Chance Encounters (with Nepalis) In India

“I don’t know what sins we committed in our previous life that we have to serve in a foreign army. It feels like we are going to all these dhams all over India to wash away our sins.”

chandigarh chance encounter with a nepali lad
Bhagiram Gharti didn’t want to be photographed

By Dinesh Wagle
This article first appeared in today’s Kathmandu Post Op-Ed

It was his solitary lunch. Perhaps his time to think and reflect upon the life he had lived so far. He was slowly chewing rice from a small plate in front of him. Under a concrete shade in the middle of the wide courtyard at Chandigarh’s main marketplace, he was seated cross-legged on a concrete bench fully focused on the meal. He was hungry. I don’t know what exactly, but there was something familiar about him that prompted me to ask (in Hindi), “Where are you from?”

In fact, I almost did that in Nepali. The reply, delivered in low but firm voice, confirmed my doubt. “Nepaaal,” he said, looking directly at my eyes.

Nineteen-year-old Bhagiram Gharti from Gairi Gaun of Rolpa district, where the Maoist guerilla war began in the 1990s, never participated in the conflict; but the struggle that he is waging in this Indian city to make ends meet is no less difficult. With his education capped at an incomplete fifth grade, thanks to the war, and no job to survive in the hills that were ravaged during the insurgency, Bhagiram came to India two years ago with his neighborhood brothers leaving behind his parents, sister and brother to earn Indian Rs. 3,000 as a helper in a Puma showroom. He said he planned to return to his village to celebrate Tihar, not Dashain, with his family later this month. Is this return for good? I asked in my brief chance encounter with the boy earlier this month. “No,” he said, while politely declining to be photographed. “Pardesh ma ta aaunai parla feri.” (Will have to come back to foreign land again.)

It was the lunch hour and the concrete shade, not very far from the showroom, was his favorite spot to eat. Not that they didn’t let him eat in a corner of the showroom itself; but, he said, he found peace here. “And some time to rest,” he added. Hundreds of thousands of uneducated, unskilled and unemployed men (and women) from Nepal come to several Indian cities to take up low-wage, laborious and sometimes humiliating jobs. One can find such Nepalis almost everywhere in India.

Sagar Rai and Rajesh KC in Jammu, India
Sagar Rai of Darjeeling and Rajesh KC of Nawalparasi work in a Dhaba that’s named to to recognized Gorkha contribution in Indian Army.

Three days before this encounter, I had another in Jammu. The hotel near the railway station where a friendly-looking and the Goddess Vaishno Devi-fearing autowallah took me turned out to be a rat’s residence. Money was already paid before I discovered several unexplainable stains on the bed sheet, and I was too tired to fight back and it was too late go looking for another place. Hazards of backpacking, I concluded; and headed to the bazaar near the station. A day-long trip from Dharmashala sans the Dalai Lama had starved me.

A dhaba was still open. I ordered a thali (bread, rice, dal and sabji). The stunning moment came when the server, putting the plate on my table, returned with his hip slightly shaking and his hands waiving upwards and sang in Nepali, “Timi aayinauuuuu.” (You didn’t come.) I couldn’t help but smile. He noticed. He came to my table, and in fluent and slang-filled Nepali, asked the quintessentially Nepali question that we ask in a Nepali gaun (village): “Gaunle ko ghar kata ho? “ (Where’s your home (in Nepal), pal?)

That plump, smiling and Mongoloid gentleman there was Sagar Rai, a 33-year-old school dropout from Darjeeling who had been working in that dhaba for the past 12 years. “Yes, yes,” he said to one of my queries. “There are. In fact, the cook here is from Nepal.”

Nepali Hotel: a Dhava in Jammu, India
Nepali Restaurant in Jammu: a dhaba aimed at serving the soldiers of Indian army from Nepal.

So, here in Jammu, the winter capital of one of India’s most volatile states, Jammu and Kashmir, I was eating food prepared by a 19-year-old, heavily bearded and energetic boy from Chormara village of Nawalparasi.

“Lau, kun khaire aayo dhaba ma bhaneko, gaunle po raicha,” Rajesh K.C. responded after he was told by Sagar that the customer was a Nepali. (Thought some alien Westerner came to the dhaba but you are our own villager!) He shook my left hand firmly. Unlike Bhagiram who was reluctant to speak, Rajesh appeared to be waiting for a reporter to unleash his entire story of struggle at once. But he was still on duty, customers were coming in, therefore, our conversation was punctuated by his boss’s orders: “Oie Rajesh, idher aajaa.” (Come here.)

Rajesh, a fourth grade dropout, left home nine years ago for India and spent time in Punjab, Delhi and Shimla before taking up the current job three years ago. “There’s not much an uneducated like me can do,” he said.

These are particularly difficult times, emotionally speaking, for this teen. Four months ago he married a girl only to leave her in the village where his parents and five siblings live. His 24-year-old older brother separated from the family within the first month of marriage forcing Rajesh to find a buhari for the ailing parents. “Forty days,” he said. “I stayed home 40 days four months ago when I had gone to marry. Out of those 40 days, I think, I spent 14/15 days together [with my wife]. Then I hurried back to Jammu. “Ke garne, ghar ko paristhiti testai chha.” (Such is the situation at home. What to do?

Later, I saw the signboard that said more about the dhaba’s Nepali connection: “Sainki Bhojanalaya, Nepali dhaba.”

The owner, a local from Jammu, is the brother of a retired solider, now paralytic, of the Gorkha brigade of the Indian Army where thousands of Nepali youths work. “My brother shares a special bond with Nepalis,” said the owner. “He wanted it to be named Nepali.”

The next day, near the same dhaba, I hear a loud Nepali voice of a man who was, I instinctively assumed, having a long distance conversation. There were two guys talking to their families back in Pokhara. One of them talked on the phone for about 40 minutes. He was outspoken, expressive and slightly (or a bit more, perhaps) drunk. (My problem is I can’t figure out the level of drunkenness even while I am interacting with the person.) The other one was not drunk (or less, perhaps), very shy, less expressive and “very afraid” of people like me. “I hope you are not video-recording all this and showing it on TV,” he said, staring at my iPhone.

The other guy, who was talking with his wife after a long interval, wanted to talk to all the members of the family who were available. “I tell you I rarely call; and when I call, I talk long,” he was saying.

They were going to Dehradun to assume duty after finishing their stint in Srinagar. During the course of their service in the Indian army, the frank guy said, they reached all the nooks and crannies of India. “Char dham garisakiyo,” he said, referring to his journeys to the four sites that Hinduism considers the holiest. (Did the Char dham too.)

Then, as we were heading towards the railway station, he said suddenly, “I don’t know what sins we committed in our previous life that we have to serve in a foreign army. It feels like we are going to all these dhams all over India to wash away our sins.”

For once, I didn’t find the next question to ask an interviewee. That rarely happens.