By Dinesh Wagle
Wagle Street Journal
[This article originally appeared on the Op-Ed page of the Kathmandu Post today. See it here as it appeared in the paper. Extended version of this story was published in Nepali in today’s Kantipur Koseli. See it here as it appeared in Koseli. Plus, here is my take on India’s Valentines culture in today’s Op-Ed of Kantipur.]
Bishnu Prasad Nepal does not work in one of those Indian call centres in Gurgaon that serve American customers, but every evening as the clock hits eight he gets ready for his duty for the next 12 hours. It’s been years since he drew the conclusion that he was born to guard a residential complex in south Delhi with two weapons: a cane and a whistle. As he patrols tapping his cane and blowing his whistle at midnight Bishnu occasionally thinks about the dream that he sees during the daytime. “I wish to make a small home,” said Bishnu who was on duty in a recent chilly night. “That’s it.”
Born in Palpa 45 years ago, Bishnu migrated to Nawalparasi at the age of 10 when his father decided to go to the plains for better life. The proud identity of being Bishnu Prasad Nepal, the great grandson of Bamdev Nepal, grandson of Mansudhan Nepal and son of Ghanashyam Nepal, however, is limited to his small village of Kumarbasti in Nawalparasi where his wife and two kids live. No one knows him by that name in block B of Jangpura Extension. Everyone calls him “Bahadur” spoken in a way that sounds like “badur” or even “badar”, which means monkey in Nepali. So the original word meaning “brave”, uttered by Indians who are brazenly insensitive to other people’s self-respect and identity, becomes synonymous with insult and humiliation.
But Bishnu didn’t come here by choice to take up the job that doesn’t pay him even a fourth of what his service deserves. For millions of Nepalis suffocated by unemployment in their homeland, India is a quicksand where they are engaged for years by harsh and lowly jobs for which they get meagre cash. In addition to the jobs of porterage, construction work and cooking/dishwashing in roadside dhabas/restaurants, chowkdari (the job of Bishnu) is preferred among those who have enough strength in their muscles. There are around 20 thousand Nepali chowkidars in Delhi alone, according to one estimate. Most of them are from the far western district of Bajura. On a recent Sunday in a south Delhi park I met several youths from Bajura who said they were all from the same ward of Barabish village. “I have seven members of my family here,” said 28-year-old Bhim Bahadur Sarki who, like Bishnu, is a nighttime chowkidar in Greater Kailash.
The main job of a chowkidar is to guard the residential complex that is called block or colony. The homeowners form a committee and raise money to hire a chowkidar. Besides the 12-hour duty, a nighttime chowkidar generally washes cars inside the colony for which he gets paid (about Rs. 150, and Rs. 100 for bikes). A youth from Bajura guards the Bishnu Prasad Nepal’s block during daytime. Both are accountable to the block’s secretary H.R. Mehra.
“Security of the block is number one,” Mehra explained the reasons for hiring guards. “No one should steal things from here. No one should be allowed to come to the parks and engage in nefarious activities like drinking and bringing girls. The residents should get a sound sleep.”
Blowing a whistle and tapping a cane, the chowkidar goes on several rounds of patrolling in a night to provide the “sound sleep”. Those who hear the sound for the first time might conclude the eruption of an emergency situation outside. Apart from keeping possible thieves at bay, the ‘sound’ serves as the “attendance of chowkidar” according to Mehra. The sound, Mehra added, also assures residents that “nothing can happen to us or our properties because chowkidar is on duty.” For Bishnu, I felt, that’s like belling the cat. “When I didn’t tap the cane they used scold me alleging that I was asleep,” Bishnu recalled old days. “I used to break the floor of the courtyard of the complainer’s house at night. He wouldn’t say a word from the next day.”
Forty-five oldies have died in the block since Bishnu started chowkidari 17 years ago. Some of them were good while others were not so good, says Bishnu. One old man who used to give him tea and clothes took Bishnu’s shoes and cane one night when he was asleep. Next day the old man thrashed him showing shoes: “You bastard, sleeping during duty? Here’s the proof.”
Now, he said, the residents don’t complain much.
“I won their hearts by good service,” he said.
Once, while patrolling, Bishnu found Rs. seven lakhs in a car that belonged to a guest of B-7. Instead of running away with money, he notified the owners and was rewarded Rs. three thousand. “It takes me ages to earn that much money,” he said. “But I didn’t sell my honesty. I have won their trust.”
Winning others’ trust and realizing your own dream are two different things. Chowkidari earns him Rs. 2800 per month. Since he also works as a household help in a Block B home where he lives Bishnu manages to save around Rs. 3000 a month. “It will take around five years to have enough money to build a house,” he calculates. Apart from food that he buys from a nearby dhaba, four cigarettes costing a rupee each a day and a Hindi daily newspaper, the only money (Rs. 30 per month) Bishnu spends for entertainment is for a call back tune on his cell phone. Dial his numbers and you will be treated to a Nepali dohori: samjhana le bhairachu tolaune/ paapini lai ke bhani bolaune/damauli ma pool/pirati launa le sarai bhayo bhool. Everything he saves is for his dream and his family back home. His five-year-old son goes to an English medium school while the 14-year-old daughter studies in a government school.
Bishnu becomes sentimental and full of remorse when he is reminded of his childhood. His father was a priest. Bishnu broke his leg when he was 10 and his father decided migrate to Nawalparasi thinking his son wouldn’t break his leg in the plains. His father sent him to a school but Bishnu never paid attention to his books. “I was a brat,” he said. “Didn’t study, always played. Now I am facing all these hardships in life because of that.”
Bishnu had an argument with his father when he was 12. He decided to leave home. He worked in a roadside hotel in a nearby town of Narayangadh. After a few years he went to Punjab, India. There he stayed for five years and returned home only when his younger brother, second among three, came to see him (The youngest died at young age). Both brothers came back to Delhi, worked for two years and returned home. But they did not stay there for long. Bishnu came back to Delhi again and took up the chowkidari job in block B of Jangpura Extension. Seventeen long years have passed but there is no certainty of future. Every year he takes a month long unpaid vacation during the Dashain festival to go see his family. “If this were a government job, it’s about time I got pension,” he said. “But it’s not. Tap the cane as long as you have strength in your body. When you are depleted, quietly go back to where you came from.”
(The writer is the New Delhi bureau chief of The Kathmandu Post.)