Fate joins, then separates, siblings

Ajay Shrestha in his cricket jersey during happier times. All photos: courtesy ANIL SHRESTHA

I left for the UAE six years ago. It was a struggle to adjust to the new environment, but the country gave someone like me who had arrived with no experience a platform to work hard, and make a decent living.

I started as a crew member at a restaurant, and by the end of six years, was working as an assistant manager making five times more than my starting salary.

I did not have any reason to leave the UAE given my job security and attractive benefits, but my younger brother, Ajay, who was based in Malta wanted me to join him there.

“Europe is Europe,” he used to say.

My only motivation to go there was to be with my brother. Why live in two separate places when there is opportunity to be together to support each other, to celebrate festivals together, and create some semblance of a ‘home? My mother also loved the idea of her sons being together.

He helped me find a job in Malta, also in the restaurant line. The salary was not all that different from what I was making in the UAE.

When I joined my brother in Malta on 31 January  this year,  it had been three years since I had last seen him. We were thrilled. What I did not know then was that it would be a reunion that would change the trajectory of our lives.

In addition to the excitement to see me, he was also looking forward to his trip back to Nepal on 1 March. He was already in holiday mode, excited to be back for the first time since he got here.

A cricket fanatic, he had set aside a 1,900 euro fund to organise a game back home through a cricket academy in Bardia that a common friend had set up.

Read also: Diaspora Diaries 1, Nepali Times

A mother’s boy, he was trying to decide between different mobile sets to buy for her, and also for an uncle.

He worked as a bike delivery rider in Malta and in the morning of 16 February, he was scrolling through his phone when he got a delivery request and decided to take it up. Every extra euro would help, he said.

I was playing a game on my phone and barely paid attention as he left the apartment. He later called from below the apartment to ask me to pass his power bank that he had left. As a delivery boy, it was an essential he could not afford to leave behind.

He called again me to tell me to throw him his purse from the balcony. He caught it with a grin. Sloppy boy, I thought.

A while later, I got a call from a fellow Nepali. He told me to go to the hospital because Ajay had met with an accident, about three kilometers from our apartment.

I could feel my soul leave my body when I heard the news as I rushed to the hospital. As soon as I arrived, I was told by the doctor that Ajay was no more.

The fact that he had come back twice to take his phone charger and wallet still haunts me. He had died on the spot when a truck hit him. Perhaps if he had not been delayed by those couple of minutes due to his absentmindedness, he would still be alive. The difference a few split seconds would have made.

Needless to say, I was shocked beyond belief. How could this have happened? My eyes hurt to see my brother as he lay there in the hospital, as if we was in peaceful sleep. He looked normal and was still warm.

Read also: Diaspora Diaries 2, Nepali Times

My mother back in Nepal had to be rushed to hospital as she collapsed after hearing the news. This added to my grief and worry.

In that abyss, I felt numb, unable to process what was going on. It had been only 17 days since I had arrived in Malta. Everything was a blur.

Back in my brother’s apartment as I wept, I could not comprehend what was going on and what was next. I had to figure out how to take my brother’s body home. I did not know anyone there, or how the system worked.

Friends came to the apartment to pay their respects. They were all in tears, and hugged me, brought me food and made sure someone was always at my side. I have no idea who these people were, but they were all Ajay’s friends and they were there for us, and to support me.

Growing up, I was always the quiet one, and Ajay the more outgoing sibling. I used to be known as ‘Ajay’s Dai’ rather than Anil. Even in his death, I was ‘Ajay’s Dai’, surrounded by his friends, in an unfamiliar country, among unfamiliar people.

It was also evident how much goodwill Ajay had garnered in Malta. I had at least five Nepalis who came to me to repay money they had borrowed from Ajay. They didn’t have to but they did. They were in tears.

Many recounted memories of how he had helped them when they were struggling financially. In the following weeks, there were football games organised in his memory with moments of silence in his tribute. My brother, he had left a mark among many.

Read also: Diaspora Diaries 3, Nepali Times

These stories of death in a foreign land are common. It is a familiar sight for us Nepalis to see coffins arrive at Kathmandu airport. Most of them are on flights from the Gulf, where I spent six years.

But this was the first fatality among Nepalis in Malta. Even the Prime Minister of Malta and the Mayor reached out to me and extended their condolences. The Nepali community there was stunned. Nepalis and Maltese friends crowdfunded for his repatriation, to support our family, and raised nearly Rs2.8 million with which we could send the body to Nepal.

How do you describe the feeling of being on a plane with your brother in the cargo hold in a box? How can you talk about bringing a younger sibling’s body home to your parents?

On the flight back home, I kept thinking about how my brother had brought me to Malta just weeks before he died. It was as if he had wanted his elder brother to take care of him, and bring him home.

Had I been in the UAE, there was no way I would have been able to go to Malta to do that. The longer the wait, the more difficult it would have been for my parents, since seeing my brother’s body and completing the final rites at least provided them a sense of closure.

Here in Bardia, the days are passing slowly. My priority is to take care of my parents who are distraught. My mother is almost  unrecognisable with shock and loss of appetite. She has no more tears left to shed.

Things were just starting to look up for us. Three months ago, we bought our father a scooter so he could get around more easily than in his bicycle.

My brother and I had just moved in together in Malta, and this happened. Nothing makes sense. I now want to find ways to keep my brother’s memories alive, and to fulfill his dreams.

We organised the cricket tournament in his memory, and the finals were on Monday. A team from Banke district won.

Read also: Diaspora Diaries 4, Nepali Times

Both us brothers were very fond of cricket growing up, perhaps because India is right across the border. But back then we could not even afford the basic equipment.

We played with a tennis ball, and even that was expensive. We made our own bats. My brother had wanted to make sure that children of our home village would not have to suffer the same deprivation.

Just a month before his death, my brother had sent another Rs15,000 to the sports academy to organise the tournament.

On the opening day, I wore one of his favorite jerseys that said ‘AJ’ on the back. It is the little things that remind me of him, and make me suddenly burst into tears without warning. There are many memories of our childhood that make me feel simultaneously close to him, while reminding me of the cruel reality that he is not around anymore, and he will never be.

The jersey is among his possessions that I brought back with me from Malta, leaving nothing behind in his apartment that I gave up before returning.

I don’t think we will ever learn to move on from this loss. But perhaps one day we will learn to live with it.

Read also: The Qatar job mirage, Nepali Times

Translated from 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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