One Happy Man: a Nepal Case Study


Only occasionally, in contrast to anecdotes from Kathmandu’s fashion conscious upper class occupied with their tech and music trends and the city’s new eateries, and avoiding dismal stories of government incompetence and rising poverty and hopelessness, I encounter a refreshingly rare testimonial. Today Purna Tamang’s personal life is advancing with optimism and pride. This absent of any envy for luxuries a relative in Texas enjoys, and without a dollar’s aid from the plethora of wasteful international charities jammed into Nepal’s capital.

It’s an hour-long drive through Kathmandu’s slow moving traffic on a sultry and dusty pre-monsoon morning. So I have ample time to talk with Purna. From the moment I peer into the taxi driver’s window, I’m attracted by his smile. Purna’s golden-hued round face is inviting and obliging. Inside, I ease into the comfort of a new car, one of a fleet of over 1,500 vehicles recently imported, many of them Purna’s India-Hyundai model (an India-Korea partnership) that further clogs these chaotic streets.

The windows can be closed so dust and noise are less than usual; and the taxi’s still virgin springs make our ride over the city’s potholed roads infinitely more bearable. This car itself leads me into conversation on the progress of Purna’s life. Hyundai’s a good company; how long since you bought it? “Yes, India-made. Six months only. I buy with some bank loan—small interest. He explains the purchase price is about 640,000. Nepali Rupees (~$6,400.) but his cost rises to 1,650,000. (~$16,000.) after the obligatory 252% tax on what’s viewed as a luxury.

We would talk later regarding his taxi business. Meanwhile, always curious about personal histories, I proceed with the question that starts any introduction in Nepal—Your hometown? “Kavre”, he replies. I recognize Kavre because it’s one of those five districts bordering Kathmandu Valley badly stricken by the earthquake a last year. Before I can pursue this topical issue, Purna continues; “But my house is here in Dallu” (the neighborhood where I found him). “I live here with wife, my children. My daughter’s in class 8, my son, class 3”. In the next hour I learn this man is Purna Tamang, so he’s of the Tamang ethnic group; his wife is Sherpa and Purna knows Solu district –in the middle hills NE of Kathmandu—her birthplace. He eagerly volunteers: “my love marriage”, then chuckles. (Love marriages are uncommon; and to volunteer this personal information to strangers is even more unusual.)

Purna’s parents live in Kavre where they farm 16 ropani (about 2 acres) of good land (probably along a riverbed). “My father-mother are 70, too old for farm-work. My father, he sees everything, looks, orders.” They grow vegetables, potatoes, and ____–selling all their crops in Kathmandu. The property is hardly 90 minutes by road from the capital so the urban market is handy and profitable. There is more: “My brother, he has a tractor, not big; 500 ($5.00) one hour to service others’ lands in Kavre. Good business.” He repeats approvingly: “Good business: one hour—rupees 500”. Still more: “And buffalo- not cow- buffalo, good fat in buffalo; one buffalo gives rupees 30,000 monthly milk. We sell to government in Kathmandu— DDC (Dairy Development Corporation)”.

So why don’t you join your brother? Surely such a productive family business is better than taxi. “No. I stay in Kathmandu for children’s education. My daughter is very clever; she is 14 and I wait she finish high school, then go to college, then later I and wife go to Kavre village. “I will buy buffalo.” (Purna speaks unequivocally about this plan.)

And your young son? “My daughter, she will look after him when she is in college; son is not well, not capable boy; she will take care. She can do anything- my daughter will be successful. I send to a good schools here–private school: rupees 4000 monthly for daughter; one month, 1000 for son.” Every year 60,000.—more– for my children education.”

I start calculating; if Purna’s wife is not an income earner (although I later learn that she’s currently in the village and involved in marketing their farm produce), can a driver support this lifestyle? “I have 3000 daily from this car—3000 after petrol, food, after bank loan. I have second car, other driver. He pay me 1000 daily; all petrol costs/fixing car, he pay. So I have 4000 daily.” When I opine that it seems not much, he retorts: “It’s good; I am happy. I love Nepal.”

Purna, now 50, must have been one of the first of what has become a deluge of Nepali laborers to Arab Gulf States. It was long ago; he altered his age so he could qualify, returned to Nepal aged 35, 15 years ago. With some of his earnings, he purchased his vehicles. He tells me with pride: “I speak Arabic; it’s easy, nice language, easy” and proffers a few examples. “I learn my English in Saudi; not good, not like daughter, but I can speak. I speak Newari” (a language with its own grammar and script which few outside Nepal’s Newar community manage); “I speak Tamang.” And Sherpa? I challenge; “Of course, my wife is Sherpa. My children’s names Sherpa too: my daughter is Tashi Dolma Lama; my son Ang Norbu Lama.”

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Barbara Nimri Aziz is a New York based anthropologist and journalist. Find her work at www.RadioTahrir.org. She was a longtime producer at Pacifica-WBAI Radio in NY.

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