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December 2008

So far from home

- Dianna

A peep into the lives of Auroville's Nepali watchmen.


Khemraj is a 22 year old Nepali who has been Khemrajworking in Auroville as a watchman. He came to Auroville six years ago after a four day train journey from Nepal . “One of my brothers was already working in Pondicherry and my other brother was in Hyderabad ,” he says. “My parents were farmers and sometimes there was not enough food to eat. So the only possibility for my brothers and myself was to leave and try to make money outside Nepal and send it home.”

He believes there may be about 150 Nepalese living in and around Auroville. The number is difficult to ascertain as the Nepalese do not need a visa to come to India , and therefore there are no official figures. He says many have been here for years, and now have teenage children studying in high schools here.

“ Nepal exports people,” he adds rather sadly. “Everywhere you go in the world you can see Nepalese. Many go to Malaysia where a lot of Hindi is spoken, or even Pakistan and, of course, the Gulf States . The men come to India for six months, get a visa for other countries, then go to Kerala and find a cheap flight to the Gulf States or Malaysia . In Qatar alone, I hear there are over 300,000 Nepalese working.”

Khemraj now feels very satisfied with his life here. At first he worked at the Town Hall. “The salary was low, only Rs. 2,300 a month, and out of that I had to pay Rs.400 for a room in Kuilapalayam and another 100 rupees for electricity.” He is now much happier as he is Savitri Bhavan's sole watchman and has his own brand-new keet hut where he can cook, wash and sleep. “Yes, we're allowed to sleep for one or two hours during the night,” he explains. “After 10.30 p.m. I go around once around every hour to check everything is okay.

“Sometimes people ask me why watchmen are always from Nepal , and I tell them that we have no fear in our blood. We are connected with the famous Gurkha soldiers whom everyone knows and respects. Tamil watchmen tend to run away if there is any danger. For us the situation is very different as we have no pressures from having our families living here.”

At first Khemraj did not speak either English or Tamil so he was often lonely. But now he speaks very good Tamil, has lots of Tamil friends, and speaks reasonably good English. It also took him some time to adjust to life in India . “There are no big rivers nearby,” he said wistfully. “I particularly miss the rivers and mountains of my homeland. Once I went for a swim in the ocean, but there was too much salt and it burnt my eyes. Even the fish here is so salty that at first I could not eat it, but now I am used to it. Also the hot weather was not easy for me. Cold mountain air is much more healthy for the body.

“I have not gone back home since I came. I hope to go next year but I am sure everybody that I knew will be gone. Only the old people will still be there. Even the women are starting to leave now to work in the kitchens of Malaysia and the Gulf States .”

Does he have any interest in Auroville, or does he do other things when he is not watching? “No, there is no time. We work all the time, including at night, and we only think of our job. Many may move to better paying jobs, so we do not have so much interest in Auroville. I know this is not good. For myself, I would like to learn computing at the Industrial School some day, but I don't see how that is possible at present. I hope someone will take an interest in me, and help and support me with these dreams. Yet I am happy here.”

Tikkaram Sharma's story is a little different. He is now 49 years old, and has been working at Aurelec for 28 years. He is one of six Nepali watchmen employed by Aurelec who live in rooms on the premises. They are smart in their dark green uniforms and seem happy with their situation.

“I first came to work in Chennai,” says Tikkaram, “but it was terribly hot in the city and the water was not good. Auroville is much cooler and I love the shanti (peace) here. My wife came to live with me and three of our five children were born here. Unfortunately, I could not afford to feed and school them here so they had to go back to Nepal . I send them 3,000 rupees a month from my salary of 4,000 rupees. I telephone them once a month and speak to my children, but all they seem to talk about is money, like teenagers everywhere. I tell them, “Don't worry, be happy, and God will look after you.” But they don't seem to understand. Once every two years I make the long journey home to Nepal to see my family. The ticket costs RS.560 rupees.

“We work in eight hour shifts so our life is varied. We cook our own food as we still haven't got used to the spicy Tamil food, though I do like idli and dosai and the Indian sweets. Nepalese men very rarely marry Tamil girls as the girl's families are against it, though I do know of a few love marriages where they are happy. On my days off, I meet Nepali friends and we go to Pondicherry market or to the beach. Sometimes someone will have a Nepalese newspaper which I love to read. I don't watch television anymore.

“When I am 58 I will have to retire as this is the Indian law. I have managed to save about 500 rupees every month, plus I hope to get a monthly pension of 1,200 rupees. With this I will be able to live in Nepal with my family. But after all these years in South India I don't even know if I will be happy there. I think I have done well to come to this beautiful and peaceful place which is Auroville.”



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