A Jumli Carpet Seller in Kathmandu

Mar 11, 2010

An invisible man hawks the conspicuous as he searches for a better life.


Jumli carpet seller in Kathmandu

Profits are miniscule in this trade. A six-month sojourn in Kathmandu fetches around Rs. 15,000, but living in Kathmandu is equally expensive. And unlike vegetables, rugs don’t sell everyday.


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. 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 and walks briskly towards the buildings that dot the erstwhile fertile farmland of the Valley. Then, he starts pitching: "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 village and its abject poverty behind, to 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, who 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. Chaulagai only found out about the death two months later through a letter sent by a neighbour who accompanied his father. 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).

Barely a teenager, Chaulagai followed his father’s footsteps and to traveled to India in the winter, where he either sold radis or worked as a labourer. In 2003, he became an apprentice and cook to Lal Bahadur G.C., a village hand who sold rugs in Kathmandu.

Like newcomers to the city, language was a big problem for Chaulagai. Although Nepali evolved in Jumla, he was baffled by the hierarchy of modern Nepali language. “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 origin of the Nepali carpet can itself be traced to the arrival of another disadvantaged community: Tibetan refugees."

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. Their traditional skills of weaving morphed into a big industry after it gained attention from local entrepreneurs.

Poorer entrepreneurs like Chaulagai end up buying the export-rejected pieces.

Nevertheless, these rugs are expensive and coveted by the nouveau-riche who build houses on the peripheries of the Valley. Chaulagai boasts a clientele that includes, a former migrant worker who lived in South Korea for eight years, and a real estate agent. “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% interest rate). He will then board a bus to Khitkijyula in Dailekh, and walk for four days to reach his small village by the Sinja River, once the cradle of Khas civilisation 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. A smile lights up his face.


Deepak Adhikari also blogs at Deepak's Diary.