On an April day, when Dhaka College students clashed with New Market traders in broad daylight, it not only brought the city to a standstill but also forced shopkeepers in the surrounding areas to shutter their businesses. Nilkhet market is one such example.
On the following Wednesday (20 April), it rained. The Mirpur road leading up to Nilkhet market was wet. Traffic was regular, more or less, but thinned as we crossed the market opposite Dhaka College and more shuttered shops came into view. There was a sense of uncertainty brewing thick in the air.
Upon reaching Nilkhet market, some shops looked open, with the inviting shopkeepers at the edge of their seats. "Ki lagbe mama?" could be heard on the footpath. By then, it was already well after 12 pm. "I opened my shop just a few minutes ago," said Imran Nazir, shopkeeper of Khaja, a book and stationery shop right by the footpath, "we didn't know for sure if it's safe to open earlier in the day," he explained, not losing a beat to ask, "ki lagbe, apnar?"
An eager salesman, earnest even.
Imran Nazir's shop is one of the several that burned down in a fire on 22 February 2022. The fire broke out in the evening and was contained within an hour or so. By the time the fire services managed to extinguish it completely, it had spread fast through the lakhs and lakhs worth of books and wreaked havoc on the luckless booksellers of Nilkhet.
In total, around 35 shops were affected, either the shops' inventory was burned to a crisp or the water from the fire services soaked and ruined books and stationery beyond salvage. But around six to seven shops bore the brunt of the incident, "and I am one of those few hard-hit shops," Imran said.
The cause of the fire? Sparks from a welding job, which was sanctioned by another shop owner of Friend's Book Corner (one of the bigger book stores in Nilkhet) in the same aisle as Imran's shop. "I told him earlier not to do it," recalled Imran.
Md Noor Alam Chowdhury, Managing Director, Friend's Book Corner, said, "we have had fires like this before in the market [other areas] caused by short circuits. This time, we were working in one spot and the fire broke out in another, most likely from sparks." Chowdhury, blamed the faulty and old wiring in the market for the incident.
"I incurred losses from the fire amounting to [estimated] Tk1 crore," he said. Chowdhury explained how running four stores in the block and having a huge bulk of inventory, the pandemic already forced him and his brothers to take a Tk5 crore loan from the bank. "It's a family business. We were just reeling from the pandemic effects and then this incident. Almighty knows best."
The Nilkhet book market operates under five associations. "Our block is under Shahjalal association [Hazrat Shahjalal Market], and this is the first time a fire broke out in 40 years in this area," said Imran Nazir, adding that fire incidents are caused more due to shopkeeper's faults (such as keeping fans switched on, etc) than by short circuits.
Fire in Nilkhet: Small businesses, big losses
"I was away," recalled Imran, "when the fire broke out. I got a call within a few minutes [of the incident]. At first, I didn't think much of it." Imran was at a mahfil in his hometown Chandpur. Somewhere between the first call and the several that followed, Imran realised this was not just a small fire. He reached his home and informed his mother and wife. "My mother almost collapsed [upon hearing the news]," said Imran.
In Imran's case, the news of the fire was particularly worrisome. "You see, I started this shop only in January 2021, and when you start something like this, you go in with everything you got [savings/investment from his hometown's land property sales]," explained Imran, who had a food stall inside the Nilkhet market for approximately 21 years before deciding to start the book shop.
Imran had been working in the area since he was a grade 5 student in 2000. "I came to Dhaka to work with my older brother to help with the family's income," he said.
Khaja (the book and stationery shop) is Imran's heart and soul, although the business card has his older brother's name on it. He was dreaming (and strategising) for a better life with higher income for a long while before he opened the book shop. "With around two decades working in this market, I am confident that I know enough about the ins and outs," he said.
He secured a booth on rent right by the footpath, which means it is a prime location. "Rent is Tk1 lakh per month," he said, "as opposed to Tk11,000 monthly rent for my food business, which was deep within the market with one staff member."
Additionally, "I sell two things: books and stationery. My stock was more than just lakhs of [worth] books," he said. Imran estimates he lost inventory worth Tk25 lakh; it took him close to three weeks to get rid of the debris, repair and repaint the shelves, which cost him an additional Tk1 lakh 30 thousand. Around mid-March, Imran was able to reopen his shop for business. There is a savings association at the market, according to Imran, where shopkeepers can take out loans, the highest of Tk1 lakh amount, which he applied for and got approved on 9 March. But it was not nearly enough.
"I loaned all of the money to reopen -- bank loans and from friends," he said, "and a day closed means a loss of Tk7,000 for my business." Still, Imran didn't hesitate to put the shutters down when the April New Market-Dhaka College clashes erupted. "Who knows what could happen," he lamented, "someone could throw a cocktail into my shop. What would I have done then? Again another incident to tackle."
On 20 April, after a few hours of business, Imran shuttered his shop again out of fear of lack of security.
A man of caution with mountains of loans.
"The pandemic itself cost all of us a lot. The schools and colleges were closed for the longest time, and the whole market suffered," said Imran. In fact, it was in February this year that educational institutions were reopening their doors, and the Nilkhet market booksellers were eyeing the upcoming intermediate exam cycle, "that is when sales volume multiplies for us," said Imran.
Many book shops were reeling from the effects of the pandemic on their business by already taking out loans. Shopkeepers like Imran were anxiously and patiently waiting for the market to come abuzz with customers. After nearly two years, in February this year, they thought their luck would turn.
What about market committees? Those who were affected did they receive any financial aid from committees or the mayor's office?
"We simply just don't have the funds for emergencies to help some shops," said Md Rasel Rahman, shopkeeper of Babul Books Corner, a victim of the February fire and also the secretary of Hazrat Shahjalal Market. The association exempted shopkeepers one month of rent, said Rasel, who also incurred losses. He estimated his loss at Tk15-17 lakh and his repair cost at Tk10 lakh; he took over his father's Nilkhet book shop business in 2007.
After the February fire, the mayor himself (Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh) visited the site and gave the shopkeepers hope that they would receive financial assistance from his office. "It has been over two months, we received absolutely no financial assistance from anybody," said Imran.
The mayor's office was asked on 27 April why they did not provide financial aid to the Nilkhet shopkeepers and if they plan to do so in future. On 10 May, Md. Abu Nasher, Public Relations Officer, replied "the office did not explicitly say it will provide compensation [to those affected]. However, we have received applications, and we are considering it."
If you go to Nikhet now, you will not be able to tell which section was the most heavily affected by the fire. The freshly painted shelves and counters might give you a hint, but the shopkeepers' struggles are invisible; you will not be able to tell that they are spending "each passing day hopelessly." Their disguise? Eager eyes and warm smiles; after all, they just want to make a sale.
"There is no specific plan to get out of this situation [financial predicament] except to make sales and pay off the loans," said Imran. Others echoed, "what other way is there?"
Imran added, "I am not able to give my [five] staff members their salaries, let alone Eid bonus. In the beginning, I had some hope of getting help, but after two months [since the fire], I do not harbour any hope."