Close encounter with death

Nepali migrant workers bring home the body of a coworker who died on the job in destination country. Photo: GOPEN RAI/NEPALI TIMES ARCHIVE

I came to Malaysia four years ago to work as a security guard. I guard condominiums and sometimes have to accompany visitors to their floors on the elevator. But I do not step out of the elevator. We are not allowed to.

I paid for my tickets to come to Malaysia, and my employer deducted 1,000 Ringgit over the course of two months from my salary. It may not sound as bad as what other migrants pay for these jobs but it was the deal I had struck with my agent.

He had previously sent me to Qatar as an electrician and after five months of not being paid, I returned. He deemed it cheaper to send me to Malaysia as a security guard than to repay the Rs95,000 I had paid for the job in Qatar. It took me 10 months to haggle with him, but it worked out eventually.

Every day for the past four years, I have worked for 12 hours, 30 days a month. I can send home over Rs40,000 a month, which for my family is a lot.

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But I realised the fragility of our lives when my roommate, also a security guard, died a few months back.

Let’s call him Shiva dai.

We had been roommates for over two and a half months. We shared a room but we only saw each other for an hour or two every morning given our duty hours.

From the onset it was obvious that Shiva dai came to Malaysia to grind. He had a singular purpose of earning as much as he could while here. Perhaps we all come to the Gulf or Malaysia with the same aim, but Shiva dai was a different breed. He worked two jobs, which meant he worked 20 hours a day, every day.

“We are here to work, to earn money, so I will do whatever it takes to earn as much as I can,” he used to say. And he did. “Why don’t you take up another job or extra shifts?” he used to ask me. I didn’t think it was physically possible for me, 12 hours was more than enough.

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Shiva dai was nice to me. We cooked separately but when we made good food, we used to share it with each other. I had gotten used to our mornings when we cooked and chatted as we ate. I used to ask him not to work so hard, to take care of his health. He used to say he got to sleep at work, on his chair during the night shift when everything was quiet and there wasn’t much to “guard”. In fact, he used to be annoyed at me for not taking advantage of such easy opportunities but I resisted. By his standards, I might have looked idle to him.

One morning, Shiva dai was cooking: boiled eggs for breakfast and chicken soup for his lunch and dinner. He asked me if I could stir the chicken while he took a shower. I agreed. The soup was looking good that morning, especially as I had just come back from a 12 hour night shift.

When Shiva dai came out of the shower, he complained of a backache and that his legs felt stiff. He asked me if I could help apply Vicks on his back. He looked like he was in grave pain. As I helped him, I asked him if this has happened before, he said twice. Next, he was unable to move his leg. I got scared and called my boss. By the time paramedics arrived, Shiva dai had passed after having what looked like three rounds of seizure. The police came, took him away.

When his wife called, I was the one who broke the news. It was not easy. She initially thought I was joking but when she finally realised the truth, she started wailing. I spoke to a few more family members. Each time I had to relive the scenario, each time I had to hear them cry. It broke me.

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I had never before witnessed a death so closely. I was scared and too stunned to sleep, even though I had just worked a 12 hours night shift.

I could not stay in the room either. It was eerily quiet but there were too many thoughts racing in my mind. Everything had happened so quickly that it was difficult to process it all. We were laughing and talking one minute, and he was dead the next moment.

After much restlessness, at 5PM I went to work and took a nap in the rest post, a small room where guards like myself eat and rest. I resumed my duty at 7. I was disturbed for a long time.

It took 29 days for his body to be repatriated. It was during the pandemic so there were restrictions on flights and much backlog of bodies to be taken back home. He left with over two dozen others, four were just ashes.

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Malaysia is one of the most popular destination for Nepali migrant workers. Photo: KUNDA DIXIT

He did not have much belonging, just some clothes including two security guard uniforms. What stood out was a guitar. He never played. I think he was meaning to take it to his son back home. It was given to him by a family in a condominium where he had previously worked as a security guard.

His suitcase could not be taken back so it was thrown away. He did not have much anyway, but perhaps his family could have found some consolation in receiving them. I don’t know.

Since Covid-19, there has been a shortage of workers in Malaysia as they have stopped recruiting. It is only now that they are slowly starting the recruitment of overseas workers. But throughout these last couple of years, because my boss was unable to hire from overseas and it was too expensive to get local workers, he often wanted me to take extra shifts as there was always work. But for someone who works 12 hours every day, an extra shift means a 36-hour shift.

You finish your regular shift at 7PM after working from 7AM and take up a night shift from 7PM to 7AM, only to continue your regular shift the next morning. Even if you manage to shut your eyes on your duty chair like Shiva dai did, it does not compensate for a full night’s sleep. But many Nepalis continue to work like this.

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Money is important and that is why I am here. But it is not everything.

I have valued things beyond money throughout my life. I did not accept a dowry during my marriage even though it would have helped my family immensely. I do not want to kill myself for money here in Malaysia either. And especially after what I witnessed with Shiva dai, I have strong reasons not to overdo it.

Translated from a conversation in Nepali.

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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