Sex sells

Subash Bhattarai took a chance on a controversial business idea, stuck to his guns and is now reaping the benefits

During the second Jana Andolan, the now 29-year-old Subash Bhattarai was in Katowice working as a shoe salesman in a store run by an Indian. It was in this southern city of Poland that Bhattarai came across a sex toy shop and started to wonder, just out of curiosity, if Nepal had a market and the liberal mindset for a shop like it. When he returned home two years later, this curious thought morphed into a full-blown business idea. He was going to sell erotic toys to Nepalis and maybe in the process start a quiet sexual revolution.

He knew that anything to do with sex and sexual gratification was bound to get him in trouble. So he talked to a doctor first to make sure that vibrators and silicone dolls would cause no harm to the human body. The doctor rubbished such claims of harm as something a conservative might say to derail him and warned him about narrow-minded prudes who believed that the use of dildos in condom-usage demonstrations in health posts encouraged perversion.

Armed with this knowledge, he went to register his company, Love and Lust Nepal, with the local officials. He had law on his side, and still the bureaucrats hesitated to give him permission. Just as he had anticipated, the public officials saw no benefits to society in titillating sex objects. He even tried to pitch his shop as a panacea for the problem of rape in the country—who would not want that? The bureaucrats were not amused and started shouting at him for trying to destroy the peace and harmony of Nepali society. He had done his homework, however, and knew that nothing in the law stopped him from opening the shop. So after they started verbally abusing him, he threatened to file a case against them at the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority. It worked and he got his licence to open the shop at Sundhara. That was in 2011. On Shivarati this year, he opened a branch in Pokhara.

These three years, however, were not always smooth, both financially and socially, especially the first year. Even though his parents were well-educated, he had to tell them that it was a pharmacy he was running. After ads for and stories on his shop started to appear in Saptahik weekly and Nagarik daily, he placed those papers in his living room for everyone to see. And with that, everyone in the house realised it was a different kind of medicine he was selling; but fortunately for Bhattarai, no one objected. His neighbours and friends at Jorpati where he lived were, however, not as understanding. When they asked him what he was doing these days, he would say he was “running a business”. “What kind of business?” would be the next question. His honest reply would almost always offend them. People stopped talking to him and started ignoring him if he tried to initiate a conversation.

His business at Sundhara too wasn’t doing all that well. His shop displayed stacks of dildos, vibrators, ‘flesh lights’ and silicone female genitalia made in China and lubricants from Thailand, but there would be days when he was the only one staring at them. It would take him five months to just recover the rent for a month. Eventually, however, people started trickling in through his shop door, mostly out of curiosity, and Bhattarai immediately set to work on his salesman skills.

For those who already knew what the toys were for and how to use them, he had no problem selling them the products; for others, he had to convince them first of the toys’ innocuousness, just as he had to convince himself and then he had to gently break it to them that the pleasure they would obtain from these toys was nothing to be ashamed of. Besides, if people walked in, it usually meant they were willing to be converted. They just needed that extra assurance of safety, confidentiality and money-back guarantee (some of those products cost as high as Rs 50,000).

Perseverance has now started to pay dividends. His friends no longer dismiss him as a pervert or as an angel of perversion. People who bought toys from his shop usually came back (especially if it was lubricants that they purchased) and the subsequent times they brought friends along, who then brought in other friends. These days, daily sales in Sundhara are as high as Rs 15,000. In Pokhara, in just the first four days, he sold two ‘Lusty Girls’ (silicone replicas of a woman) for Rs 45,000 each.

Most of the customers who walk in through the door are men. Women usually call or shop online and have the products delivered free of cost as long as they live within Nepal. Interestingly, women make up for 55 percent of his customers (in Pokhara the division is even starker at 60-40). Bhattarai thinks the reason is that many of them have husbands who are working abroad. Their husbands too place orders online for themselves, especially if they are in Malaysia and Qatar. And he ships his products there. He receives orders from Saudi Arabia as well, but he has to kindly say no, as that country forbids the use of such recreational objects—he is not one to put his customers’ lives in jeopardy just because he wants to make a little more money.

Bhattarai next plans to open a retail outlet in Birtamod to tap into the Indian market, as Indian authorities do not tolerate such shops in their own country. As the only sex toy wholesaler in the country, Bhattarai already supplies toys to shops in Butwal, Narayanghat and Itahari. And after three years of experience, he knows his business will not slow down anytime soon, particularly if he can buy the Indians’ trust and have them shop online.

Published: 15-03-2014,  The Kathmandu Post