The corn on cob vendor, Ram, picks up a cardboard piece, which has the word- or half a word rather “mitsu” printed on it.
I have known Ram or Rameh dai for three years now, he hails from the mountainous Gorkha region. Which is world renowned for producing disciplined, hardy and brave soldiers for the British army.
The corn kernels fizz and crackle from the radiating heat of the charcoal, as Rameh dai switches between fanning himself and the charcoal.
Another dust kicks up as a bus motors past Rameh dai’s kiosk. A vegetable seller emerges from the dust bowl. It’s Salim chacha, with his white unending but neat beard.
Salim chacha pushes his cycle cum vegetable stall and jostles with other vendors for prime locations. Salim chacha, is one of many vegetable sellers from the south of Nepal, known as the terai region, who come to Kathmandu to make a living.
But unlike Rameh dai, Salim chacha faces abuse from the ignorant, phobic, racist, predominantly fairer skinned people of the valley. Who trace their roots to the mountains around Kathmandu. It never fails to amaze me how the North and South of so many countries have a hard time getting along.The Koreas, Lincoln’s North and the South, The Sudans…I could go on.
Rameh dai, says salam, with a smile to his fellow daily struggler….Waleh goum asalam, says chacha. Sanchai! Sanchai! They both exclaim and carry on.
Rameh dai, rubs a slice of lemon on the seared corn, then adds a final dash of salt and serves the corn on cob with pea sized helping of mashed chilly and garlic on the fresh corn husk.
I pick a spot next to Rameh dai and start to munch. Just then a rancid whiff violates my senses, forcing me to turn my head.
A mound of refuse not collected by the municipal workers is the culprit. The striking workers have found a simple, but pungent way to bargain for higher wages.
Nepal’s economy in the past decade has taken a battering, the lack of leadership and entrepreneurial guile meant the pitfalls of globalization weren’t avoided.
The Maoist insurgency which sought to rid the country from the ills of an aristocratic society and religious tutelage ended up causing more misery.
The situation continues to be compounded by the fact Nepal hasn’t tapped into its energy resources due to a lack of infrastructure( a recurring theme as you will notice). Nepal’s dependence, therefore, on imported oil exposes it to the volatility of the international oil markets. Which in turn leads to massive budget deficits- since oil is subsidized by the government.
But even with subsidies inflation is rampant which forces workers and unions to demand for higher wages. And in a small country like ours every decision, conflict, or issue is felt by the majority of citizens and today the labor wages dispute was felt by my nostrils. Needless to say I moved a bit further away.
As I continued munching away, a cow strolled up to the vegetable market and parked herself right next to the refuse. A United Nations (UN) white and blue SUV honked its horn trying to shoo the beast in front of it. Now as to why the foreign UN employees insist on driving around in SUV’s on Kathmandu’s narrow roads, is a mystery to me and annoys me to say the least.
The mammal parked on the road nonchalantly glances at the SUV while continuing to chew on a plastic bag, unimpressed would be an understatement here. It knows its place in society, it can’t be harmed. The SUV tries maneuvering around the cow, gently nudging it, as it tries to do so. Just then Sangita aunty, in her bright red saree, places herself between the bumper and the cow. She bows in reverence and graces her hands across the cows back and then gently touches her own forehead. She let’s loose a vicious stare, Hydra herself would’ve been impressed, towards the SUV before walking off.
The men in blue arrive waving their batons to move the cow and somewhat succeed in doing so.
Rameh dai, sheepishly glances at the police scared to make eye contact but it was too late. He smiles and “happily” hands a corn on cob to the police, the extortion was complete in a blink. Salim chacha, looks at Rameh dai to express his solidarity with the injustice being suffered.
Rameh dai, lifts his wooden money holder and takes a glance, he holds up the lid only for a moment, but what seemed like an eternity. I can only guess what he was thinking in that moment, his children’s school fees, rent money, his mothers medical bills.
There is no social net or even a helping hand from the government. Even for those willing to fight, Rameh dai must fend for himself and his family like everyone else. He clenches his teeth, closes the box and continues fanning the corn. He can’t stop, heat, corrupt cops, smell of refuse and all, he can’t stop.
By now the cow has had enough of the garbage and has set its sites on the lush green vegetables in the market. The cow, it seems, had been buying her time until now, no sooner had a Salim chacha’s nephew, Mustafa or Musu, taken off to break a large note, the cow started devouring Musu’s precious tomatoes, lettuce and carrots. Your guess is as good as mine but I think she was going for a course of organic salad- quite an upgrade from chemical laden plastic and garbage.
The rushing back Musu holding his loongi in one hand, and chappals in another almost gets bumped by a car, no time to argue. He runs into the basketball court, and leaps over Salim chacha’s bicycle wheels, but he is no Jordon and trips, his fall broken by heap of potatoes. Much to the amusement of Rameh dai and Salim chacha and myself. “The kid will learn the hard way”, Salim chacha yells towards Rameh dai. They continue laughing. The cow saunters off without a care in the world, it is hard not to envy beasts – sometimes.
Meanwhile, flies on the refuse are forced to hover and momentarily suspend their eating frenzy, when a large green garbage truck arrives. It turns out a deal had been struck between the labor union and the government a couple of hours ago.
The refuse is shoveled unto the truck, the flies hitch a ride to the dumping site. Where another dispute is brewing between the government and the locals. Who had the good fortune of having their local government land chosen as a dumping site.
I toss the corn cob in the bin and start to walk out of the basketball court, when a gust of wind tosses buckets and sends newspapers flying. The vendors switch into full gear as they start covering up their goods.
Cumulonimbus clouds had quietly formed over Kathmandu. But this isn’t a freak storm, its the monsoon rains. After having changed direction at the equator, due to the Coriolis effect, the south west monsoon winds scurry towards the Himalayas and vent their much needed rain on the Indian subcontinent.
The monsoon helps Nepal’s farmers who still depend on it due to a lack of irrigation infrastructure.
A dilapidated building with a leaking roof prevents me from being completely drenched. The torrential downpour ends quickly, but its arrival means there will be more rain in the coming days and months. But too much rain and the streets will be flooded due to a poor drainage system in the capital, and it will also harm the farmers crops.
The almost complete dependence on nature for what is arguably one of the most important economic sectors of our country perhaps epitomizes much of what Nepal is today. It is a land where untamed nature still dominates the landscape, where life is insecure, where people exist on a day to day basis, where long term plans is a luxury for a few, where governments fall and form overnight, where the misery and joys of everyday struggles breathes life into the lives of the people, a place that is struggling to let go off the past…but yearns for the future…this is the reality of Nepal and this is dance that is repeated everyday in Kathmandu by thousands of Rameh dai’s, and Salim chacha’s.