to solve.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, January 29th, 2012.