At the crack of dawn on Monday, a man comes walking from under the Lungtenzampa flyover in Thimphu, lean and diminutive. He disappears in the dark of the viaduct. The city is quiet and street lights along the highway are still on.
The approaching figure, as it appears to full view again, is aided by a walking stick, his steps slow and measured. There is something restrained about it, the kind that speaks of age and fatigue loud. He’s got a heavy load on his back.
Harka Dhan Rai is seventy-five. He is from Namche Bari in Samtse. For the last six years, he has been selling newspapers in Thimphu. The septuagenarian has got strength and resolve yet. That’s how he makes his living, selling newspapers, in the city that is growing more expensive by the day.
He picks up the papers from Kuensel, shoves them in his washed out military bag, and begins the business. The blue T-shirt he is wearing today is a little too big for him and his shoes are tattered.
After an arduous climb up the road, he waits for a little breather. Putting down his bag, he sits on the pavement. Soon, who are on their way to school, will show up. His customers are mostly students. He has the papers neatly spread out in front of him.
Harka came to Thimphu in 2007 for a health checkup. He put up with his nephew who sold newspapers. Krishna Rai, Harka’s nephew, got a job at the hospital as a ward boy not long after. That’s when Harka decided to take up his nephew’s job of selling newspapers. He makes about Nu 4,500 monthly by selling newspapers.
Back in Namche Bari, Harka has orchard where he used to grow orange, banana and cardamom. Before coming to Thimphu, Harka used to work also as an orchard guard for the rich in his village. Once in a while, Harka goes back to his village during harvest season to help his relatives.
“I know I will not be able to do heavy work even if I went back to my home,” says Harka. “And I refuse to be useless and a dependent.” That explains the old man’s determination and hard work. Harka’s wife died a long time ago. Their only child, a daughter, is now married and lives in Samtse with her husband. He has an elder brother who also sells newspapers.
It is now almost 10 in the morning and the summer heat is intense. The old man needs a shade. Pulling himself up slowly, Harka walks towards Norzin Lam, load on his back a bit lighter now. He has specific places to reach on specific time. From here, he will go to Hongkong market, then to Centenary Farmers’ Market and back to the bridge in Lungtenzampa. These are his area where his brother does not intrude. He doesn’t go to the areas where his brother does the job. This is clearly worked out between the brothers.
As he is sitting in front of Norling building in the town with newspapers and his bag before him, a woman comes along and buys him a chilled juice. Harka gets such gifts and kindness every day from strangers.
“Maybe because I look pitiful to them, but I get treated well by the people,” says Harka. Creases on his face grow thick. Sometimes people buy him lunch. When such munificence do not come, he goes down to a restaurant near taxi parking to have lunch. That’s usually between 1 pm and 2 pm.
Today, though, Harka is a little unwell. He has a mild fever. But he can’t take a day off. Says Harka softly one can barely hear, “It is hard doing what I do since I am an old man. But this keeps me busy and happy. I like my job.” Just then, a daughter of a relative shows up with a bottle of water. “Take care of your health and try to get some rest,” she says and disappears into the crowd.
Harka eats fruits, a lot of fruits while going around selling newspapers. “I eat a lot of bananas and oranges. Fruits are good for health I am told,” he says. “I can’t move around much today. It’s the fever.”
Now, it is almost 3 O’clock. Harka gets up to go, not home yet but to the bridge at Lungtenzampa. Schools will be over and students will want to buy newspapers. He’s got to be there, at the bridge, before the students. And then, he will go home.
Harka lives in Changbangdu with his nephew and brother. They have meal at about 9 pm and talk about their day before going to sleep. “I fall asleep as soon as I get into bed because I am tired,” says Harka and takes off with his bag and walking stick Lungtenzampa-ward.