Making gods for a living

Photo: SONIA AWALE

I'm not sure how to tell my story. There is so much pain inside me that I never get to share … I am terrified to voice them.” 

Originally from Chapagaun, Rupa Maharjan used to travel to Patan every day for work. Born in a poor farming family, she never went to school. So, getting a job even as a daily wage worker at a metal craft factory in the city meant a lot.

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This is also where she met Babu Ratna Maharjan. They were soon married and lived happily despite limited resources. But seven years later, Babu Ratna was diagnosed with brain tumour. His family had to sell a part of the ancestral land to pay for his treatment, but first they had to win a court battle against relatives.

The money was soon gone, and so was Rupa’s husband. He was 30, she was 29 and her son Bishal was eight. She shared an old three-storey house in Kapinche Tole of Patan with her in-laws, two brothers-in-laws and their families. Half of Bishal’s school fees was sponsored by a monastery, but she had to work herself to the bone to pay the other half. 

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When earthquake struck on 25 April 2015, she and her son lost their home. But her husband’s oldest brother kindly decided to give her his share of the house, and with a Rs400,000 bank loan Rupa has started rebuilding. She was not eligible for the government’s reconstruction grant, as the design did not meet the standards set by the National Reconstruction Authority.

Rupa is now 39, but her small, thin frame, tired eyes and wrinkled hands make her look frail. She shows a visitor around the building, which is still under construction four years after the earthquake. She shares a tiny bedroom with her son and the open kitchen is bare. 

“I will continue pushing myself for my son’s future, he is all I have got left, and I am all he has,” says Rupa. “I worry about being able to afford his higher studies because I still have to pay off my loans.” 

Rupa’s job at the metalcraft shop entails working with solvents to clean metal for gold plating, and this has given her allergies. The work is also not paying as much because Kathmandu’s handicraft industry is suffering due to cheap Chinese imports. 

Bishal is now 16 and will be taking his Secondary School Examination later this year. Unlike other boys his age at school who are exploring their interests and planning ahead for engineering and computer science studies, Bishal does not have big dreams and is considering to learn Chinese and become a tour guide.

"All I know is that I have to support my mom as soon as possible," says Bishal, who can barely bring himself to mention his father who could have guided him.  

“My nephew has accepted the reality of our family and does not ever demand a thing,” said Rupa’s brother-in-law, Karma, 50. “I worry he won’t be able to continue his studies and that he will end up not having a choice in what does in life, just like us.”

The next morning, it is just another day for Rupa Maharjan as she prepares a simple meal for her son before he goes off to attend extra tutorials to prepare for his exams. Then she is off to the workshop, where she will spend next eight hours bringing bronze figures of deities to life.

Sonia Awale

writer

Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.

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