Thimphu’s balloon man: struggle to success

Life for Pradeep Rai, Thimphu’s own balloon man, is a colorful array of emotions, especially when children flock to him at the sight of hundreds of brightly colored helium balloons billowing by him in the air.

Pradeep Rai greets them with a smile while arranging his giant umbrella of balloons. He is very popular with the neighborhood kids.

After waving goodbye to a young couple whose child is delighted with his new Spiderman balloon, Pradeep Rai says that children make the best customers.

“They always manage to persuade their parents to buying them one.”

Pradeep Rai, 35, is from Gomtu, Samtse. He started selling balloons last year. He sells more than 50 helium-filled balloons of different cartoon characters a day.  Each balloon costs Nu 100.

“Children love my ‘Ben 10’ ‘Chhota Bheem’ and ‘Angry Birds’ balloons. Toddlers are drawn to dolphins, planes and birds. All my balloons are made of aluminum foil so they are safe in children’s hands since they tend to put them inside their mouth.”

Pradeep goes to different places to sell his balloons but his favorite place remains the parking lot of old Thimphu hospital where he can watch children beam over balloons and parents come to terms with the prices.

He starts work from 9am and by noon he sells off all the balloons.

“My balloon business is going very well since I am the only one who sells balloons. I might be the only balloon seller in the country,” he laughs, “There is no competition in the market that is why it is doing well.”

He earns Nu 10,000-Nu 15,000 a month.

Pradeep is doing well for himself but none of this came easy.

Pradeep was in high school when depression struck him and at a very young age he became a drug addict.

He is the youngest of 14 siblings and his parents passed away when he was a young boy. Though his elder siblings looked after him, he did not have financial support. He survived by working as a mason helper in a factory in his village.

“We expect so much from life and when we are not able to meet those dreams, we get frustrated, start blaming others and ourselves. To ease the pain, we take drugs and consume alcohol not knowing the repercussions it will have,” said Pradeep.

While he was in class XII, he took various tablets and when he did not get them, he consumed alcohol.

“I used to steal money from others and lie. I used to manage money to buy drugs and alcohol anyhow,” he said.

Pradeep was a college dropout when he sought treatment for his drug and alcohol addiction. He was admitted in two rehabilitation centers for many months.

“I learned the truth about my disease, my problem and the damage it had caused in my life. I worked the steps and took ownership for my part of the problem, instead of continuously blaming others for my choices,” he said.

After returning from the rehabilitation center, he struggled to find a decent job.

“I was looking for a job but nobody was willing to give me one. At that time, my friend was starting a balloon business.  It was him who trusted me and asked me to sell balloons,” he said.

Despite knowing Pradeep and his past well, his friend helped him and saved him from a difficult situation.

Pradeep now stays with his friend. After work, he meets with other recovering addicts.

“I feel connected since they were all going through the same thing as me. It helps me deal with my emotions,” he said.

Though of late life has been kind to him, he still fights his demons every day.

“I do not want to relapse into depression and addiction. Selling balloons to children and witnessing their faces lighting up helps me forget my trauma,” he said.

Pema Seldon from Thimphu