From bustling town to pandemic zone, life in Malaysia’s ‘Little India’ quiet after lockdown

Street vendors along Jalan Masjid India. Photo: Coconuts KL
Street vendors along Jalan Masjid India. Photo: Coconuts KL

The lockdown may have lifted along Kuala Lumpur’s Jalan Masjid India but its vendors continue to suffer the effects of the area’s closure, just a few hundred meters away from the city’s center.

Also known as KL’s second “Little India” (the first being in Brickfields), Jalan Masjid India was once a bustling hub of tourists, local KL-lites, and merry shopkeepers. 

The heart of KL’s Indian-Muslim community spans a one-kilometer radius filled with hundreds of vendors, including individual traders, food stalls, department stores, hotels, and a mosque that conducted its prayers in Tamil.

Locals and foreigners alike lived together in harmony at the Selangor Mansion and Malayan Mansion flats, two prominent blocks home to dozens of shoplots selling jewelry, sarees, and souvenirs.

Unfortunately, the hustle and bustle came to a halt when the whole street was placed under a complete lockdown on March 31, after 15 individuals from the area tested positive for COVID-19. Approximately 10,000 people were affected by the enhanced movement control order.

Handful of people along Jalan Masjid India. Photo: Coconuts KL
Handful of people along Jalan Masjid India. Photo: Coconuts KL

The authorities then rounded up approximately 3,300 foreigners in the area and sent them for mass coronavirus testing. This became the focus of a widely-criticized Al Jazeera documentary, some parts of which were filmed around Jalan Masjid India. The Malaysian government has since raided Al Jazeera’s headquarters in KL and arrested Mohamad Rayhan Kabir, the Bangladeshi national featured in the video.

The lockdown has more or less lifted since May, with barriers or barbed wires no longer in sight around the area, although people continued to don face masks and observe contact tracing measures. Most shops remained open today, despite the quiet and rainy afternoon. The pebbled streets were also unusually empty, save for the occasional cab or motorcycle. 

Given the recent crackdown on Al Jazeera’s COVID-19 coverage, some vendors appeared hesitant to speak to Coconuts KL, but two people were willing to come forward with their post-lockdown stories.

Vegetable seller Abdul Rahmat, 25, said it was a “real headache” when the government called for a sudden lockdown of the area, rendering businesses inoperable and cutting away his income.

Abdul, who lives alone while his family resides in Penang state, could only survive on cash payouts from the government until he could resume work in May. He has since been tested for COVID-19 twice and results were both negative. 

Abdul Rahmat (right) with Coconuts KL associate editor, Yeu-Gynn. Photo: Coconuts KL
Abdul Rahmat (right) with Coconuts KL associate editor, Yeu-Gynn. Photo: Coconuts KL

 “Business was difficult during the lockdown since we had to stay home after taking the COVID-19 tests,” he told Coconuts KL. 

“At the moment, business is not so bad, but we’ve lost lots of customers,” he said. Abdul could not recall the specific number of customers but noted that their absence was felt. 

“Customer kurang gila (very much less). We’re a lot more relaxed now than before the lockdown,” he added, referring to his daily workload, which these days involve delivering bulk vegetable supplies to customers. 

A block of flats along Jalan Masjid India, which was affected by the total lockdown in April. Photo: Coconuts KL
A block of flats along Jalan Masjid India, which was affected by the total lockdown in April. Photo: Coconuts KL

The reduced footfall in the area also drove Indian street snack seller Kamala to move her makeshift stall from the back to the front of the Haniffa department store, just off the main street, in a bid to draw more customers. 

Kamala, who is in her 60s and only wishes to introduce her first name, sells vada doughnuts, fritters, and curry puffs with her older sister. Two customers stopped by to purchase the freshly cooked snacks. “Vada, vada, baru masak. (Vada, vada, freshly cooked),she called on to people. 

Speaking to Coconuts KL, she said: “Business is doing OK. We were located behind the Haniffa department store but made the decision to move to the front of it this week, as we didn’t get many customers since the lockdown.”

“It is better here, we get more people than if we placed our stall at the back,” she added. 

Savory snacks from a food stall along Jalan Masjid India. Photo: Coconuts KL
Savory snacks from a food stall along Jalan Masjid India. Photo: Coconuts KL

According to Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, Malaysia suffered economic losses of RM63 billion (US$15 billion) throughout its four months of nationwide lockdown. Its state up north, Kedah, is currently undergoing a second lockdown amid a surge in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks.

Malaysia reported 9,235 COVID-19 infections, with 16 new cases detected today. The death toll stands at 125.

Other stories to check out:

Kedah goes into lockdown again after new surge in COVID-19 cases

‘Journalism is not a crime’: Al Jazeera condemns authorities for raiding KL bureau

No more home quarantine for travelers returning to Malaysia starting Friday

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