Every evening, at around 8pm, Sita Ram Chandra comes to Thamel, carrying a basket laden with merchandise, and sets up her shop on the steps of closed shutters.
She has been doing this for the past seven years. Life as a street vendor is hard, but she has no other option.
Chandra came to Kathmandu with her husband in 1985 and together, the couple raised six children. And over the years, the family has seen many ups and downs.
“We used to sell clothes in Asan before the place was hit by 2015’s earthquake,” says Chandra, who is now 55-year-old.
“My entire family depended on the clothes business and suddenly we had nothing.”
With no other source of income, the family was suddenly on the brink of extreme poverty after the earthquake. That was when Chandra decided to become a street vendor.
But it is difficult being a street vendor in Kathmandu. They have to be on a constant lookout, for the Kathmandu Metropolitan City does not tolerate their kind. If caught selling goods on the street, their goods could get confiscated.
As I sat with Chandra talking about her life story on a recent night, there was a moment where she abruptly collected her belongings and sprinted towards an alley. She was running away after hearing the siren of an approaching police van. This is a routine that Chandra and other street vendors of Thamel go through every night.
“This is the only option I have if I am to afford a living,” she says.
Chandra is the only one working in her family. She lives with her husband. Five of their children have long married and settled down, and the sixth one is outside the country for employment.
Her husband is an asthma patient and is unable to work. His monthly medicine expense alone is Rs 3,000, and then there is rent to pay and food to buy.
Chandra says she has no option than to work that late at night, hiding from the police.
“Without this work, we will be on the street with no roof over our heads and no money to buy food.”
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Chandra says she had no work for nearly a year and had to rely on social organizations and charity groups for food.
“What little savings we had got used up in no time. After that, we had to survive on charity,” she says. “Being the only breadwinner is hard.”
Chandra resumed her work near the end of 2021. But this time, her health is not quite in her favor. She is in pain most of the time. Her back aches constantly and so does her hand.
“Carrying this basket everywhere is difficult,” she says. “I don’t think I will be able to sit on a cold marble steps every night doing this”
Chandra’s health scare increases with the start of the winter season.
“I know it will get even tougher for me since the winter has started in Kathmandu,” she says. “And if I were to get caught by the police, that will be the end of it. I’ll be finished.”
Chandra is not willing to go for a health check-up. She says she can barely afford to buy the medicines for her husband.
She also doesn’t know how long she will be able to carry on with her job.
“These days, I cannot stay past midnight. So, yes my age and health is catching up with me.”
Asked about her plans for the future, she has no definitive answer, but she is confident something will come up.
“I have made it so far and I’m sure I will find a way to survive,” she says.