Kamal’s short story about poverty and Covid-19
Kamal has just had a short story published on Setopati’s website – Nepal’s most reputable digital newspaper with over 1.7 million readers. The article, which you can read below, is a work of fiction, but is based on Kamal’s real feelings and true events that have happened in his life. The protagonist of the story, Harke, is an imagined character but his story represents the actual problems of poverty faced by many people from the Karnali region and other remote areas of Nepal. Kamal has dedicated his story to his mother, who is recovering from her encounter with Covid-19.
Bravo Kamal – a very moving account of Covid infected times in Nepal.
Click HERE to read Kamal’s story in Nepalese on Setopati’s website, or see below for English translation.
FOREIGNER HARKE AND CORONA by Dr Kamal Hamal
Harka Bahadur is the son of a poor farmer living in a remote village in Nepal. A few years ago, Harka Bahadur’s father died at the age of 53 due to diarrhoea. His mother also suffers from asthma. Harka, who had just turned 23 years old, needed a wife to take care of his old mother and to run the household chores, so he got married to Manmaya, a poor girl from his village.
Harka’s family, who were really struggling financially, had to work all day on other people’s farms to earn a living, which meant that Harka struggled to put food on the table. Harkar’s first son was born in his house about a year after his marriage. He was delighted to become a father and his mother a grandmother – the house was full of joy. The family were overjoyed for the next 5 days but then Harke once again started worrying about how to feed his family. Ideally Harke would want to feed his son with white rice but could only afford to feed him rice on one day per year. The Brahmins (Hindu priests/elders) performed the Hindu religious ritual called Pooja to celebrate the birth of Harkar’s son and gave him the name Dhanlal Hamal. The baby was extremely underweight when he was born, so the villagers gave him the nickname of Chaure (wrinkly skin). All 12 of Chaure’s ribs were clearly visible, and he looked like a photo taken by the world-renowned photographer Kevin Carter in Sudan, reminiscent of a vulture starving to death. The villagers used to tease Harke about Chaure saying that he looked like he was dying. Harke had studied in the village school till class 4 and was a very strong young man with indomitable courage in his heart.
One evening, after finishing work in the Adhiya field, Harke met about eight or ten of his friends who all told him the same story. While walking, they came to Chautari (a tree hut where people sit and talk) and started talking about going to Muglan (a place in India) to work. Everyone listened in silence – Harke had never heard of Muglan, let alone been there. The friends were all doubtful about their dream of working in Muglan but Harke wondered whether it might be possible for him to fulfil his dream of working in Muglan too.
“But who will take care of my family if I go to Muglan?” he thought to himself “and how can I live without my love and who will treat my mother’s asthma and send my son Chaure to school?” While Harka was thinking this, one of his friends said, “Let’s go to Muglan and earn some money!” Harka thought to himself “I am going to Muglan too. My son has just started walking by holding onto the wall of the house and I will miss him a lot, but I’m going.” Harka and his friends arrived home exhausted after their 6 days’ work and with a lot on their minds. Harka ate some corn and went to bed. Manmaya realized that Harka had a lot of back pain, so rubs some oil into his back and watches him as he falls asleep.
Next day, Harke returned to his daily routine, worrying about his aching body, of Manmaya’s torn old clothes, his mother’s wrinkly skin, and Chaure’s skinny body. He threw down his spade and looked at his hand. He began to feel sad and depressed, the tears of pain in his eyes were clearly visible, and there was a black cloud hanging over him.
He felt completely powerless, and like everyone he knew he just has to get on with it. People often imagine what would make their family happy, and sometimes Manamaya imagined being adorned in a fine, red flower dress. But they all know that money is the key to achieve such riches.
As he arrived home, Harke reminded his mother and Manmaya that he is going to the Muglan to work. He looked at Chaure with tears in his eyes. Coincidentally, at that the same time there was a song playing on the radio that was all about going to Bombay to earn money.
Now in Muglan, Harke has been unable to send any money home because he did not get the job he was hoping for. His dream of sending Chaure to school remains only in his dreams. The people of the village have started teasing Chaure. But poor Chaure remained cheerful, nonetheless. Chaure assumed that his first teeth are no less than any ripe yellow corn. Days pass and everyone is forced to live a life of common struggle.
Meanwhile, while eating with friends, Harke heard the news of a new disease called Corona virus. It kills people all over the world with the infection spreading fast abroad. He heard that many people have died in China, the United States and many other countries whose names he has never heard of. The Indian government has decided to lock the country down and there is a high risk in Nepal as well.
Despite the fact that he is under lockdown in India, Harke is even more shocked by the news that the government has decided to lock down Nepal too. He is stuck in India, and as the days pass everyone is running out of money, and due to the financial impact of lockdown, Harke has not been able to earn a living at all.
Happiness has disappeared from Harke’s face, he is lonely, he doesn’t feel like sharing his thoughts with others, he is sitting in a dark room, and his mind is full of millions of thoughts. He is worried about his house and he never gets a good night’s sleep.
Back home in the village, Manmaya has not even been able earn a living by working in the fields. The grains that Harke had been cultivating are fast running out. The small bhakari (grain container) is slowly becoming empty. Harke’s mother is short of breath, and although she likes to eat rice, she is forced to fill her stomach with cornbread and water every day. Chaure fights all the time. Manmaya is completely distracted, always seeming to be worried.
Initially, some financial relief was provided by their neighbour, but it was scarce, not always possible.
Chaure is always thinking about his father Harke. The mother is hungry and Manmaya the wife sits alone with her head in her hands.
Even in foreign countries, everyone is in a state of despair. Harke thinks of his family and all his worries at home and is in despair, realizing the reality in which he and his family find themselves. Harke is in despair for a very long time and It is taking its toll on his relationship with the Indians and their reality. There is an ongoing border dispute between Nepal and India, because the Indian media is spreading misinformation about Nepal, and India’s relationship with Nepal is growing cold. Harke was forced to flee to India because of poverty. As the days go by, Harke’s landlord tells him he has to leave the room since he can’t pay the rent anymore – he doesn’t even have enough money to buy food to eat. The pain and worry about what to eat, what to do and where to live is tormenting millions of Nepali foreigners including Harke. Despite the ongoing Covid crisis, Harke hears that the Nepalese government has reportedly opened up online train tickets for the Nepalese to come back to their homeland. The next day, Harke and all his friends prepare to come back to Nepal. After a two-day journey, they reach the Nepal-India border where thousands of Nepali citizens are struggling to return to their country, fights are breaking out, but the most worrying thing is that there is a high possibility of transmitting the Corona virus in such a huge crowd.
A police vehicle announces over a loudspeaker that it is mandatory to wear a mask, maintain physical distance, and close all except the essential shops. In response to these commands, Harke takes a red handkerchief from his pocket and covers his mouth and nose. But despite returning to Nepal, not everyone is happy when they eventually set foot on home soil. Because of his situation, Harke succumbed to deep depression. Even the joy of setting foot back in Nepal has not brought any happiness to his depressed mind.
Harke eventually arrives at a quarantine site for returning workers from India, set up by the Karnali state government in Surkhet, but it is completely disorganized. People from Jajarkot, Kalikot, Humla, Dolpa, Jumla and other districts are all bundled together. They are having to mix together at the health desk which has been set up for check-ups, and where patients with a fever, difficulty with breathing and a consistent cough have been separated.
But arrangements in the camp have not been made in accordance with health standards. The state government has been sending everyone home with an RDT, rapid diagnostic test. Everyone has also had swabs taken from their noses and mouths, and Harke waits patiently for the result. In his village, Manmaya, Chahure, and Harke’s mother are starving hungry every day with no food. Manmaya cries alone in her room while Harke’s mother is in another room. Unable to bear the pain, Manmaya decides she can take no more, thinks of everyone else in the same situation and decides to leave this world – she commits suicide by hanging herself out of the side window with tears in her eyes. The final words she utters are, “My husband, my son Chaure, may we be born rich in the next birth and serve you better.” She leaves this world. Back in the isolation camp Harke hears the terrible news that his wife has died and he faints, crying out “God, why did you do this to me?”
Manmaya’s friends take her to the centre of the village to place her body at rest in readiness for Harke’s arrival, but the next day, when he finally arrives home, he finds that villagers have already buried Manmaya in the presence of just a small number of people, because they were so worried that she might have died of the Corona virus. Harke is devastated he could not say his final farewells to his wife – he sobs. Chaure has become an orphan and everyone in the family feels so lonely without her. Harke’s dreams have vanished like a bubble of water.
Lonely Harke is now struggling to raise his family, to support the household, and take care of his elderly mother and young son. Despite having witnessed for himself all the struggles of working in a foreign country, he knows that he has to return to India in a few days, as it’s the only way he knows to support his family financially. He cries while looking at Chaure’s face, holding his mother’s old hand and says, “Forgive me mother, I have to go back to India and earn more money so I can send it to you to buy a sack of rice for next month.”
Despite the language barrier, different environment, and threat from a corona virus infected country, many Nepalese are forced to go to India as their only option to survive and support their families.
Dr Kamal Hamal
(with grateful thanks to Sumita Shakya for the translation)