Small shops, Big lives

tea shop kathmanduNo matter whether you have been to Kathmandu, you are about to visit or you are day-dreaming of visiting looking at photos, one of the first things that you will notice about the city are the countless small shops. Kathmandu is filled with shops. There is literally no alley that is not ornamented with at least one of them. They come in various shapes and sizes. From a portable wooden box with small drawers that looks like a cupboard on wheels to a literal hole in a building wall filled with things, no shop looks the same. It is one of the first things that caught my eye when I first visited 2 years ago.

The reason behind my fascination with these shops could be the fact that whenever I buy something from them or just pass by them, they gently throw me walking on a memory lane. The city where I grew up in, Skopje (Macedonia), used to be very similar until it fell prey to big market businesses that became so powerful that they built a mall or what is popularly known as supermarket in every district. Skopje’s small shops are slowly dying. One by one, their shelves catching thick layers of unintended dust, their importance is diminishing.

Kathmandu is different. Despite the fact that big malls and department stores have already entered into Kathmandu’s shopping culture, these mini- economy jewels are still broadly visited. They all are special. One thing they taught me is never, never to underestimate their variety of products or to presuppose they don’t sell what I want to buy. Most likely they do. One just needs to ask. Whether you are looking for something as common as a chewing gum or as specific as a pink hair pin with glitters, never judge them by how they look. Some of them sell everything from rice to fans; others are more specialized and sell only certain kind of products among other things. Therefore, you have shops specialized for selling kulfi – a local type of ice-cream, pan – local mouth freshener, spices, seeds, tea and soft drinks, the list can go forever. Many of them sell only chewing gums, chewable tobacco, and cigarettes. Among the many things hanging from the shop frame, one can easily notice a lighter hanging on a thread or sometimes – on an old telephone string. Every shop is a story on its own.

tea shop

An elderly couple has a small shop in Anamnagar. On their small shop’s desk they have three jars of chewing gum, mint or fruit flavored. On the one side hangs a series of small packets of shampoo worth 2 rupees. On the other side the same kind of packets, but of chewable tobacco. In the shelves behind them stand old, dusty bottles of shampoo, toothpaste, and soap. They don’t have many types of products, but they have always had customers. The earthquake didn’t change much, they say. People living on the narrow streets still buy from them and get chewing gums and small candy instead of change. In another alley in Anamnagar, a school girl, and her mother are glued to the TV placed behind them in their shop. She is watching her favorite Hindi serial. Once in a while, a customer stops by and buys a thing or two. Additional to the usual products, they have a small fridge with glass bottled soft drinks and a small bench where you could rest and watch people passing by. For some shopkeepers, their little shops are their saviors. In a small road shop in Kamalpokhari, a man is sitting in his wheelchair, selling candy, pachak, crackers and cigarettes. On a special pin in the middle of the shelves, there is a set of plastic hair combs waiting to be sold. He tells me that after his accident he decided to move on, so he opened a shop. He finds his meaning of life in the smiles of his customers.

In the earthquake-torn Kathmandu Durbar Square, the many didis (sisters) with their portable shops are slowly coming back. Somewhere behind the dust of the debris being cleaned up, you will see them restlessly pouring hot tea in metal and plastic cups. Next to them, the water is boiling in three different teapots – black tea, milk tea and lemon tea. Somewhere further, leaning on the remains of a temple with an umbrella protecting her from the sun, a middle-aged woman is selling little nothings. “The business is not so good now after the earthquake, but it’s getting better. I came back here two days after the big quake and the only customers I had were people from the rescue teams and occasional passer-bys. People are slowly coming back here.”

jhanda bajey

I lean on the temple next to her to rest. Right, before I put my camera back in my backpack, the famous “jhanda baaje”, dressed in a daura suruwal salutes me, hoisting the Nepali flag high up in the air. I take a deep breath. Kathmandu is coming back to life.

**The author is a graduate of social and cultural anthropology from the University of Vienna. Having lived a big part of her life abroad, she has developed a great interest in different cultures. Her passion brought her to Nepal for the third time, where she currently lives and does research.** 

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