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No turning back time for Kathmandu’s bead-sellers

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Kathmandu / DPA

Khwaja Asad Shah sits in his cramped beads shop in the heart of the Nepalese capital Kathmandu, surrounded by the glitter of colourful pieces of glass.
“We’ve been here for eight generations,” says Shah,
explaining that Muslim families like his arrived from Kashmir some 500 years ago.
They came during the Malla era, 1484-1520, as masons and as vendors of bangles and beads. Some served as
musicians at the court.
“My family was invited by the Malla kings to do business. My forefathers went to Lhasa for trading. They also supplied jewellery to the palace, as the royals didn’t go outside to buy things,” he says.
He spoke at the busiest time of the year in the Rakhee bazaar, with the holy Hindu month of Shrawan according to the Nepalese calendar coinciding with the end of Ramadan in the Islamic calendar.
The bead-sellers are now an integral part of life in the capital. During Shrawan, Hindu women buy colourful beads and bangles as gifts for friends and family from shops that until recently have been exclusively run by the descendants of Kashmiri Muslims.
“There are 50 shops run by us in this area alone. The rest are scattered in different parts of Kathmandu,” Shah says, switching easily between Nepali and Urdu as he deals with his customers.
Shah now dresses in white: lungi, kurta and skull cap, and sports a long beard, which he says was not his look in his earlier days.
“When I was young, I travelled abroad doing all kinds of export-import business,” Shah says, as he takes down a broken wall clock in his sitting room and sets about fixing it.
“When I grew older, I took over my family business. It is what our community has done for generations.”
But Shah’s children are choosing a different path.
Asif, his eldest son, is a
popular face in Nepal’s media industry as a member of a rap band and a successful film producer. Asif and his brother Asim run an audio-visual production studio in Kathmandu.
“We might not get directly involved in our family business, but we might hire someone to do it for us,” Asif says as he casts a sideways glance at his father and smiles.
“I don’t like the media
industry,” Shah says bluntly, as he concentrates again on the clock. “I like what I do and want them to take it up.”
“In the past, people weren’t educated, so they took up their father’s business,” his younger son Asim – now a teacher – explains. “But now people take up other professions.”
Shah’s wife is a nurse, and his daughter-in-law has a job at a local radio station.
“I don’t like it of course, but I can’t stop them,” he says,
replacing the repaired clock on the wall and setting the pendulum in motion.
Shah’s business is not the only one in the bazaar facing the march of time with some uncertainty.
Abbas Alam, 22, works as a salesman in one of the beads shops. His family runs
another one in a different part of the same city.
“I do this for a living because this is what I am familiar with,” says Alam. He hints at another career direction entirely, revealing he has
appeared on a commercial for Nepal Telecom.
“Eventually, I would like to try my luck at modelling,” he says.
Changes threatening the Muslim-run beads and bangles business also come from beyond the community and its very ambitious younger
generation.
Cheaper Chinese beads are replacing the beads historically imported from the Czech Republic, ending a previous monopoly on importation and distribution that is held by the
Muslim community.
The bracelet trade meanwhile is moving across the road from Rakhee bazaar, as others capitalise on a money-making opportunity.
But there is one small comfort for Shah as possibly the last bead-seller in the generations-old family business.
“Asif is fulfilling my dream by singing,” says Shah, himself a fine singer of naad, songs in praise of Allah.
Now that his sons are in the entertainment business, he thinks he could also find a new vocation and record his own naad album.

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