Sleepless in Karwan bazar

Muhammad Ibrahim Ibne Towhid spends a night at the biggest wholesale market in the city

Photos by  Bulbul Ahmed

co1As dusk settles over Dhaka, the bustle of the metropolis seems to wane with every passing hour till around 10:00pm, after which most streets become empty. As most shops and stores close down for the day, hardworking professionals return home after a tiring day and after dinner, get ready for bed.
By midnight, most areas of Dhaka become vacant, in stark contrast to their traffic-filled state during the day.
But a particular part of the capital manages to stay awake even at night. This area is Karwan Bazar, the market that seems to wake up from its seeming slumber just after 10:00pm.
As we moved from Tejgaon toward Bangladesh Film Development Corporation (BFDC) a bit after 10:00pm, the waft of fresh fishes hit my nostrils. Five large fish markets in Karwan bazar, placed beside each other, begin to get their stock of fishes from all across the country from 10:00pm till 4:00am.
Trucks filled with fishes in boxes, drums, packets and buckets carry the fishes into Dhaka. Hundreds of workers unload the fishes from the trucks and transfer them to different spots in the market. One of them is Kajol (30), who had come to the market with his elder brother when he was just 15 years old.

co2He began living in the footpath and eventually took shelter in a nearby slum. Today he earns Tk 500-600 daily by unloading big buckets of fish on his back. ‘My work is basically during the late hours of the night. I spend the day in a room of Begunbari,’ he says.
He explains that boxes of fishes are unloaded from the truck and reloaded on to rickshaw vans. ‘These boxes are then taken to different sections of the market where they are sorted through the night. Around dawn, buyers from all around the city throng Karwan bazar to buy these fish at wholesale prices,’ he says.
Most of these buyers are traders at kitchen markets across the city. ‘The buying process starts around 4:00am and ends by 9:00am when no more fish are left to sell in the markets here,’ says Kajol.
Indian and Bengali songs can be heard from a nearby tea stall that is run by Munsoor Ali. He has been running the stall in Karwan bazar for the past 17 years. ‘I make most of my sales during the night as hungry truck drivers, workers and traders come to my shop at night to have banana, biscuits, cakes and breads,’ he says.
co3He adds that other than for Koi and Panghash fishes, most of the fishes that come into the market are kept on ice after they are caught from different rivers of the country, haors and the Bay of Bengal.
As one passes the fish markets and goes towards Petro Bangla building, trucks can be seen lined up to drop off their crates at the market. The rickshaw vans compete with each other to be first few in line for new stocks that they can transfer quickly and go for a second run.
Recently, there are some covered vans that take the crates from the big trucks on the main roads and transfer these to the bazar. The road, stretching from Petrobangla building to Tejgaon railway, has allocated sections where vehicles are unloaded.
These trucks carry and drop off vegetables and also fruits. An old man, who sells local sweet delicacies like moa and narkel bhaja throughout the night in the market, has been supporting himself over the past 24 years by selling these items at the market.
co4He comes all the way from Jatrabari. While talking to New Age Xtra, he says, ‘I have no place to go, nowhere to live, no family of my own and no one to care for me.’ During the day, he takes rest in a lonely corner of a factory where he makes his sweets by himself.

Lungi seems to be the attire of choice in Karwan bazar at night. Most of the people can also be seen wearing gamchas to wipe off their sweat after carrying the heavy loads on their backs.
It is truly a scene to behold as different produces can be found being unloaded from the trucks. There are guavas in sacks from Rajshahi, vegetables from Mymensingh and Gazipur, Cucumbers from Barisal and eggplants from Rangpur.
There are even covered vans that take sacks of vegetables and fruits from Karwanbazar to other parts of the country. For example, we found a covered van unloading vegetables from a big truck from Barisal. The smaller van will be on its way to Sylhet as soon as it is filled, as the driver informs us.
He also shares that if the products are fishes or other items that come in single units, the time required to unload a heavy truck with such content is two hours. ‘But when the products come inside sacks, it takes less than 40 minutes to unload a big truck,’ says the driver.

co5Inside the market, people crowd the different stalls despite the late hours.
Lit up by bulbs, every inch of the market seems to be filled up with vegetables and fruits.
For the vegetables and fruits, there is a different system that has prevailed for years. Farmers and traders from different parts of the country contact the storage houses in Karwan Bazar. After a rate is fixed, they send their products in trucks to the area from their point of origin.
After being unloaded, the products are taken to the storage areas from where these products are sold to traders who buy and take these to the local kitchen markets of Dhaka.
During the day, there are nearly 200 stalls that sell vegetables and fruits in Karwan bazar. Around night, these perishable goods are sold in bulk.
The wholesale sellers during the night have temporary spaces which they buy at Tk 500 to 700 daily. These spaces are owned by nearby wholesale storage owners. You can identify the porters from the ‘tupri’ on their heads.
Getting the best spot where the most buyers can be found is another expertise of daily night sellers in this market. While talking to the sellers of the market it was learnt that there is no fixed price here, price fluctuates everyday and even every hour.
The amount of profit and loss is not also fixed. The profit margin can be hampered by the weather. ‘Rain can bar buyers from coming to the market at night. On any such night, the loss will be high for sellers,’ says a seller. A recent statistic about Karwan bazar claimed that the pulse of people per second is about 10,000.
A few yards away from the market, we found a man sitting with a monitor and speakers from which blared the sound of a Tamil movie. The man plays movies on CD and DVD at night to an audience that includes truck drivers, workers, sellers and buyers at the market.
There are also roadside hotels in and outside the market which are cooking paratha, halua, fish, rice, vegetables and daal at 2:00am. ‘Our hotels operate from 5:00pm till 5:00am,’ says a roadside restaurant owner.
Even amid all the hustle, one can spot people sleeping on the benches, floors, streets, footpaths or stairs of the nearby buildings. These are mostly porters who had worked during the day. A worker explained that the workers here work in shifts.
We even found a group of six workers playing cards on the second floor of a closed market.
The night life in Karwan bazar can teach anyone about the tough living standards that most people from the lower strata of society battle against to survive in the concrete jungle of Dhaka.

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