The hotels of Old Dhaka are always busy making parathas, bhaji and semolina halwa early in the morning. By noon, the pleasant smell of kacchi biryani and khichuri starts engulfing the alleyways of Nazira Bazar. The aroma of specially fried chicken or beef "chaap" and spicy kebabs take over by sunset.
The century-old Old Dhaka never sleeps. Even at three in the morning, the hotels will be busy cooking something that will cling to your taste buds for years to come. People from every corner of the city visit Old Dhaka just to taste the food, keeping the historical alleyways bustling.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic has changed much of the ever-familiar scene of Old Dhaka.
The throng of awaiting customers can no longer be found in the alleyways, although the hotels have not stopped cooking. Like many renowned hotels and restaurants, Old Dhaka's food hubs are also offering takeaway services instead of dine-ins.
Awlad Hossain, the manager of Hajir Biriyani, said that currently they are not providing any dine in services due to safety concerns. "Orders have come down to one-fifth."
"We had to lay off one-third of our employees, too. We are continuing our operations now only to sustain in the market. Otherwise, we are not making any profit," he added.
Not only are the popular biriyani hubs empty, but other well-known food hubs are in the same boat. The always fully packed Beauty Lacchi and Faluda and Pannu Tea Stall are vacant most of the time. "A few elderly local citizens visit us regularly but very few outsiders can be seen now," said an idly sitting tea seller.
The correspondent found Bismillah Kabab Ghor looking more like a haunted place, whereas people used to wait outside for hours to enjoy a cup of hot tea and a plate of spicy kebab.
Robin Ahmed, the manager of Bismillah Kabab Ghar, said that they have incurred huge losses since the Covid-19 shutdown. "Our sales peak during the month of Ramadan, but this year we were closed. Now we are open but we need to pull the shutters by 7pm as we sell evening snacks only. We have not even sold fifty items in the last five days. If this continues, we might have to start ferrying vegetables."
Despite having incurred hefty amounts of losses, most Old Dhaka hotels are not willing to shift their business online or sign up on food delivery apps as they have to pay commission to the delivery partners and agree to many conditions.
Nonetheless, a few popular hotels are giving the prospect a second thought and are willing to partner with delivery platforms if the pandemic continues for a few more months.
In the midst of losses, the demand for bakarkhani has remained as high as ever. Anamul Khan, a local resident, bought two kilos of the flaky flatbread, as it is a regular snack. However, bakarkhani sellers have not been exempted from losses amid the pandemic.
"We close our shops four to six hours earlier now, due to the pandemic. As a result, we have lost around 40 percent of our business," said Pavel, a bakarkhani seller.
The government has directed every shop to close by evening but old Dhaka has not paid much heed to this. Local residents said most shops are open till two in the morning and continued activities behind closed shutters.
"Yes, shops are supposed to be closed by four in the evening and we are aware of that. The police know this as well and we are being observed every day. Yet, they have not stopped us. We are not doing anything unlawful. We have incurred a huge loss and now we are only trying to revive our business," said an assistant at the Al-Karim Juice Bar.
Most business owners are trying to revive their businesses but they do not have any strategy, neither are they following any precaution to fight the pandemic. Hygiene is not being maintained anywhere. A number of employees are wearing masks and gloves from time to time, but not all the time while serving food.
In such a situation of global health crisis, Old Dhaka is supposed to be empty of people. "People are not willing to abide by any rules. As cautious enterprises, we are doing what we can. And it will be a long while before anything returns to normalcy, but we cannot help it," said Kazi Hasibul Islam, the manager of Grand Nawab.