Tenzin Choton loves snow and chilly weather. Yet every winter, the 36-year-old Tibetan travels from her home in the foothills of Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, to relatively muggy Mumbai.
Here, she spends nearly 14 hours a day on a pavement in Parel, selling sweaters and woollen garments.
“Our community has been plying this trade for decades. It’s good business because even if people don’t wear sweaters much in Mumbai, they need them for vacations elsewhere in the country or abroad,” says Choton, who has been visiting Mumbai every winter for seven years, always setting up shop on the same pavement in Parel.
Born in Thimphu, Bhutan, Choton’s family moved to Dharamshala’s Tibetan quarters when she was eight. She studied at the local Tibetan school till Class 7 before financial difficulties forced her to drop out. At 24, she had an arranged marriage and is now a mother of three.
“The rhythm of our lives is simple — we grow rice and other foodgrains from June to August, then travel to Ludhiana and Amritsar to buy our stock of sweaters and head to Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Bangalore and other cities to sell them,” says Choton, who speaks flawless Hindi. “From February to May, when the fields are fallow, there is nothing to do but ration our savings and spend time with family.”
Earnings from the winter business, however, are erratic. With a price tag of Rs 350 for an adult-sized sweater, Choton sometimes makes Rs 8,000 a day, but on a bad day may sell only 10 sweaters, earning about Rs 3,000.
Profits at the end of the season usually range from Rs 30,000 to Rs 50,000, not very much for a family to live off for half a year.
Plus, there are the expenses incurred while in the city. When in Mumbai, Choton shares a 250-sq-ft chawl room in Parel with her husband and four other Tibetans, and pays about Rs 7,500 for food and rent per head for three months.
Choton begins her day at 6 am, with a bath followed by some household chores. Next, she helps cook breakfast and lunch and pack six tiffins.
“On most days, we make Tibetan dishes such as momos or different types of chowmein,” says Choton.
At 7.30 am, the group heads to their pavement so that they can lay out their wares by 8.
The sweater-selling trade in Mumbai was once dominated by Tibetans and Nepalis, but now Choton’s neighbours include several local vendors too.
“Mornings and afternoons are lazy times,” says Choton. “Most people don’t have the time to stop and shop till the evening.” These hours, therefore, are filled with tea breaks.
Evenings and nights are very hectic, Choton adds. “Some annual customers recognise and remember us, but when it’s crowded, there are some customers who take off without paying for their sweaters.”
Choton and her friends pack up by 10 pm, after which they trudge home with the remaining wares. Dinner is usually eaten at home, sometimes at a local eatery.
“The most difficult part of this job is being away from my children,” says Choton. Like most refugees, Choton also feels strongly about Tibet, the homeland she has heard of in stories but never seen.
“I want Tibet to be free,” she says. “My dream is to be able to go home to a free Tibet one day.”
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