Birgunj: a city of price-tags

It seems as though Birgunj is capable of putting a price tag on everything, including on the future of its girls

APR 17 – Birgunj, at first glance, looks as though it was built for business. A traveller does not need to know the history of the city to reach this conclusion. A short walk starting from the Ghantaghar through the Main Road—which changes its name at different points to Meena Bazaar, Mohan Market or Maisthan Chowk, Kalwar Market or Mahabirsthan and Adarshanagar—will suffice. This stretch and the side roads on both sides are filled with shops that sell just about everything. On a relatively quiet weekend, a pedestrian can find herself inhaling the smell of new clothes. But if Bhupi Sherchan were to write about Birjung now, he would perhaps slightly tweak his poem Mero Chowk, and say: “Birjung ma ke chaina sab thok cha, kewal grahak chaina” (Birgunj has everything but customers).

Clothes of all sizes, colours, textures and designs line the streets, but one does not see people walking around, dressed up in similar fashion. A local tells me that shorts and skirts are mostly bought by young people who go to study in Kathmandu or elsewhere.

Shop owners, like their counterparts all over the world, seem to be on a perpetual wait. But there’s a different feel to the patience of shopkeepers in Birjung than, say, around New Road in Kathmandu. It is an eager wait. The streets of Birgunj have the feel of markets across the border, where traders, more often than not, are always keen to show you everything they sell. They repeatedly ask, “Anything more?” and make the most reluctant of shoppers end up buying more than they ever planned or intended to in the beginning. It’s an art that traders in Kathmandu seem to lack. The observation of this customer, who does not particularly enjoy shopping, is that most shopkeepers in the Capital come across as reluctant traders. They rise slowly from their seats and go about looking for a product as though they have just woken up from an afternoon slumber. If they had their way around it, they would rather avoid being disturbed when they were staring out of their shops in the first place. No doubt, Kathmandu could benefit from a few classes by Birgunj’s shopkeepers on the art of selling.

The centrality of trade in this border city can perhaps be best illustrated by this event. At around nine in the evening, I watched a man as he sprinkled water on two locks fastened on either sides of his shutter that he had just drawn down. He then stooped down to touch the locks and then brought his fingers to his lips—just as people do in dargahs. After that, he again touched the shutter’s door, brought his hand to his chest and subsequently took it to his forehead—a sight one frequently encounters in a Hindu temple. For the next two minutes, he stood praying in front of the shop.

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Business, therefore, is not just Birjung’s vocation; it is also its religion. A walk around the Gahawa Mai Temple will quell all doubts. There are two licensed alcohol sellers, one to the left of the temple premises and another on the way to it. The city, it seems, does not like to mix its drink with its religion.

Nothing can, however, stop politics from mixing with religion at the entrance of the temple. A Swadharma Sanskriti Samrakchyan Abhiyan Nepal banner reads: Sashan byawastha junsukai hos, Hindu rastra kayam hos! (Whatever the system of governance, let Nepal continue as a Hindu nation).

Even so, what unifies the various areas within this sub-metropolitan city is not its love for business, or religion, but something entirely different: sewer canals. Whether it be in affluent-looking neighbourhoods near Thakur Ram Multiple Campus, a middle-class locality called Ranighat Nayabasti or a comparatively poorer-looking Reshamkothi, the open canal is an ubiquitous sight. In the bazaar, one can observe water flowing into the uncovered canals. In Ranighat, the content of the canal looks gray and stagnant, while on the way to Reshamkothi, it is a thick, black sludge. One frequently comes across a Lion’s Club’s Hamro Birgunj, Swacha Birgunj poster featuring a girl with yellow hair and a broom. But there is nothing safa or swachha about the city.

On talking to women, more troublesome realities begin to emerge. Money breeds mischief in multiple ways. While activities like the recent shooting of businessmen, or the arrest of smugglers naturally make news, much disturbing cases of dowry-related crimes seem to be perceived as normal. Each household seems to be either on its way of giving dowry or paying an interest on the money that was loaned for the sake of arranging dowry to marry off daughters.

A college-going girl tells me that her 18-year-old sister, who married about a year ago, came home for a few days to get treated for the injuries she got  due to the mistreatment of her husband and his family. A few days of recovery, and she was promptly sent back. Another girl of 24 is living with her parents after her lemon-seller husband refused to take care of her two kids. The husband now wants his wife to slap her parents, and demand more dowry money from them, for him to reconsider their marriage. A local politician tells me that she is frequently invited to the Rokka ceremonies—in which marriages are fixed and dowry negotiated—so that the groom’s family is more open to negotiation.

The harrowing tales of these women paint an entirely different picture of Birgunj. Even so, doing business remains central to the character of this city. It seems as though Birgunj is capable of putting a price tag on everything, including on the future of its girls. For these suffering young women, the city is equivalent to Bhupi’s chowk which has everything but happiness, because it is banned there. If only happiness could be bargained for in the bazaar.

(The Kathmandu Post, On Saturday, April 18, 2015)

Birgunj

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