Nilkhet, a paradise for Dhaka city bibliophiles, is still reeling from Covid-19 losses. Not just tiny bookstalls, but prominent bookstores in the Nilkhet book market have experienced a financial rundown owing to the lockdown.
The usual crowded look of Nilkhet has been missing since March.
Though the book market reopened in early June, it has been witnessing few visitors, a trend that has forced many bookshop owners to keep their businesses shut for the time being. Booklovers of all ages and economic classes used to swarm in and out through the narrow alleys of Nilkhet in downtown Dhaka, in search of their next read. They were the pulsing beats of this market.
So, how is this market surviving now without its lifeline – the bookworms and also the ones who need to purchase varieties of textbooks?
Bookseller Shaon, who used to sit on the Nilkhet footpath, has managed to get back to his place again recently. During the complete lockdown of three months, he and many other sellers had to shift their business from bookselling to others.
But there are many booksellers who are not so lucky.
Bookseller Mostofa, who is popularly known to his young customers as ‘Mostofa Uncle’, is one of booksellers who have closed their businesses.
For bookseller Chand Mia, Nilkhet is his second home as he has been working there for more than 35 years. The pale look of the pandemic-hit Nilkhet market hurts many longtime book sellers like him the most.
This octogenarian bookseller managed to get a corner beside the Magazine Gali to set up his own two-shelf bookshop, Book Corner, four years ago.
With fellow booksellers like Mostafa closing their businesses, Chand is worried if the same fate is awaiting him.
However, he considers himself fortunate as he has some regular customers who have helped him survive during the lockdown.
The Nilkhet book market has evolved over the decades, beginning with a handful of traders selling books and magazines on the pavement of Balaka Cinema Hall. It is now a huge book market of more than 1,300 bookshops and stationeries.
And books of almost every category such as arts, literature, history, law, economics, sciences, business studies, anthropology, sociology and theology can be found here; it is needless to mention that guide books for all competitive exams, and textbooks and notebooks for all classes dominate the market. Old books are also available here.
People from across the country come to the city’s Nilkhet market to find their desired books.
However, this book market is the dearest thing to those living in the vicinity, the residents of Dhaka University dormitories. And they are sad to see the market in doldrums now.
“I become the Alice of this wonderland called Nilkhet, every time I walk on the footpaths and alleys of this market. But I couldn’t tolerate the news of Mostafa uncle winding up his shop due to the coronavirus crisis,” says Saykat Roy, a final year population sciences student of Dhaka University.
He also regrets the absence from the scene here of another bookseller who used to sit near Dhaka University’s Mukti O Ganatantra Toran (Gate of Freedom and Democracy).
An international relations student of Dhaka University, Tanvir Ahmed, said “I’ve heard the book market is not doing well and many booksellers are facing hard times. It’ll be tough for many like me to purchase necessary books from anywhere other than Nilkhet.”
A group of young booklovers stood by the pandemic-hit booksellers of Nilkhet by undertaking the Gronthomongol project under the Pashe Achhi Initiative. They bought books from sellers in bulk, brought them online and sold each piece of book for Tk 200. The project that began in May helped Nilkhet booksellers survive the tough lockdown days. So far, around 3,500 books have been purchased from at least 50 Nilkhet booksellers.
Another online bookshop, akkhor.xyz, has come forward to help Nilkhet bookshop and photocopy owners.
Although Nilkhet is a place where some pirated books are allegedly available, it is a hub for every kind of book at a low price. This market has long been a place of emotion for bookworms. In fact, there is a popular saying that if you have not found a specific book in Nilkhet, it probably never existed.
Faria Abdullah is an MSS student at Dhaka University.