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Dhaka Tribune

Five dollars in a second-hand jacket

Winter brings back memories of another time, when Dhaka became even more enchanting

Update : 18 Nov 2018, 07:01 PM

Arguably, the best season in Bangladesh is almost upon us. The sweltering heat has paved the way for exhilarating pleasantness which triggers the wish: If only, if this weather stayed all the year round.

Winter in Bangladesh is the time for listening to evocative songs while luxuriating in the soft mellow sun. 

But for many like us, on the wrong side of the forties, winter also brings back memories of another time, when the tranquil Dhaka city became even more enchanting.

The other day, someone was talking about getting a top quality leather jacket from one of the leading fashion houses of the country. 

“It’s around six thousand,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone, adding: “will get it this weekend.” 

This is the face of Dhaka in 2018, where a middle-class person can walk into a shop, and spend six thousand for something she/he likes. If the person is short on cash, then there’s always the credit card. 

Desired items are never out of reach, and for the right amount, one gets the best.

Yet, for some odd reason, memories of the early and mid-80s pop up, when we could hardly afford to walk into a shop, and buy whatever winter garment that took our fancy. To be honest, shops did not offer that many items either. 

Finding leather jackets and proper denim trousers were sometimes tough in the regular shops because, with very little disposable income, the middle-class person only walked into such a shop twice a year, especially during religious festivals. 

The lack of cash didn’t deter us from becoming fashionable though.

The saviour was the Gulistan second-hand clothes market, known popularly as the Nixon Market. 

The US president and the second hand clothes market

Nixon Market? You must be intrigued. Well, there is a fascinating story behind the name. In the early seventies, just after liberation, there was an acute garment shortage in the country, and people from the USA sent clothes as donation to Bangladesh. 

This shipment never stopped, even after the demand was met, and soon, massive bundles of clothes ended up in the hands of Gulistan street hawkers, who sold them at reasonable prices.

Since the shipment first came during the term of Nixon, the name stuck, and as the presidents changed, the market’s name also transformed to Carter Market, Reagan Market, and so on. 

Nixon should have been pleased since he opposed our independence struggle outright.  

The Gulistan second-hand market was the winter buyers’ paradise -- from woolen jackets to overcoats to blazers, you name it and the market had it. 

As winter came, a trip, or several trips, to Gulistan became the norm for almost every city dweller. And, this was the only place where one could get a leather jacket. 

Sometimes the jackets were branded items -- Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein -- the prices of these were higher, and such products were specially hung at a strategic point of the stall to attract attention. If a normal jacket was Tk200, then the branded ones went up to Tk450 or Tk500. 

Word got around of such exclusive items on display, with guys spreading the word: Did you hear, there’s a new grey leather jacket on sale at Nixon’s? 

By the way, all second-hand clothes that came to Bangladesh were washed first, and treated with disinfecting powder. So perish the thought of skin rashes or other complications. 

The sheer sense of euphoria one felt after buying an “eye-catching” garment lingered for days. In those times of economic stringency, buying something, be it from the second-hand market, was an event. 

We usually went in groups, with the money finagled out of our guardians. The middle-class lived on a very tight budget -- every Taka mattered. 

Serendipitous discoveries added to the thrill

Now some of the clothes often yielded surprising treasures -- a letter, maybe a shopping receipt, and most importantly, US dollars. 

Once on my way back from the Reagan Market, with an Edwin denim jacket, I found two five dollar bills crumpled inside an inner pocket. 

Well, talk about striking gold. For someone who had just read RL Stevenson’s Treasure Island, this was like opening a chest and staring at gold doubloons. 

Trust me, this was not the only time. I found notes on several other occasions, but they were mostly one dollar bills. 

Interestingly, one of my friends found an open plastic packet with what looked like the image of a Roman wearing a helmet. We were delighted. What can this be? We decided to ask our school teacher. 

The teacher was equally puzzled and the mystery remained unsolved for a long time. 

Of course, with the advent of the internet, we soon found out that it was the cover of Trojan condom. The second-hand markets are no longer in existence -- Bangladeshis can now buy new clothes whenever they want, with people from the upper classes doing their shopping out of the country. 

The memories of collecting small amounts of money over a long period to head to Nixon market in winter have become faded.

Yet, for some like myself, every winter evokes memories of long forgotten days of excitement, when we headed to Gulistan in the hope of finding a pair of jeans, perhaps with a dollar or two inside. 

Towheed Feroze is News Editor for Bangla Tribune and teaches at the University of Dhaka. 

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