Aspiration to be Lecturer compelling Urmila Sembu to sell tea at busy streets

Tribhuvan University is seen at front from Urmila’s rented room. Every morning, before the first glimmer of sunlight touches her window, she prepares three thermoses of tea. She wakes up at 4 o’clock, walks for 20 minutes to Panga Dobato’s dairy to get milk, and then returns to her room to prepare tea and fill the thermoses.

“Tea does not get cold this way. It should be sold by evening,” said Urmila closing the tip of the thermos with a clean plastic and putting the lid on. She plucked cloves and cardamom from a plastic bag, put some in her mouth, and tied the bag back saying “I love to have them in my mouth all day long.”

Across the street, three pairs of pigeons were perched on electric wires, staring at her window. She pointed to a small space outside the window and said, “I have kept fodder here. They will come and eat after I leave.”

Urmila Sembu at her room in Kritipur

She closed the window and picked up a bag with paper cups and some lemon slices. “It’s so difficult to walk carrying three thermoses at a time”, she said, lifting two with one hand and one by the other. ‘I used to live in Tanglaphat before,’ she said, pointing to the area and added ‘I shifted here after it became too far to commute’.

Every morning, she boards the bus at the same place known as TU gate and gets off at Balkhu Chok, only to get into another bus that leads her to Tilganga Eye Hospital. This is the place where she started her tea-selling business eight months ago.

On the 10th of Shrawan 2079, Urmila Shembu visited Pashupatinath Temple to worship Lord Shiva. ‘I have been a devotee of Lord Shiva since childhood’: she said and laughed out loud. ‘I used to fast for good health, and feel as if Lord Shiva has fulfilled all my wishes’.

She was facing financial crisis, and full of worries and frustrations. The house owner was asking for the Rent, but she just had RS 500 in her saving.  Her self-esteem did not allow to ask for any support from her relatives or friends. But
she saw a glimmer of hope in crowd of people visiting Pashupatinath, or that in the parking area and Tilganga eye hospital across the road.

‘I immediately thought I would try making tea and selling it .I just rushed to buy a thermos, made some tea, begun to sell it. My hope had turned into a reality instantly.’ Few days later, she realised, she was not alone in the kind of business she had joined in. That gave her more confidence. She made some friends there as well. Her business grew. She had now three thermoses, selling up to 125 cups a day, making more income.

However, this was not the dream she had when she left home 14 years ago, soon after she completed her school leaving certificate level. Her journey to Kathmandu was a sort of rebellion and search for independence. Her older brother had said there was no need for her, a girl, to explore further education. ‘I set up my mind in moving higher and joining the Intermediate level with humanities’. And, the family played a supportive role once she stood firm. She joined her I A Classes in Her home district, Taplejung. She completed her I A in two years,  and then B A as well

Overcoming the similar obstacles, she thought of teaching in a village school, but despite her having the requisite qualifications, she could not get the job as she had no “link and network”. Her quest for further studies-M A-finally brought her to Kathmandu. As her friend Divya Paudel already left village for to study in Kathmandu, she could resist no more.

In between, there were some marriage proposals which she ignored. She sold a gold ring –a gift from her brother during his wedding ‘that fetched her Rs. 12,500  which she saved for her admission in  T U. Interestingly, she left home for Kathmandu on the day her relative was on the way to her home with marriage proposal The boy, a school teacher returned home without being able to meet her.

‘The first year in the university was not easy as mainly I was stressed under penury. I still remember sleeping hungry for three days, and sometimes depending on friends who offered me food’. They lent her money in need at times too.

Her maternal uncle, a retired British Army personnel,  was a big help for her. Once he knew about her studying in Kathmandu, he used to send her money every month which she found enough to pay off her debts. She had kept her problem away from her parents.

“When I reached the second year, I received a grant from a Norwegian Project for the study regarding Land covering 9 districts in the east. I was paid RS. two lakhs for the work. Showing her published book, she said, the project made my days easier and I did not have to worry about my second or final year expenses’, She said, adding, ‘I informed my uncle with all gratitude that I was on my own now.’

The diligent work she did during the first project paved the way for another. She grabbed another research opportunity worth RS 3 lakh. She has documented her those two research works in the book form – Kipatko Apaharan and Pahichanko Andolan – and  she also wrote a research based –Dui Dhar– in 2072 spending part of what she earned from her project works.

In 2071 BS, she completed her MA in Nepali. But struggle kept chasing her, on one or the other form. She applied for the Lecturer’s job at the T U Service Commission. But, for two years the exams have not taken place.

Urmila Sembu’s published Books

Urmila realized through her own struggle and ordeal that justice does not come in a fair and quiet manner. A day in June, she met with Prachanda and the then-Education Minister Devendra Raj Paudel at the Pragya Pratishthan in the sideline of a programme. She explained her problem. They promised to solve and left. She followed it up with others including Sher Bahadur Deuba when he was the Prime Minister and then with education minister Poudel again.

Once she even jokingly told Poudel, “Mr. Minister, either conduct the exam quickly or else if I am made a minister like you, I can solve the issues. “I don’t know whether I should have presented in that way but I said as I was desperate.”

After the incident, she spent a few days at her room in Kirtipur preparing for the exam. However, it did not happen as planned. Worried but having faith in God, she went to Pashupatinath Temple on July 10th, where the idea of selling tea sparked at her. Pointing towards the Pashupatinath Temple, she said, “It is from there that I started selling tea.”

Urmila can be spotted selling tea carrying three thermoses under a tree in the parking lot next to the Bagmati River on the east side of Tilganga Eye Hospital. Two of the thermoses contained milk tea, while the third one had black tea.
She reaches Tilganga at eight in the morning and gets back home by nine PM.

She Served black tea in a small paper cup to the taxi driver. ‘Having academic degree alone is not enough in this country’, Urmila giggled as she put the lid on the thermos. A bus heading east stopped a little further. She rushed towards it, and we followed her.

Urmila serving tea to the Taxi Driver

It’s been eight months since she started this business after every other opportunity was shut in her. Everyone in her family knows that she has become a street vendor, but she convinced them that she wants to become an asst. professor one day. She has her brothers living abroad and also in village. She also has a sister who is already married.

One of her brothers came to visit her during Dashain and saw her selling tea. “They told me to stop it. But at this age, how can I live reliant on other’s support?” “Brother and sister-in-law came from Japan during the festival, and they also repeated the same request. But, I have told them that I will leave this job after getting a better one.”