I can’t say exactly why the Nepali cold store is so fascinating to me– even though my Nepali wife could care less, as long as she can get fresh tarkari. But I love my cold store, and I have a close relationship with the owner, her relatives and the four-year-old tiny bahini who tugs at my pant each day just to say namaste.
It’s strange that we love simple things in life, without wondering why. So while reflecting the other day on the meaning of life and cold stores, and standing at the obligatory counter filled with sweets and sel-roti– I realised why…
The Nepali cold store reminds me of home. One that I have not seen in many years, and one that you can’t go home to again (homage to Thomas Wolfe).
I grew up in Upstate New York during the 60s and 70s–big apple country–when a small village was the agricultural and the cultural centre for tens of thousands.
Everyone had his/her favourite cold store, bakery, diner, deli, hardware and liquor store–all run by families as a small business, often employing generations of clerks, cooks, butchers and bakers.
All of that is gone now–disappeared slowly over several decades. I’ve seen recent photos of my childhood town, the same place where I spent romping and roaming from one shop to the next. It’s unrecognisable, unless you identify a town by any other American town-cum-city. Bland, characterless and without a cold store in sight, all you have now are Quickie Marts, Walmarts, and Costcos.
The problem is systemic (or is it that the system is problematic?). Large retail chains have been buying out most family-run establishments up and down the food chain since the 70s. In 2008, for example, the number of small-business deaths outpaced the number of small-business births for the first time in US history; and the trend is getting worse (depending on your politics).
Personally, I prefer to spend cash on people that I know and trust, and I like being part of the ‘community cycle of life’ that has kept the human race alive since Neanderthals first started selling sandals. Shop locally, think globally, I say.
I also like to chat with those I trade with, and I have a hard time doing that with an overworked and underpaid clerk, who could give a damn whether I was alive or dead, as long as I have my credit card in hand.
I also like to shop without worrying about what’s in my wallet – like when I need to grab some oranges but realise that I’ve left my rupees at home. Try using that excuse with an American-run 7-11 (or even try finding a decent orange).
Now I am no anthropologist or an economist, but I have to believe that family, commerce, and culture are like two slices of bread–grilled–with some nice cheese in the middle. Each entity is dependent on the other, and without just one, you have a mess.
Circling back to Nepal… I also have to believe that our future can be predicted by examining trends in the western world, or even as close as India. I’m starting to worry; with Big Marts popping up like daisies around town, the evolution here in the Valley seems to be following the devolution of my own hometown.
Of course, you might argue that can’t happen here, “No way! We are different, right?”
I remember entering into that same debate back home sitting on a park bench and postulating “no way” with my peers, even deriding city slickers and all their means.
Until the slickness slid in, and slimed the younger generation; who in turn abandoned family farms, small shops, and family-run anything, – by the droves!
Call me a grumpy old man, but watch what happens when Walmart India ventures from its growing billion-dollar wholesale business into to a multi-billion dollar retail one. And once the beast is unleashed, there will be no stopping a border overrun.
Will the Nepali cold store survive? Considering the inevitable competition from the likes of Walmart, Tesco, Carrefour (and yes, even Big Mart), can family-run cold stores, or any other type of shop for that matter, keep it all together?
Let me know what you think in the comments box below, and I‘ll try to be more optimistic next week…
Jigs Gaton is a quirky-kinda migrant worker, hailing from America and happily living in Dhobighat with family, friends and a 40kg dog. He also shops every day at his favorite Nepali cold store, and hopes it will never go away, even when they build a Big Mart next door.
Photos also by the author