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carpet factory worker (currently unemployed)
originally Kavre district, now Kathmandu
This is a poignant account of a young woman’s struggle to survive in Kathmandu, working for 15 years or more in exploitative conditions in the carpet trade. It is a most interesting account of one woman’s experience of migration, bringing in other topics such as caste and other social relationships. Lured by a false idea of the comforts and pleasures of the city, she ran away with friends from her village in the hills at the age of (about) 13. At first she is excited: “Wherever you look, lights are glittering. Wherever you look, big, big buildings. I saw these attractive things…wherever you look, gleaming motorcars. It was enjoyable. We didn’t have electricity in our village.” But she is rapidly disillusioned, finding herself trapped working in a carpet factory where she is given board and lodging but receives no wages for three years, and frequently falls ill. Her employers occasionally buy her medicine, then hugely inflate the price of it so that she is constantly in debt to them. She runs away after three years, but finds the same situation elsewhere: “Swindlers are everywhere, the contractors are swindlers, and the middleman swindles you.”
After fleeing the first factory she is “found” by the father-in-law of the “elder sister” who recruited her from the village and is married off to a relative of his (the account of who is related to who is at times confusing). The marriage is unhappy and on one occasion she leaves her husband but returns when she finds she is pregnant. His drinking often results in violence. “I feel so much that I cannot express. Such beating, scolding day in and day out, I feel I want to leave and stay elsewhere.” But, she says, “Where to go and stay?” Above all, she hangs on for the sake of her two sons, the elder of whom (now 11) she can no longer afford to keep in school, especially now that work in the carpet trade has dried up. She is currently unemployed. The Nepali carpet industry has been in severe decline for the past few years, primarily because of the Maoist insurgency and decreasing numbers of tourists, but the downturn began with Western companies refusing to buy carpets made by children, which was a widespread practice at the time, and because of increased competition from the Indian carpet industry.
At several points Goma talks about her mother-in-law (who lives with them) being cheated out of her land and property in her village. The uncle who took possession of the plot is head of the village council, and influential, so no one is prepared to back the mother-in-law’s claim. “All people from the village follow a running rivulet. Nobody follows a drying rivulet.” Ultimately, however, she feels mother-in-law has also made some bad decisions for which they are now paying. She feels they should have returned home when they had some money; now, with no job or savings and no village property, they cannot. She feels the town is the worst place to be poor and regrets her decision to migrate to Kathmandu for work: “Yes, wisdom did fail me.”
Goma laments her poverty. “Of all the things, the worst is to be poor. I feel like that. If you are poor everyone abuses you and you have to take insults… Even when people say they will kill you, cut you, even then you still have to tolerate it.” Her courage and spirit are evident, though, and she does not lack self-esteem. “Compared to other women in the village I feel I am a little smarter. I feel I do not lag behind anyone when it comes to work and earning a living. Even if I stay in the village I feel I can work and survive. I can do farming if I am in the village. Now I have courage.”
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|Section Section 1-2
||Personal details. Ran away to Kathmandu with friends in her early teens. Expected improvement on harsh village life.
“We could weave carpets, roam around and enjoy ourselves in Kathmandu city… it would be enjoyable, and we would not have to work hard like in the village. Work would be available indoors, they said. We got really tempted to come.”
Mother tried to stop her going and beat her, then she (Goma) ran away.
|Section Section 2-4
||Work in the carpet factory.
Talks about the “village elder sister” and her husband who recruit villagers and bring to them to the factory.
Experienced hard conditions, wasn’t paid for 3 years, had to live in the factory. Ran away but was caught and brought back.
Was married off to “younger brother of elder sister’s husband” (ie brother of man who brought them to Kathmandu).
More on conditions in factory. Was regularly beaten by “that related sister”.
|Section Section 4-5
||Marriage, after just one week’s acquaintance, to a boy who worked on same carpet with her. “Whether you liked him or not [didn’t matter]… [I] thought he might have good manners and behaviour, and I didn’t know anything during that one week. At that time he was young and I was also young.”
Wanted to go home but “What’s the use of wanting? I didn’t even have 25 paise … As they found I couldn’t talk they dominated me, and I used to fall ill at times…You’re always falling ill, they scolded me… They didn’t even bring medicine and if they spent Rs 300 then they inflated that to Rs 1000… They used to say, ‘ your debt is more than what you get from working’ - and they didn’t pay anything.”
Memories of childhood. Was happy living in her family. Brothers went to school but she had to look after younger siblings.
|Section Section 6-7
||Rising cost of living. Before, what she earned from weaving carpets “was enough for food and clothes; now it is not enough… Before, rice was cheap. Everything could be bought with less money.”
Several carpet factories have closed down. Factory owners have debts themselves and make sure workers are indebted to them.
“Now [even] after working for a long time the money won’t be enough and you have to borrow from the proprietor and that becomes debt. Then the proprietor cuts your wages, saying you can’t repay him.”
Details of time taken to weave one section of carpet, wage paid, etc.
Has no work at present. Husband sends her to “marriages and feasts” to do casual work (not clear what). Is often cheated by contractors and middlemen. “Swindlers are everywhere…”
Has two children, 11 and 7.
||Compares town and village life. “For living and work the town is good. For food, the village is good… Rice, maize - whatever you want to eat is at home. Here, if you don’t have money nothing will happen (you won’t be able to manage).”
Can’t afford to keep older child at school. Cost of school books.
Angry with husband for spending half his earnings (on himself?) and being slow to pay school fees.
|Section Section 9-11
||Disillusioned with Kathmandu.
Once tried to divorce husband; left but found she was pregnant with oldest son and returned. Husband’s alcoholism; he used to go “completely mad” and beat her so severely that she sometimes had to stay in bed for several days.
Loves the children too much to leave. “Even for a day I feel like going elsewhere to stay. Then looking at the children’s faces, I’m not sure where I could go, their tears won’t let me find the way.”
He has had some treatment from local “sorcerer”. Beatings now less frequent (about every 4-6 months instead of every 2 weeks).
She has no money to return to village and build a house. Besides:
“Everyone came from the village to town to compete, and now people will laugh if one goes back without anything…”
||Mother-in-law lives with them.
Rather confusing account of mother-in-law trying to reclaim land (in home village) from a “younger father-in-law” and his refusing to return it.
Feels mother-in-law has been treated unfairly, not even receiving a portion of the produce from her land. A court order has “frozen” use of the land.
||Brief mention of Maoist attacks in the village. Says she’s not sure what it’s all about.
More on mother-in-law’s problems and being misled by her brothers. She hasn’t been able to return to do repairs on her house, which has now collapsed, and people are taking away the timber it was built with. Says their land (i.e. mother-in-law’s) is quite a big plot and worth a lot. Her relatives passed over the chance to sell it for development (as the site for a helipad).
|Section Section 12-14
||The uncle (of her husband) who occupied their land is the pradhanpanch (head of village council). Husband can’t fight for the land because “they are now such big pradhanpanch people” and have power in the village: “All people from the village follow a running rivulet…people stick to those who can deliver for them.”
In Kathmandu five family members live in one room.
Mother-in-law’s other son works in India.
Living in Kathmandu is physically less strenuous than drudgery of village life. But misses her many friends. “I have friends who weave carpets but all are jealous (competitive) I-will-earn-more-than-you type of friends. In the village they take turns - one day one person’s work, another day someone else’s - doing turn by turn they go around happily.”
Factory life causes quarrels and fights.
|Section Section 15-16
||More on her in-laws’ lack of “wisdom” in not investing money back in their village, building a house, etc. Her husband’s extravagance – and stupidity: “When we had some money those days he just blew it, at times opening a hotel (small tea shop) and sometimes in living it up. Now when there is not even one suka (25 paisa) he says he wants to go to the village and construct a house.”
Husband’s passivity: “Whatever it is, I have to manage… He cannot talk to people and speaks softly.” When he is angry he says his children can go without education, just like him (“My parents didn’t educate me and made me one-eyed.”)
Her response: “I tell him that his parents did that to him but I will not allow that to happen to my children. Whether you do it or not, I will educate my children, whether it is by working for others, whether it is by forgoing meals.”
Doesn’t want more children.
|Section Section 16-19
||People in Kathmandu abuse villagers, call them uncivilised. Relates evidence of some caste tensions with the Newars.
Husband’s new job, transporting cloth by bicycle – v strenuous going up hills, has to cover big distance.
Major difficulties for hill people coming to Kathmandu is that they don’t speak Nepali. She herself had already learnt the language when she lived in the plains. Sense of self-worth: “Compared to other women in the village I feel I am a little smarter. I feel I do not lag behind anyone when it comes to work and earning a living.”
In the city TV and radio keep people informed.
Is very troubled about being out of work. Upset because the factory “proprietor” won’t give them money for religious rituals (lighting lamps to Buddha) required at festival time.
|Section Section 19-21
||The children are safer in the city – back home there are the dangers of falling over cliffs and of kidnapping by Maoists.
Changes in the village – solar power, TV, better roads.
Often thinks about her mother; sees her once a year or less. No money for the journey and feels bad about going empty-handed and bringing back food.
Abuse from the Newars, and caste prejudice: “‘Bhotay-sotay’ (negative term for people of Mongolian, Tibetan ancestry, such as the Tamang), many things people of Kathmandu say. Most call us savages.”
Quarrels often take place at the water taps; Tamangs treated as untouchable, shunned for polluting water. Trading of insults between the two groups.
Says poverty is the worst experience; everyone abuses you. Her mother and younger brothers are poor too. Can’t do anything to help them. “What can be done with love alone?”
|Section Section 21-22
||Clothes/fashion in the city. Objects to people wearing skimpy clothes. “People coming from the hills have a different way of dressing, eating and sitting in a place.”
Sadness at not being able to visit village at festival times. Quarrels with husband about spending money she herself has earned to travel to village.
Thinks life will be even harder when sons are older; being in the city fosters consumerism and she fears they will expect “things of their choice”.
Children haven’t forgotten their own (Tamang) language. Are bilingual. Tamangs mostly live in same area in the city.
Worried about children getting spoilt and being subject to bad influences.