04:31 PM, August 19, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 06:44 PM, August 27, 2018

Selling happiness

Photo: Nayem Shaan

On a hot day stuck in Dhaka’s traffic, someone decided to click a photograph of a book hawker and upload it on Facebook. That photograph went viral in the next few days, with readers claiming how they had spotted this man present in the signal of BijoyShoroni for as long as they can remember and how this man, despite being physically challenged, showed up with a smile on his face from day-to-day to show them the latest books.

Mohammad Abdul Gofur lost an arm in an accident at the age of fifteen. He went missing from home at quite a young age and had no memory of his family.  With no guardians and no money to provide, he was eventually denied government medical care. One day, he decided to follow a group of strangers who were speaking about traveling to India from Jessore. By then, infections and stenches were all over his body. Once he was inside India, he hopped on a truck and asked the driver to take him to Kolkata, a name he had only heard other people talk about. In Kolkata, one passer-by gave him directions to a hospital where he could seek treatment. “I luckily found a Bangladeshi doctor in that hospital,” says Gofur. “After hearing my story, he was generous enough to bear all expenses for my treatment and send me over to Dhaka. I had only heard about Dhaka and I wanted to go there.”

Gofur arrived in Dhaka in the 80’s. Owing to his disability, no one wanted to offer him jobs. So, reluctantly, Gofur resorted to begging on the streets. As someone who believed in self-reliance, this was the most difficult period in his life.

Soon, Gofur came into contact with street hawkers, who advised him to sell clothes from Bongo Bazar. But in a fire hazard in February 1999 nearby a railway where Gofur sold clothes, all his things were destroyed.  Although Gofur was left heartbroken after this event, he knew he needed to keep working. He sold everything from cigarettes and betel leaves to pens and pencils and chocolates in a plastic basket, tied around his neck with a cotton cloth.

Throughout this period, he got married and was father to three sons, the eldest of whom passed away at the age of 14 from an incurable disease. His second son fell ill and became wheelchair-bound, unable to attend school after the 5th grade. He had spent nearly all he earned till now in the treatment of his eldest son and struggled more and more to make ends meet. His youngest son is twelve and now studying in the sixth grade.

Another hawker advised him to try out selling locally printed books, so Gofur decided to begin this venture. He has been selling books for the last 24 years. “Initially, I just took a bag on the streets and carried 3-4 books in my one hand,” says Gofur. “Then I had the idea of tying up these books with a cotton cloth around my waist, so that buyers could choose the books easily.”

Gofur’s circumstances are such that he needs to wake up and go to work every day, but given his old age, spending hours on the streets day in and day out serves as a health challenge for him. Now, he dreams of running his own physical bookstore.

In what can be described as a happy coincidence, RubaiyaTasnim Chowdhury, the founder of Litmosphere, an online book club that provides a platform for people to share their love of reading and much more, came across that viral picture on of him selling books and shared it on the club’s Facebook page.

For a man who chose the path of bringing happiness to readers, Litmosphere wanted to do something special in return. The admin panel bought a day’s worth of books from him and sold them off at a higher price in auctions to the members. The club members more than stepped up to the occasion by donating money and their own books and kindles in auction. They raised up to Tk 1 lakh for him.

On August 17-18, 2018, Litmosphere hosted Imbue Presents A Thousand Words, an exhibition on book photography, where Lit Mama, as the Litmosphere family fondly calls Gofur, received the proceeds from that auction. He also set up his own stall for books at the event. “I feel honored that so many people have come forward to help me and stand by me,” expresses Gofur. “I will forever be grateful to the members of Litmosphere and put everything they have given me to good use.” Gofur’s story shows how one can truly rise above challenges with courage.