For traders in KL’s Little India, CMCO casts pall on Deepavali and their economic future

People shop at Brickfields ahead of the Deepavali celebrations in Kuala Lumpur November 11, 2020. — Pictures by Hari Anggara
People shop at Brickfields ahead of the Deepavali celebrations in Kuala Lumpur November 11, 2020. — Pictures by Hari Anggara

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 13 — Brickfields, a hub of Indian culture in the nation’s capital, has surely seen better days. 

In past years leading up to Deepavali festival, the neighbourhood dubbed Little India would be a din of sights, sounds, smells and thronging with people selling and buying goods for the festival of lights celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains.

However, this atmosphere of lavish merrymaking that risks people coming into close contact with one another was glaringly absent during Malay Mail’s visit earlier this week.

Jahir Hussein (left) attends to customers at his shop in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur.
Jahir Hussein (left) attends to customers at his shop in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur.

Jahir Hussein, manager of New Malliga Enterprise, said the government’s conditional movement control order (CMCO) that limits inter-state and inter-district travel as well as the number of people inside vehicles to just two have halved his store’s patrons compared to previous years.

“A lot of people are scared to come in because of Covid-19, even if we have sanitisers and everything,” he told Malay Mail, referring to the measures taken to reduce the chances of infection among customers.

Jahir said restrictions on the opening times have also severely affected stores in the area.

“We can now only open from 8am to 10pm. It is short hours. We used to open up till midnight,” he said.

Vijayan Somasundram waits for customers outside his shop in Brickfields ahead of the Deepavali celebrations in Kuala Lumpur November 12, 2020.
Vijayan Somasundram waits for customers outside his shop in Brickfields ahead of the Deepavali celebrations in Kuala Lumpur November 12, 2020.

Vijayan Somasundram, a purveyor of metalware, decorations and prayer goods, said his business had dropped by 70 per cent, with customers shying away from buying decorations, textiles and other Deepavali essentials.

“People are only buying biscuits, murukku and ready-made items,” he related when met at the shop he manages, Murugan Stores.

Vijayan said shopkeepers in the city have not been allowed to put up marquees this year, due to the Covid-19 related restrictions, which makes it difficult for them to display their goods.

Displays at the front of most stores took up less than half of the sidewalk during Malay Mail’s walkabout of the area during lunch time this week, just days before Deepavali.

While there was a steady stream of cars on the roads and customers browsing goods, the crowd was visibly thin compared to years past. 

Perhaps the most jarring was how muted this commercial area was during business hours. Aside from a lone shop on the main street playing music loudly, the neighbourhood was relatively quiet.

Malai flower traders R. Kuna (right) works at his shop in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur November 11, 2020.
Malai flower traders R. Kuna (right) works at his shop in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur November 11, 2020.

R. Kuna, a florist, said he sometimes threw away his flowers — normally bought for prayers and other rituals — as he could not sell them even after three days. Last year, he had no problems selling off his stock daily, especially during Deepavali.

He said he is attempting to sell online, but business has not been good there, as customers are unwilling to pay a fee for transportation.

“People want flowers, they want it cheap, but they don’t want delivery. If they come here they would face the same costs on petrol, spending the same amount, but they still don’t want it,” he said.

His primary means of delivery is through the Grab transportation company, which imposes a minimum of RM5 per delivery.

Kuna said that customers instead have resorted to making their own garlands from flowers growing at their homes.

Clothing and textiles, also a staple of Deepavali — where it is customary that observers wear new clothing on the first day of the celebration — have also seen a slide in sales.

“Last year we earned around RM 15,000 in one day. But this year we can’t earn that much, at least a 50 per cent drop,” said Kogila Prieyaah of BGV boutique, one of the smaller traditional clothing stores in the neighbourhood.

Kogila Prieyaah arranges clothing outside BGV boutique in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur.
Kogila Prieyaah arranges clothing outside BGV boutique in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur.

Kogila, who is the daughter of the proprietor, said the shop also retails on an app called MyMall2u, but admitted sales online has been similarly sluggish.

Larger clothing stores like Bollywood Fashion & Fashion Jewellery, which has been around for 12 years, appeared to share a similar fate.

“Business is very slow. Because of Covid-19 SOPs, people are not coming in as much. So business has slowed down, about 50 per cent,” said one of its managers, Vasantha Annamuniappan.

The first day of Deepavali is this Saturday, a nationwide public holiday. Followers of Hinduism, Sikhism and Jainism however, will observe the festival for up to five days until November 18.

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