One fine morning in 1954, Amanat Ullah Khan, a six-year-old boy was ready with his favourite knickerbockers on and combed hair. His father was taking him to the opening ceremony of Dhaka New Market.
If you ask him now who was the chief guest at the ceremony, what did they talk about - he can't recall. The only thing Amanat Ullah Khan, now a 75-year-old geography professor, can vividly remember is the 'most gorgeous pastry' in the world that was served at the party.
"We went inside the market through gate no 1, on the Newmarket-Azimpur road. The market office was adjacent to that gate and I saw waiters in white uniforms with a turban on their heads, arranging snacks – sweetmeat, banana, Sandesh and a luscious pastry with firm icing sugar coat on top with little cream decorations. I still remember the rigged muffin liners around it. I was absolutely taken by that pastry and thought that I have to have one of those," he said.
There was a green lawn in the middle of the new market area back then, where the Baitul Aman mosque now stands. According to Khan, that day chairs and tables were arranged on the alleys surrounding the lawn.
"Waiters were serving food on plates, abba and others were listening to the lectures of the guests but my eyes were locked on that pastry. One by one I finished all the not-so-appealing items, as I stretched my little hands to grab the cream pastry, my father said, 'It's bad manners to finish every item on your plate. Leave at least one'. I still remember the pain of dilemma and the burden of good manners I felt that day," lamented Khan.
Many years passed and many pastries have been had but somehow "nothing" seems to fill the void of that "one pastry that I could never taste. And in my memory, that pastry is still there, kept in a corner of my plate- untouched, divine," explained Khan.
As I looked at Khan, sitting on a pistachio green couch dressed in a white shirt and pants with neatly combed hair, I could still find that little boy in him, repenting that decision of leaving out the pastry for the last.
What if he ate the pastry at the very beginning and left the banana or the sandesh? Would Khan still be remembering that day? I don't know. All I know is that I found my way into the memory lanes of Dhaka New Market.
And on that lane, I met Bidhu Bhushan Saha, Asif Mullick, Omar Faruque, Md Firoz and many others who shared pieces of their Dhaka New Market memories to be sewn together.
In 1952, when the stain of the language martyrs' blood was yet to be cleaned off the streets, the authority (or Public Works Department) decided to build an open-air shopping centre for the elites of the city.
Initially, a market for the elites, now a breathing space for the middle-class
A 26-year-old Firoz first entered the market in 1997. "I saw a job posting on the Ittefaq for the post of office assistant for the market shop-owners association. I applied for the job and came in for an interview. I have always wanted to visit the market.
Back in Barishal, we didn't have anything like this. I got the job and from that day onwards I have been watching this market evolve for the last 25 years," said Firoz.
He is now the manager of the association. According to Firoz, there were only 20-25 shops in the beginning. And mostly open space on the premises during the initial years, but with time as more and more people started coming to the city, demands grew and so did the market.
This 'under open sky supermarket' has a total area of 35 acres, which was completed in 1954, with a capacity of 439 shops and a triangular park in the middle. The initial plan had high-arched entry gates on three sides, which we can still see today.
The market currently has 509 shops, according to Firoz, this includes the Baitul Aman Mosque market with 44 shops and the substation market with 26 shops.
Apart from the architectural aspect, the market walls are imbued with history and nostalgia. "After the partition of India and Pakistan, the country was going through a lot of changes, too very fast. Migration was an important aspect. It was the time when Dhaka was going through the first strokes of modernisation after the Mughals and the new market is few of the remaining emblems that represent that era," said architect Taimur Islam.
It's not just a shopping space for the elites anymore, it has become a melting point, especially for the middle class.
"If you observe the layout, it has spacious corridors and also a generous pathway, accommodating enough for the window shoppers. People gathered here more when there was a park.
Back then, on the west side of the market, there were ice cream shops of Igloo, Baby Ice Cream, and Novelty Ice Cream. People sat on the lawn and enjoyed ice cream with their families. This market holds the memory of such little moments of happiness that the middle-class people cherish all their lives," said Taimur.
According to the Dhaka City Corporation Ordinance of 1983 (which has been repealed by the local government act 2009), the market was the responsibility of the city corporation. In 1985, the corporation took the land of the new market lawn and built a mosque there.
"A group protested against it. But as it was a religious place, no one really strictly stood against it," Firoz said.
Amanat Ullah was abroad in 1985 when the mosque was built in the park's stead. He returned in 1987 to find the famous Dhaka New Market park alive only in his memories. "We used to love that park and not just us, people used to visit the market only to see that green lawn. But now it doesn't have that openness anymore, with hawkers yelling from everywhere, cars occupying the Azimpur road, it has been destroyed," he said.
But the substation market extension was not so easy to execute. At the end of the 1980s, the substation market on the west side of the market was built with 26 shops. But this time a case was filed against the city corporation saying that this goes against the original plan for this historic place.
The hearing of the case continued for almost 20 years.
"In 2006-7, the court gave a result allowing the market to run, after which the substation market started functioning in 2008," said Firoz. But one thing that he appreciates is that the city corporation didn't let the market expand upwards.
"The customers and the business owners don't want this market to be extended as they think this market is a heritage site, it should be kept the way it is," said Omar Faruque, a shopkeeper at Modern Stationery, one of the oldest shops at Dhaka New Market.
Taimur agreed and said, "About three to four years back, just before the pandemic, DSCC [Dhaka South City Corporation] was planning to renovate the market and expand it to a second floor. But the shop owners protested and called the architects to support them. When architects like Mustapha Khalid Palash and others joined the protest, the corporation dropped the idea."
But with the changing landscape, the market complex seems to be an odd one, struggling to survive.
Architect Taimur said, "This city is slipping away from the middle class. They no more can afford to spend quality time with their families [there]. No open space, no park or lawn to sit on, and they don't own anything. Wherever you go, you have to pay now. In this rat race for money, for survival, the middle class needs a place to breathe and that's another reason we want to conserve the market."
Did you buy your wedding shari from Khan Brothers?
Bidhu Bhushan Saha has been selling sharis for the last 44 years in Khan Brothers, one of the oldest shops in Dhaka New Market. "There was a time when the bride's family would demand the wedding shari to be bought from our shop. Those days are gone now," said Saha, sitting idly in the poorly-lit store.
The store looked dim, with a thin layer of dust on the lamp shades, sharis neatly packed with paper so that the jari work remains intact. Rows of chairs, empty, no one to sit down.
The market has changed a lot. Apart from three or four shops, most of the shop owners have sold their shops and left. There are new shop owners now, new businesses with new decorations that glitter.
But the yesteryears were something else. Saha continued as if he found a rare way to express his frustration. "Earlier I couldn't even have my lunch on time, customers would be thronging the store. But now, look at me, no one to sell shari to, no bride to choose shari from our collection. I feel empty," said Saha, in a heavy voice laden with sorrow.
Khan Brothers was an initiative taken by Shahabuddin Khan, who started the business of selling fabric and sharis, especially wedding sharis. He was one of the first ones to buy a shop in Dhaka New Market.
With time, their business grew and new branches opened in Gulshan, Uttara and Bashundhara City Complex. Before his death, Shahabuddin distributed the shops among his four sons, and the youngest (Burhan Uddin Khan) inherited the Dhaka New Market store. But he died in 2020 and now his widow with two children to take care of, can't seem to cope with the challenges of business.
The 65-year-old Saha decided to quit his lifelong job. "Travelling from Narayanganj to Azimpur every day now seems pointless. But do visit our Bashundhara or Gulshan stores. They are doing good," he smiled in a way that resonated with the dust-lined lampshades and he bade me goodbye.
'We are proud to be a third-generation shop owner in New Market'
Mullick and Brothers, another oldest shop at Dhaka New Market, is still functioning in high spirits. Started by Rajab Ali Mullick, this bookshop is now maintained by his grandson Asif Hasan Mullick, who said, "We are proud to be running this business for three generations."
They import academic books and supply them to educational institutions.
Kamrul Hasan Mullick (Asif's father) was 18 years old when his father brought his business to Dhaka New Market in 1984. "After our Banglabazar bookstore, my father thought it would be great to have a store in this market as well. He was one of the first business owners to be allotted a store here," Kamrul said.
Although current book piracy and the e-book industry posed some difficulties along the way, Asif and his brothers are determined to continue this family business. Asif holds a MBA while his younger brother holds an LLB, and both of them have rich memories with the shop and the market.
"I still remember when I was little, my father brought us here. My brother and I loved to run along the paved walkways. This is what I have considered our second home all my life. How can I let go of it?" Asif said.
Of old businesses and the market dynamics
For 45 years, Abul Kalam has been sewing blouses, kamiz, and petticoats for brides and women in this market. "Since 1978, I have been working in this market as a tailor. Now every mohalla has multiple tailoring shops, but there was a time when women came to this market from Tongi, Gazipur and Joydebpur for their clothes to be made."
According to Kalam, tailoring a blouse cost Tk1.5 - Tk2 in the 1980s, which cost Tk500 now. "Back in those days, a tailor could earn Tk100 at best per week. And now for that same amount of work, an artisan may get Tk10,000 a week."
There are three ways to have a shop in the Dhaka New Market: 1) To buy one, 2) to rent one, and 3) to rent a portion of the store, or by subletting.
The average shop size is 200 sq ft and the city corporation fee is Tk29 per square ft, which is for the shop owners to pay.
Now if you want to rent a shop from a particular owner, you will first have to deposit a handbill of three years fee in the name of the Dhaka South. Then you will pay the rent to the owner. This may vary between Tk5 lakh to Tk50 lakh.
Depending on the shop's position and size, the sublet fare may vary from Tk30,000 to Tk1 lakh. Currently, the shops are sold at a price of Tk1 crore to Tk3 crore but this negotiation occurs between the shop owner and the buyer.
But the market is choking now with no parking spots
Apart from the power outage problem, the lack of parking spots is another pressing issue, according to Modern Stationery's Faruque. "Every day, on average, 2-3,000 cars visit this market and generally are parked on the road, which creates huge traffic congestion," he said.
According to him, the market has a total area of 26 acres that included a parking space to the north. But after the 1983 military regulation, four more markets were built capturing the parking space, Bonolota Kacha bajar (known as new market kacha bazar), New Supermarket (south), New supermarket (north) and Chandrima Supermarket - these 5 markets are called the new market complex.
"This is what is choking the market area now," Faruq said.
As I searched for the stories of Dhaka New Market, I realised this is nothing less than making a Nakshikantha (embroidered quilt), stitching one fabric with another using colourful yarns, slowly creating a beautiful pattern or scenery.
One might not articulate the details at a first glance but if noticed carefully, a story emerges – with vivid characters, textures, colours and landscapes – all different from each other but still coherently speaking the tales of the same history.
And, with time and rapid urbanisation, the Dhaka New Market has become symbolic of the capital's history and resilience. "The public places are already gone. If you think this market should be turned into a high-rise mall, just look around it. There are plenty of such concrete boxes around us. But do these malls make any difference in our lifestyle?" said architect Taimur Islam, adding, "Among these concrete boxes, New Market is the only oasis, I think, [and it] should remain the way it is."
"Maybe 10 years down the line, the shop owners would want a controlled interior with central air-conditioning, but that is for the future. For now, let's keep it the way it is," he concluded.