On a September afternoon, Nazmul Ahsan Nazu and Kamal Hossain were sitting on the fourth floor of Aziz supermarket building in the cooperative's office. A cup of lemon tea was pushed across the table to me, and then Nazmul took me down one of his memory lanes.
"Name any intellectual of the 1980s and 1990s, everyone was seen in this market. Writer Ahmed Sofa, M. A. Wazed Miah, Humayun Azad, Abdul Mannan, theatre activist Mannan Hira and Habib Hasan, Justice Habibur Rahman- they had their stores here.
From politics to poems, theatre to economics, philosophy to physics- what not was discussed!" said Nazmul Ahsan Nazu, the President of the Aziz Co-operative Market Samiti.
The Aziz market has been standing on Dhaka soil for the last 35 years. It first shot to fame for its reputation as the 'Antel para,' (a satirical name meaning 'the area of intellectuals'), said Nazmul.
Starting around 1984-85, poets, writers, musicians, theatre artists, journalists and painters began to frequent the market complex. Many, today, describe the Aziz market as the birthplace of the modern 'little mag' revolution of Dhaka. Even now, there is a little mag corner on the second floor of the market.
A small bookstore named 'Pathak Somabesh' started its journey on the ground floor of an under-construction market in Shahbagh, Dhaka in 1987. 'A small book shop along your way'- was what they said on the board.
Over the following two years, 35 more book stores arrived, along with a confectionery and music store that came to stand on the same ground floor. And by that point, the Aziz Co-operative Supermarket had already become famous as the gathering spot for the intellectuals in the city.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Tides of time
With the changing times, the Aziz market has expanded but somewhat lost its legendary 'adda khana' reputation and intellectual ambience. Now, with four floors of the market and 10 floors of apartments above the market, it is now a full-fledged supermarket complex with various boutiques, shops (selling bags, stationery, food) and a few book stores.
At the moment, the Aziz market complex has 160 apartments and 570 stores - this includes 2-3 storage houses on the third floor, 5-10 bookstores, almost 30 stores of medical equipment and books; with the rest of the 300 something stores belonging to different boutiques (some of the store owners made one showroom by combining a few store plots).
In the case of store rent, some of the stores' rent amounts to Tk19-20,000 at the front, while it is Tk7-8,000 at the back. The rent money goes to respective store owners.
Aziz cooperative market treasurer Kamal Hossain said, "before the pandemic, the market had Tk2-3 crore business a month." However, now, the figure stands at less than Tk50 lac.
The apartments have become some of the largest home bases for doctors. Physicians and surgeons from all over the country, when they start to pursue a postgraduate in BSMMU and also seek job opportunities, come to this place.
So what to make of this building structure now?
Recently, as I was roaming around that market, along the labyrinthine corridors, I was reminded of the endless times I climbed those yellow-walled stairs and also that scary iron box they call 'the lift'. I realised that every city is made of its own unique stories and for Dhaka, the Aziz market is nothing but a living ghost of the vibrant past of this city.
I was looking for that soul, which was once so culturally vibrant and 'superior.' How did this market become a cultural hub in the first place, and for the last decade, how is it faring on a cascading slope losing its legacy? Questions like that roamed around my mind, and eventually compelled me to go look for answers.
The whimsical dreams of a visionary man in 1978
It all began with a visionary and slightly whimsical man named Syed Azizul Islam. As his long acquaintance and fellow employee, Nazmul Ahsan said, "Aziz shaheb had the idea of co-operatives from the very beginning. In 1978, he built a housing building in Zafarabad, Rayerbazar with the money that he got in advance from the future flat owners. Instead of owning a place, he distributed the flats, and that is exactly what he did here in this market as well."
In 1983, Aziz bought this 77 katha land from IPS (Investment Promotion Services Bangladesh Ltd.), a sister concern of the Aga Khan Fund for Development. Adjacent to the BSMMU and the BCS administration academy, the land consisted of a pond and low land. From 1984 - when the construction began - to 1987, the unfinished Aziz market project has had to fight many legal battles.
Then slowly Aziz sold all the 570 shops to different owners for only Tk2,000-3,000 each, and finished building it with the money he got from the shop owners. The committee is called the Business and Shop Owners Samiti, as business owners who have a trade license, alongside shop owners, can also be a member of the committee.
"Initially he planned for a proper market with ready-made garments, shoes, bags and jewellery. But because of the only Tk200 as service charge per month, it became an affordable option for writers and publishers. And also, being adjacent to the University of Dhaka, it was a convenient place for them," Nazmul explained.
The shop rent has increased over the years, so did the service charge, but still, shop owners find this market a convenient option.
When I spoke to the shop owners, and the co-operative members, teachers, students and politicians, everyone agreed on one thing that although this market is not much of a 'happening' place like other shopping malls, it is a convenient one for business, with no one to collect 'chanda' or money from them, with a service charge of Tk1,000 per month.
The downward dive began in the late 1990s
"Bahar vai ruined our Aziz," Rudra Arif, an Aziz-born film enthusiast and writer, sounded disappointed as he took me down his memory lane. "There were days when we slept on its stairs, woke up there, and then spent the entire day roaming around our favourite book shops, filled with endless 'adda' (meaning chit-chat)."
Then one day in 1994, "Bahar vai came with his T-shirts, exhibited a couple of those on hangers and from that day, Aziz market turned into a 'shopping centre.' We lost our adda place to the boutiques," Rudra seemed cynical, wrinkles on his forehead and nose added more to his exasperation.
At first, Bahar Rahman, the proprietor of Nitya Upahar, started with a card and sign printing business. Later, he realised that the young students and protesters needed something to comfort them in the sun and rain; and they also needed, he thought, slogan-printed T-shirts, like banners for movements and protests. From that day, he started his T-shirt printing business.
This picked up quickly and morphed into a successful business, coinciding with the rise of the RMG sector. During 2004-2005, it was clear that the market was leaning towards boutiques and T-shirt stores. As a result, many publishers like Sanghati, Prokriti, Adarsha, Joyotee, Murdhonno, Muktochinta, etc. shifted their business to Concord Emporium in Katabon.
Naadir Junaid, professor at the department of mass communication and journalism of the University of Dhaka was a university student in the mid-1990s and a regular Aziz market visitor. He remembers 'Dhrupodi,' a music record store that used to play beautiful raaga.
"One day I was passing that store and heard something so beautiful that I bought that cassette," the professor reminisced. "Here [the music store] life used to get a bit slow, you could feel the speed decelerate. But now there is no music, no vibrant adda. Instead, the market has become a bustling shopping mall."
The Professor shed more light on the transitional years, "I believe it was 2008-09 when the place underwent a transition. It was when the country was just recovering from military rule [caretaker government] and Facebook was getting popular."
The strict caretaker government rule of 2006-07 had an enormous impact on the entire university culture as the students could not protest or even stay out after 6pm. This transformed the city's cultural environment, the professor explained.
And then in 2015, a gruesome murder took place in the building as a part of Islamic extremists' murder spate. Faisal Arefin Dipan, publisher and proprietor of Jagriti publication, was murdered on the third floor of the market, sending shockwaves throughout the city.
These incidents had an impact on the entire Aziz market-centred cultural environment.
Abu Raihan Khan, a university student and a member of a left political party, spoke about his disappointments as well.
"Before coming here, I also heard about the legends of this market," he said. Things have changed. "It is almost frustrating. I cannot even find a poster of someone who does not belong to the '80s or '90s. It seems as if the intellectuals got stuck in that era and never updated the list at all," he added.
Nazmul, with a grim face, said, "We know this market has cultural attributes, but that does not give us a plate full of rice, you see. The boutique and dress stores pay the rent and service charge regularly, as their sales are consistent."
"Who reads books or buys CDs nowadays?" he asked. And according to him, this is the reason shop owners tend to rent their stores to boutiques.
But the market still lives on its own memories
For Shamima Jesmin, 'Shurer Mela' is not just a music cassette store that she owns, it is a memory of her deceased brother Reaz Mahmud Khalek who died of cancer in 2010. In 1997, Reaz started this music store on the ground floor of Aziz market.
"Once, there were Fatema Tuz Zohra, Bapparaz and other prominent singers who came to our store to see how their cassettes were selling in the market. One day actor Shams Sumon came to me and said, 'Shamima, Reaz is like my brother and because of that you are my little sister. If you need anything, just tell me.' This market is not just a shopping centre to me, it is where I grew up, where my soul was created and it is the only place I feel my brother is still alive", Shamima reminisced.
Now Shamima has a boutique store on the same floor as her brother's music store and she said it is like a family here, everyone knows her. Although no one buys cassettes anymore, she still wants to keep Shurer Mela, to keep Reaz's memories alive.
The market also faces troubles of its own.
One of the committee members said that they have to bribe local authorities every month, just like other shopping malls in the area. The electricity bill is another issue as the market does not have any transformer of its own. Currently, the market has nearly Tk1 lac worth of pending electricity bills. And the pandemic did not help matters with some having to close or sell their businesses to make ends meet.
As I listen to these stories, visit store after store, on a rainy day standing outside Sujan's tea store on the third floor, or munch on the famous 'Aziz er Shawarma,' - Aziz market presents another side of Dhaka city to me. The building is a big pile of stories bow-tied and wrapped with the ghosts of its own memories, of old loves, lost revolutionaries and dreams.
In the last 34 years, this grey coloured dirty looking building never had a patch of paint on itself, but it housed a vibrant aura inside. But with time, perhaps to match with the outer shell, Aziz is turning grey inside as well, with colourful clothes hanging in the stores and the market's memories gasping for air in every corner.