Tale of a modern day lahureGorkhali troops fought in Malaya in WWII, now Gorkhalis join an army of migrant workers there
This is the 34th edition of Diaspora Diaries, a regular series in Nepali Times with stories of Nepalis who have lived or are working abroad.
Growing up in rural Gorkha, I saw planes long before I saw cars. Those tiny silver dots that flew over our village on their way to or from Kathmandu.
It was only when I was big enough to go to the bazar town nine-hour walk away to buy salt and other household goods that I saw a bus for the first time. I remember staring at it in awe, walking around it touching the metal surface with the tip of my fingers. I did not get on the bus. I had nowhere to go.
Years later, as a grown-up, I found myself inside an airplane for the first time flying from Kathmandu to Malaysia. That was nearly 20 years ago, and I got a job in a factory that made files and envelopes of all sizes that were exported to nine countries.
My starting salary allowed me to save around Rs7,000 per month.Even for that salary, I had paid over Rs100,000 as recruitment fees. The management responded to my resignation requests with offers of higher salary.
I rose up the ranks to become team leader in charge of 144 fellow migrant workers from different countries, including Nepal. I had to make sure they delivered products on time while ensuring their safety.
The work was difficult and required both mental and physical strength. As team leader, I was responsible if they made mistakes. One wrong move and you could lose a finger in one of those cutting machines with sharp blades. Our thumbs were valued at Rs2 million each, with other fingers much lower. That was the compensation we got if we lost them in a job accident.
In the first few months after their arrival, most fellow workers got homesick and struggled with the physical demands of the job. I oversaw their work, but above me was also a CCTV camera that oversaw me. I could not ignore a worker who was taking a nap or slacking off.
This was in the mid-2000s. I was one of the first Nepalis in my workplace when I had first arrived, so my circumstances had compelled me to learn to speak Malay.
Perhaps this is also why I was a good fit for the team leader post so I could help with translations. Sometimes, I had to translate the supervisors' scolding or the workers' apologies or grievances about unmet demands.
I often did more than translate, though. To lessen the blow of an angry word or humanise the challenges of toiling around the clock, far from home. After all, our lives oscillated between an angry "balik rumah" (go home) or encouraging "bagus" (well done). We all toiled 12 hours a day single-mindedly to provide for our families back home.
One tough part of my job was handing out coveted overtime slots on Sundays, when the pay for workers was double. We were there for the money, and the extra payment held a lot of significance to workers.
They begged me for overtime hours, but I had to assure them that the rotations would be balanced. If not this weekend, they would get the hours next weekend.
In Malaysia, my colleagues and I used to pool our resources to send a larger amount home in rotation to meet big ticket items like paying off big loans like those borrowed to pay recruitment fees at high interest rates or when there were family emergencies like big health expenses.
By the end of my nine years there in Malaysia, I was saving Rs65,000 a month. When I was ready to head home, my supervisor told me that he thought of me as an integral part of the team, and handed me an envelope with a cash token of appreciation. He told me that his company's doors were always open for me. But I never went back.
In the last 108 months I spent in Malaysia, I was home in Nepal only for three months, and I needed to devote my time to my family.
With my savings, I bought some property in Gorkha which has quadrupled in value, and allowed me to invest in my children's education. My daughter finished her undergraduate degree in journalism and my son, who I met for the first time when he was almost four years old, is now finishing up high school.
A neighbour in my village had called me at work in Malaysia to inform me about the birth of my son. I spent 300 ringgit to celebrate that momentous day with my colleagues in Penang.
After returning to Nepal, I was first a driver for politicians with high posts. But it was impossible to be a good provider at a driver's salary despite the long hours.
It is no wonder that Nepalis migrate overseas for work. You work hard either way, in Nepal or abroad, but you only earn a liveable wage abroad. I soon bought my own taxi and even though I work long hours, I am glad I don’t have to give away most of it to a साहु. I earn more than Rs100,000 a month, and it has been good.
When I was working for politicians as a driver, I realised why power is so important in Nepal. My wife was almost killed when she was hit by a truck. The owner refused to pay, and the hospital bills racked up. It was only after a threatening call from my politician boss that the perpetrators agreed to pay the medical bills.
Nepalis like me without power or networks are deprived of what is rightfully ours. Foreign employment can provide us with resources which can give us courage. When my wife again fell ill with cancer, it was the land and taxi that I bought with overseas earnings that gave me the collateral to borrow money to ensure she got the care she needed. My brother who is working abroad also insisted on chipping in for my wife's cancer care. Without resources, even the most willing informal networks are unable to help during times of crises.
My wife is now cancer free. She is healthy and after ages, is back to her old self. I will use the same collateral to get the loans to send my daughter abroad for her Master's so she can make a future for herself. I take a lot of pride in the fact that a simple driver like me can now send my daughter abroad for higher studies. I cannot think of a better investment for her and our family's future.
Once my children are settled, my wife and I long to go back to our village in Gorkha. I spent a few months there during the pandemic and got a glimpse of how comfortable rural life is. My customers there include elderly widows in their 80s and 90s from lahure families who have to go to the bank to receive their pension.
It’s a three-hour drive and they want me to stop twice en route so they can enjoy their homemade alcohol and boiled eggs that they carry from home. In the village, you know all your customers and they know you personally. The earnings might be lower, but we do not have to pay rent or buy expensive food like in Kathmandu. But most of all, at home there is peace of mind.
My struggles began over 35 years ago when I escaped to Kathmandu with my cousin, enticed by the possibility of earning enough to be able to afford to eat rice every day.
I now long to go back where I started, enjoy life at a slower pace after decades of hard work.
Translated from a conversation with the author. Other authentic and original entries can be sent to [email protected] with ‘Diaspora Diaries’ in the subject line.