High on teak

Imaduddin Ahmed | The Friday Times

Lahore’s MM Alam Road is as divorced from the bottom 95 percent of the population as Tehmina is from Khar. What’s truly dismaying though is that good money is buying trash. The street is being taken over by bland multinational junk food chains.

Small mercies, however, come courtesy of the enterprising. Off the road itself and on Pizza Hut Lane is Sagwan (‘Teak’), a newly opened store that specialises in Indonesian and Thai handcrafted teak furniture.

Unlike many of its MM Alam Road neighbours, Sagwan does not receive its produce from wholesalers. The owner, Mehreen Husain, takes pride in the fact that she has bargained for everything in the store with individual craftspeople on the islands of Java, Sumatra, Kalimantan, Bali as well as around Bangkok.

“That I was buying was very different from what was in the market because I bought everything from the makers in ones or twos, and that’s why the shop offers a very diverse variety.”

In past lives, London School of Economics graduate Mehreen has worked for The World Bank, as a teacher at the Lahore School of Economics and has run her own self-sufficient organic farm in Bedian on the outskirts of Lahore for near six years. She also set-up and ran a clothing franchise, but gave it up after less than two years. “I didn’t want to be just a shopkeeper. It wasn’t challenging; I didn’t have control over what I sold and the work wasn’t very creative. I wasn’t involved in designing anything, as I am now.”

Sagwan, Mehreen explains, started off accidentally: “I never meant to do this. I was just fond of travelling.” Her father had been posted to Jakarta as ambassador to Indonesia in 2002 and while discovering the world’s largest archipelagic state, whether snorkeling, by foot, motorbike or other means with her husband, she picked up souvenirs on the way. “When we came back to Lahore our friends wanted furniture like ours and so it was a good excuse for us to keep returning to the region!”

Six trips on and Mehreen now has a shop full of goodies. On offer are Barongan masks, inexpensive jewelry with semi-precious stones, dining chairs made of dried and twisted seagrass, a bench made from the restored Burmese teak recovered from disused Dutch railway sleepers, candles in all manners of shapes and sizes, a rattan coffee table set, a bar which comes with a tropical roof made of dried coconut leaves, beds, bowls, baskets, a range of quirky decoration pieces, paintings, teak TV cabinets and chairs carved out of the girth of teak trees. Lest environmentalists worry, the teak products are bought from licensed carpenters while the teak, Indonesia’s most important commercial tree, grows quickly and abundantly in Indonesia. According to a report published by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, Indonesia has 0.6 million hectares of teak production plantations, of which 8,000-10,000 hectares are cut annually. Sounds sustainable enough.

In spite of what Mehreen says, “I don’t want to cater for a very select few so we have pencils which cost Rs 15,” Sagwan isn’t going to radically change the social demographic that frequents MM Alam Road. The store’s success though will be a good measure of the level of taste among Lahore’s rich.


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