Ram Kumar, a 30-year-old who sells vegetables on the roadside, has been living in fear ever since Balen Shah restricted street vendors from setting up shop on the streets. The fear of losing the only business that sustains his family leaves him restless. “Moving away from the main street has cost me a lot of customers. Now I fear I might even lose my cart,” he says.
Kathmandu gave him home, he says, but with this problem looming large, he fears he has to go back to Bihar and start from scratch. “After all these years of struggle, I don’t want to go back to the same situation I was in 18 years ago,” he says.
Before coming to Kathmandu, Kumar had left for Mumbai (Bombay as he calls it) with his friend. He was promised a job of InRs 2,000, but he was only given InRs 700. Disappointed, Kumar came back to Bihar and decided to move to Kathmandu.
He came to Kathmandu from Bihar in 2004. He was studying in fifth grade but had to discontinue his education as his family could not afford it. “I wanted to study, but circumstances weren’t on my side,” he says. He was just 12.
He mentions Kathmandu’s language and culture were difficult to learn and adapt to. He never thought he would be able to speak in Nepali. It’s still quite difficult to communicate, he says. Kathmandu was a new place for him and he didn’t know how he would survive. But his brother was already in the city and that at least put aside his lodging worries for a little while.
He had a little money with him, but that only sustained him for a week or so. To make a living on his own, he desperately needed a job. “Luckily, I got to borrow a cycle from one of my brother’s friends,” he says. He used that to travel around and sell ice cubes. “Back then, I believed that was how I would be able to start a new life in Kathmandu,” he adds.
Unfortunately, the business did not go as planned. But his determination to make it didn’t wane and he switched to selling chatpate on the streets. The standard cost for one plate of chatpate back then was five rupees. “There wasn’t much profit and it was difficult to make ends meet,” he says. “So I thought maybe selling chaat instead would be a better option.”
He took a cart for rent, for which he had to pay a certain amount of money everyday. Sometimes, the profit would just cover that month’s rent. He had some regulars who visited quite often. But not all customers were easy on him. One of his customers, who was in her 60s, started ordering in Hindi immediately after she heard Ram Kumar’s accent. He replied in Nepali but she didn’t stop. She looked at him and giggled. He recalls how uncomfortable that made him. “I faced a lot of dicrimination because of how I spoke. It was very frustrating and humiliating,” he says.
Jumping from one job to another had always been difficult for him. It brought about a lot of uncertainty, and now he had a family of five to feed. Not to mention the school fees of his two children. “My wife helped me out with the business but making a profit was also not up to her,” he says. His struggle isn’t just limited to life in Kathmandu. He is dealing with a property dispute back in Bihar.
“My siblings and I had decided to invest some money to build a house there. Now there are some monetary issues,” he says. This isn’t the only betrayal he has faced. Back when he was selling chaat, he lent Rs 4,000 to one of his friends to start his life in Kathmandu. “I really hoped he would work and build a good life but he left for Bihar and never paid me back,” he says. He sometimes thinks things would have turned out a little better had his father still been alive. “I would at least have a support system. I never had it,” he says.
But despite life’s cruelties, Kumar is happy with what he has. He is proud of the life he made for himself and his family. Now he works as a vegetable vendor. With the little amount he had saved from his past jobs, he was able to afford his own cart. “At least I don’t have to pay rent on it now,” he says. But he says he is still concerned about whether he will ever be able to give his family more than just the basics.
He feels things would be different if he had studied. “My friends from school days have become doctors and engineers. Maybe I could have too,” he says. But he does not dwell on it for long. Instead, he hopes to send his children to good schools. But he fears, with the mayor imposing so many restrictions on street vendors, without giving them any alternative to earn a decent living, that dream might never materialize. “But I’m a religious person, and I believe God is looking after everyone,” he says. “Maybe he will look after me and my family too.”