Monday, February 08, 2010

A Jumli Carpet Seller in Kathmandu

This appeared in The Kathmandu Post on Saturday.

An Invisible Man


At the crack of dawn, a lean man with a week’s stubble navigates the byzantine lanes of Naradevi. He carries a white rug on his shoulder, and dons a maroon hooded-pullover and cargo pants to protect himself against Kathmandu’s wintry chill. At Ratnapark, he lifts the rug and places it on the roof of the bus that’s heading towards Bhaktapur. Disembarking at Ghaththaghar, he lugs the rug on his shoulder again and walks briskly towards the buildings that dot the erstwhile fertile farmland of the Valley. Then, he starts pitching in a salesman’s voice: “Ayo Ayo! Galaincha Laijanus Sahuji! Ramro Chha, Nepali Galaincha!” (Come , come. Nepali rugs. Very nice Nepali rugs, master!)

For the past four years, 22-year-old Dhan Lal Chaulagai, originally from Narakot in Jumla—a remote district in the Mid-west—has been selling the export-rejected rugs to suburban residents of the Valley. Every winter, he leaves his home village and its abject poverty behind, and undertakes what seems like a seasonal entrepreneurship. But Chaulagai is also part of a category of migrant workers, people who travel all over Nepal looking for better opportunities, or creating them by selling carpets, Himalayan herbs, honey, and other ‘exotic’ items to their urban countrymen.

A Dickensian Tale

A semi-literate, Chaulagai’s childhood was ruptured in 1998 by the sudden death of his father Devi Lal. Like most Jumlis and Kalikotes, Devi Lal had gone to Faizabad in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh to sell shawls and radi (woollen Nepali carpets). A patient of asthma, the 40-year-old died in India that winter. “We heard about his death only two months later,” says Chaulagai—that too through a neighbour who had accompanied his father and had sent them a letter (because there were no telephone connections in his village). It was winter, and Narakot was blanketed with snow. His mother was five months pregnant with his sister (now 10 years old). Being the eldest son, Chaulagai quickly undertook the ritual of bratabandha (sacred thread wearing). Then, as soon as the ceremony was over, he was thrust into observing barakhi (the Hindu ritual of mourning).

“I was studying in the fourth grade but had to leave my school and help my mother,” he says. Two years after his father’s death, he went to Faizabad, he says “to complete the ritual because his body was not brought home”. Back in the village, he helped farm their 15 ropanis of land where they grew rice, wheat, maize and potatoes. But the harvest was only enough for six months for the family of four.

Kathmandu’s Allure

Like many Nepalis from remote areas who travel to India in search of work, Chaulagai became familiar with the southern neighbour. Barely a teenager, he, following his father’s footsteps, began to travel to India in the winter. He either sold radis or worked as a labourer.

Seven years ago, he became an apprentice to Lal Bahadur G.C., a village hand who sold rugs in Kathmandu. “I was afraid that I may get lost in Kathmandu,” recalls Chaulagai, “I might not be able to do business.” For two years, he cooked food for G.C.

His struggles in Kathmandu mirror the challenges faced by newcomers to the city. Language turned out to be a big problem. “I didn’t know how to communicate with people here,” he recalls. Even though Nepali evolved in Jumla (“People tell us that Prithvi Narayan Shah used to speak our language”), he was baffled by the hierarchy of modern Nepali language (tapai, timi, tan). “Back home, we call everyone timi,” he says, “But in Kathmandu, we are supposed to call everyone tapai.” Now, his Jumli tongue has adjusted to the capital’s formal ways: he addresses every man as sir, and every woman as aunty.

He lives with three others in a cramped, dank and dark room in Naradevi. A naked bulb on the ceiling illuminates the room where half the space is occupied by rugs. There is a gas stove, a sackful of rice, some shabby clothes hanging on a peg, and not much else.

The factories that lie on Kathmandu’s northeastern edge are famous for exporting rugs to rich Westerners. The origin of the Nepali carpet can itself be traced to the arrival of another disadvantaged community: Tibetan refugees. After the 1959 Chinese occupation of Tibet, several Tibetans crossed the northern border and found sanctuary in Nepal. They also brought their skills with them. Soon, their traditional skills of weaving morphed into a big industry after attracting local entrepreneurs to export possibilities. And, for a while, carpets were the top export items from Nepal. Poorer entrepreneurs like Chaulagai end up buying the export-rejected pieces.

These rejected rugs are, nevertheless, expensive, and much-coveted among the nouveau-riche who build new houses on the peripheries of the Valley. Chaulagai boasts a clientele that includes, among others, a former migrant worker who lived in South Korea for eight years and built (what else?) a concrete house, and a real estate agent who has purchased a spacious one-storey house. “Only those who have plenty of money can afford a galaincha,” he says.

The profits are miniscule in this trade. His six-month sojourn in the Capital fetches him around Rs. 15,000 to Rs. 25,000. But living in Kathmandu is equally expensive—at Rs. 5,000 per month for Chaulagai. And unlike vegetables, rugs don’t sell everyday.

The Long Way Home

Being the sole earner for his family, Chaulagai makes sure that he buys gifts and basic necessities for his loved ones. “They are very happy when I go home,” he says, “My little sister comes to receive me on my way.”

Chaulagai will shop in Nepalgunj, the border town, paying back the moneylender the sum that he borrowed to buy the carpets in Kathmandu (with a 3 percent interest rate). He will then board a bus to Khitkijyula in Dailekh, and from here, will walk for four days to reach his small village by the Sinja River, the river valley that was once the cradle of Khas civilisation and the summer capital of Khas kingdom that existed from the 12th to the 14th century.

Back in Kathmandu, some affluent clients demand to see a catalogue. Instead, he whips out his mobile phone, and jots down their numbers. Despite the ‘I hate cell phones’ message emblazoned across his pullover, Chaulagai evidently doesn’t.

A song blares on his phone as a ringtone:

Phone Aaunda Sangai Chhu Jhain Lagchha,

Phone Naaaunda Runa Man Lagchha

(When you call me, I feel I am with you,

When you don’t call, I feel like crying)

It’s his sister, calling from the village. In an instant, the carpet seller becomes a brother, a smile lighting up his face.


Jay said...

I have enjoyed reading your story. Your writing is excellent, not boring at all. Keep it up!

Rug Cleaners

Kenneth said...

Isn't it heart-breaking to sell a house? Because for me, it is. I had this old house in Katy. Carpet cleaning, wall painting and roof tiling were all done but it felt that repairing it won't repair the memories I had shared with that house. Yet I ended up selling it because we had to move to Georgia because of some personal reasons.
Reading your work tells me how happy you are in selling and I am reciprocating that happiness to me – for me to learn to let go even in material and emotional aspects.

Great Story!

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