Eight o'clock at night: The Nilkhet intersection is flooded with the yellowish light of street lamps. The policeman at the signal motions the traffic to a halt. A large number of vehicles accumulate behind him.
Suddenly, a small group of three to four people, leap to their feet. They go missing in the maze of traffic, moving from one vehicle to another, responding to the demands of the passengers. Some want cigarettes, some betel leaf and some cold bottled water.
When the traffic policeman nods for the vehicles to move, this small group weaves their way back to the road island, waiting for another halt. Between the signals, they arrange their boxes, take account of what they have sold and talk among themselves.
Among them is one Mohammad Jamal from Habiganj in Sylhet. Every word he utters tells well where he is from. The gust of Haor wind is entwined in what he says.
Now that there was a go-ahead for the vehicles, he was standing on the road island. Asked how his sales were amid pandemic, he cast a glance of suspicion and did not care to answer my query.
But when enquired about the peanut seller who used to come with him, he felt a sort of affinity and opened up slowly.
"Oe ahenai (he has not come)," he said, arranging his box of cigarettes and betel leaves, still not looking at the interviewer.
Coming to his sales, he said they are half of what they were before the pandemic. "I used to make a sale of Tk10-12 thousand, and at the end of the day, I would make – deducting all costs – a profit of Tk1,000 to Tk1,200 every day," he said, assured that he was not disclosing his business secrets to a person who might affect his income.
These days, after the government lifted the shutdown, his sales dwindled to Tk5-6 thousand, he said, blaming the fact that many people were still avoiding buying street items out of fear that they might contract Covid-19.
Yet, he came back to the city when the curb on public transportation was relaxed as there was nothing to do in his village. The harvest season was over.
Asked what he did during the shutdown and how he coped with the situation, he said he had gone to his village like many others. There he had some land to cultivate. "The communication is very good. The bus fare is only Tk300. I can go and come whenever I want," he said.
He also asked where I was from and assured me that he was not one of those who were destitute. Back in the village, he has a family to look after and who cares for him; he is quite happy with what he has, with whatever income he can make.
Asked about the government relief for those who lost their income sources because of the shutdown, he said he did not receive any and had no regrets about it.
Only those who have nothing in their villages stayed back in the city during the shutdown and suffered immensely
"Only those who have nothing in their villages stayed back in the city during the shutdown and suffered immensely," he said.
Asked how many of the hawkers have come back to the city after the reopening of offices and markets, he said only half of them have retraced their steps to the city.
"Many of them will never come back here," he said.
By the time he said this, the traffic policeman had whistled and the vehicles again came to a halt. He entered the street, moving from one vehicle to another, selling cigarettes and betel leaves. I got on a bus to go home.