Friday, August 20, 2010

Behind the nanglo

Nanglos leave the kitchen to find new significance on the streets of Kathmandu.

Benjamin Graham
Published in The Kathmandu Post
August 20, 2010

KATHMANDU, Nepal - Countless families for countless generations have used nanglos to winnow through their rice and pick out the small stones that like to hide between the grains, but it has only been over the last half-century that these woven bamboo platters have gained wide spread popularity as ‘nanglo shops.’

Women, and a few men, can be seen sitting on every street corner from the downtown area to the far reaches of the Valley, their nanglos piled high with candy, cigarettes, churpi (hard cheese), parag (spiced tobacco), and even fried peanuts in the winter. Despite the popularity that these mobile convenience stores enjoy with pedestrians and bus riders, the development of the nanglo shop and the stories of the people behind them go largely unnoticed amid the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu’s streets.

There are not many written records available on the evolution of the nanglo shop in the Kathmandu Valley, but the memories of a few local residents are just as helpful as an anthropological study.

Ram Prasad Sharma, an 85-year-old resident of Babar Mahal, remembers seeing his first nanglo shop after the 1934 earthquake. “Many shops and buildings were destroyed, so a few people turned to nanglo shops as a way to make ,” he said. Achyutananda Baskota, who has been living in Kathmandu for the entire 65 years of his life, has memories of buying chocolates from a nanglo shop on his way to school as a kid. “Even then, I always thought of nanglo shops and the women that run them as a representation of our country’s poverty,” he said.

Regardless of the exact time period in which the nanglo became widely used as a road-side store, it is true that many of the people who run them are not doing so by choice. Dire family situations and extreme poverty levels push many shopkeepers, most of whom are immigrants from outside the Valley, to exchange the rice on their nanglos for candy and cigarettes. Yet it is the allure of the streets of Kathmandu that inevitably acts as the pull factor. The persistent cacophony of honking, hollering, and haggling represents a good business environment to nanglo shopkeepers, and in this way, nanglo shops can be seen as an indicator of growth in the Valley.

Several decades ago, maintaining a nanglo shop would have been a difficult task. In the 1950’s, only one paved highway ran through Nepal and the 1952 census counted roughly 190,000 people living in urban settlements in the Valley. Fast forward to 2010: Kathmandu is a bustling metropolis of over 1.5 million people, all going through the growing pains of rapid development. Nanglo shopkeepers depend on the increasingly congested urban sidewalks and streets for their daily income, and Kathmandu’s rapid urbanisation, though not very well-guided, indicates a growing private sector and a growing market for the nanglo shop.

Because of the demographic growth in the Capital, people from across Nepal continue to come to Kathmandu in hopes of finding employment, but jobs remain scarce. Opening a nanglo shop often provides an income for those who would otherwise face unemployment or a menial hourly job. Nanu Shrestha is originally from Sankhu in the north-eastern outskirts of the Valley, but she has run her nanglo shop outside Bal Mandir in the same corner of Naxal for the past seven years. Like many other women who share her plight, circumstances outside her control have driven her here.

“I never had a job before my husband died; after that I had to work hard to keep myself and my four kids afloat,” she says. After a failed business venture in opening a teashop, she saw this as her only alternative. Working from 9 in the morning to 6 in the evening, Shrestha has been able to make roughly Rs. 400 in sales a day, with her best-selling product being cigarettes. She lists her other job opportunities as perhaps being a housekeeper or working in a carpet factory, but she enjoys being her own boss and keeping her own hours. “I’m able to give my kids food and shelter, but I can’t support their education this way,” she adds.

With few services set up for widows and other underprivileged women like Shrestha, nanglo shops provide a permissible employment alternative in the ever-shrinking job market of the Valley.

Bimala Pokharel has developed various employment and job training programmes for underprivileged women like Shrestha at her coffee shop, Higher Grounds Coffee in Jawalakhel, by teaching them how to bake bread and make jewelery. She has heard the same story repeated time and again from the women she assists. “When a girl comes from her village to the big city, it’s extremely difficult for her to get a job without having any qualifications, marketable skills, or connections,” she says, adding that, “a lot of the girls get trapped in unsafe work places: cabin restaurants and dance bars, even bonded labour.”

Pokharel has dedicated her personal time and resources to providing better opportunities for some of these women, but the reach of individuals like her can only go so far and many women aren’t fortunate enough to find programmes like hers. At the same time, the government’s lack of infrastructure and political floundering have made the future look bleak for the creation of solid public safety nets for at-risk mothers, widows, and girls. Thankfully, many women have grabbed on to the nanglo of their ancestors as at least a temporary savior from the clutches of unemployment.

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