Work hard, play hard

Coach Lekhnath Lamsal with his volleyball team in Pokhara after his return from Qatar.

This is the 19th instalment of Diaspora Diaries, a regular series in Nepali Times with stories of Nepalis living and working abroad. 

For most people life is a continuous transition from one stage to another. Not for me.

I am in my mid-40s, currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree with students who are my son’s age. My life is a series of seemingly random vignettes strung together in no particular order. Yet, in retrospect, they have collectively shaped who I am today.

As a school student in Pokhara, I suffered from a bone disease that caused body ache, restricted my mobility and caused recurrent fever. After expensive visits to hospitals, I finally landed a good doctor in Delhi who cured me. Had there been a delay in treatment, he said, and I would not have been so lucky.

His last words before discharging me from hospital still rings in my ears:  “Forget you were ever sick. You are young and have your whole life ahead of you. From now on, bring out your inner courage and zest for life.” And I did.

When I started Grade 11, I felt like I had been given an empty slate to start a new life. I was finally free of pain, and anything was possible.

I developed a love for sports, especially volleyball, which I was surprisingly good at. Standing tall at 1.88m, I was the best spiker and was known for my ability to jump high. My interest in studies decreased as my love of the game increased. The cheers of supporters made me feel formidable. On the volleyball court, I was king.

I was getting noticed and had started to build a fan base. The chief of Pokhara police recruited me, and I got even better at the game with practice and training. Before long, I was in the national team playing in different tournaments, including the South Asian Games.

My salary was low, and I couldn’t even afford to buy new shoes when they wore out. A pair of sports shoes cost more than my entire month’s pay.  Life was getting unaffordable, and I had responsibilities to provide for my family. Which is why I had to take the difficult decision to leave for overseas work, just like everyone else. I was passionate about volleyball, but there was no future and security in it.

This is the reality of Nepal. Whether you are a national player or not, all roads eventually lead to the Gulf or Malaysia.

In 2002, I got on a plane for Qatar where I was to work as a security guard. My wife was pregnant back in Pokhara with my daughter, our second child. This was a time when there were not as many Nepalis in Qatar.

I eventually spent 14 years in Qatar, my new home. During that time, I was promoted five times, and ultimately became a branch manager overseeing other security guards in the company. My starting salary was 900 QAR but by the time I left, it was 7,000 QAR ($1,900).

I was luckier than most Nepalis. I knew that because I had taken bodies of migrant workers to hospital, or watched construction workers struggle in the extreme heat for low wages in Qatar.

I also managed to find time to play volleyball in tournaments organised by the Qatar Volleyball Association between various nationalities. There were moments when cheers from fellow Nepalis gave me an adrenaline rush and a powerful feeling.

I was lucky enough to go home frequently, every two years initially and once a year after my last couple of promotions. But then my daughter Alisha became ill, and I had to rush back to Nepal. 

Lekhnath Lamsal at a volleyball tournament while he was working in Qatar for 14 years.

Lamsal with his daughter, who died at 16 while undergoing treatment for cancer.

She, too, was having chronic body aches and it was hard for her to move. I had to find out what was wrong, and nip it in the bud. It reminded me of similar symptoms I had as a child, and recovering in a hospital in India. Except in my daughter’s case, doctors found a tumour.

I could not extend my one-month emergency leave. My wife stayed back in the village with our two sons while I took my daughter to hospital in Kathmandu. Doctors removed her tumour, after which she had to go through several rounds of aggressive chemotherapy.

My savings from the job in Qatar made it possible for me to afford to pay her medical bills which had racked up to almost Rs6 million. Friends who had known me through volleyball across the world as well as colleagues in Qatar pitched in, donating Rs1.7 million. This generosity brought enormous relief at a time when I was feeling lowest.

My daughter kept her spirits up throughout her struggle. Once, she told me that she was not going to make it and had a premonition that the end was near. Her body was unable to handle the painful side effects of chemotherapy. I could feel her slipping away.

The image of her looking frail and small in the ventilator is etched in my heart. It is painful when I remember how we communicated with each other through eyes blurred with tears, as she tried to make a few feeble gestures and I struggled to mumble words of comfort. I was not ready to say goodbye.

Lekhnath Lamsal back in Nepal, where he has enrolled at age 42 in a bachelor’s program in a college where he is also a part-time coach.

Ten days after she had shared with me her premonition, Alisha passed away. She was just 16 which her whole life ahead her. It has been four years now.

I am too old now to play volley professionally, although I play in tournaments for 40+ year olds here and there. I have no interest in going back to Qatar because I will have to start from scratch.

So I picked up where I had left off, and recently joined a bachelor’s program in sports management at Gandaki College, while working as a volleyball trainer on the side. I hoped to improve things for players so they would not have to struggle as much as I did.

Players, who should be at the centre in Nepal, are nowhere in the priority list. Like everything else in Nepal, sports governance has been infiltrated by politics and vested interests.

Although I am two decades late, I realise the importance of education and a degree. My class mates are half my age, and I switch back and forth between being their guardian figure and friend.

I study hard and am a grade topper in my cohort. But university homework does not relieve me from my household responsibilities, I am up by four am every morning taking care of household chores, including tending to our cow and buffalo.

Translated from a conversation with the author. Diaspora Diaries is a regular column in Nepali Times providing a platform for Nepalis to share their experiences of living, working, studying abroad.

Authentic and original entries can be sent to [email protected] with Diaspora Diaries in the subject line.

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