Our 200 plus years of illusive quest to bring wealth home from abroad have often ended up in tragedies
Bola Maya, a painfully beautiful song about a young man who dies in foreign land, has been viewed over two million times on YouTube and has 8,000 plus comments since its release some ten days ago. A majority of the comments are from Nepalis working abroad, mostly in the Middle East. The video opens with a creaky van carrying a coffin made of cheap wood on top of it along a dilapidated highway through villages that are barren, and villages with just children and women. The video is painful to watch and makes anyone cry. This song is an acute snapshot of the state of our nation today.
The cheap brown wooden coffin is emblematic of our national sorrow—even in death our brothers and sisters are sent home in a rather undignified way. The coffin is alien to our culture. Some of the dead bodies are shelved in mortuary for months, and even years in some cases, before they are sent to Nepal packed in coffin. A healthy young man who left home comes back in those ugly looking coffins, with family’s hope, aspiration and dignity all enmeshed in embalming chemicals.
Dhan layaunchubhandaigayekathiyeuuderaakash ma
(You flew promising to bring wealth/
You left young but came in a wooden box).
In a tragic scene, the young man’s pregnant wife, hugging the coffin, laments the promises of her husband before he left. Our struggle to create wealth in hopes of improving life of those around us forces young hands to search for opportunities in the land of unknown. Many of these young men take a bus ride to Kathmandu and spend a few nights in hotels around Naya Bus Park and then head off to the airport to their destination.
Jadakheri akashaima aaunda bakasaima
(You left via plane but came back in box)
Stories of struggle
Prakash Saput, the writer of the song and an actor in the music video, has a very similar story. A native of Baglung, he shares his own painful life in the song: a life of constant struggles—his father spent well over five decades abroad and friends lost their lives in foreign soil. He has helped carry coffins of his friends and villagers many times from Kathmandu to his hometown in Baglung. A manpower office in Kathmandu once deemed Saput unqualified for work in Malaysia. In a separate interview, Anjali Adhikari, the lead female actor in the video, says that not playing the role would have been one of her biggest regrets in life. They all feel the pain—a deep searing unhealable pain—the same way, like the families of those who lose their loved ones in foreign soil. They are our sisters, brothers, cousins, next-door neighbors and friends; all too real, all too familiar.
Our young men and women have to work, in sweltering heat without water and safety gears, in construction sites to sheep farms. Perhaps the reason why lok geets like Bola Maya move so many of us is because it provides the country with a clever escape—from reality for a split second—and a blessed interval from breathtaking lack of empathy and care from those sitting in high offices in Singha Durbar who do not stop telling us how they will make Nepal next “Singapore, Switzerland” and more.
Songs of sorrow
Saili, another recent song about the pains of migrant labor economy by Hemanta Rana, has been viewed more than 25 million times in YouTube and has thousands of comments, many cursing the government for their misfortune and the suffering in foreign land. Suna Saili chaliskatesiramaunla (My love, we shall live our life after 40) is a stinging rebuke to our state of affairs that forces a young Nepali to work all his young life abroad and come home around 40 when all the energy, drive and strength have been sapped away from his body.
Ama Le Sodhlin, one of the first songs about migrant labor, popularized by Jhalakman Gandharwa, and sung around the time of the Second World War emerged as a dirge to those lost in the smokes of the war in faraway lands in Burma, Japan and Europe. Legendary lok geet singers like Gandharwa found a way to soothe aching hearts in Nepal’s remote villages. That was an age when Gandharwa’s lok geets were the only temporary solace in villages all across the country.
Nepali lok geet also evolved as the nature of our migrant labor changed from services in foreign wars to workers in construction sites. Earlier songs talked of the pains of wars and the helplessness in the battlefield and the post-nineties songs decry abuse and horrid working conditions in the Middle East. It has been little more than 200 years since Nepalis started leaving the country for employment—after the Anglo-Nepal war (1814- 1816).
Bola Maya is an austerely honest and delicate tale of our national tragedy and its never ending chain of pain to millions of families across the country. Listening to these range of songs feel like traveling inside a time capsule—where our state of things has changed very little for the average people and these songs are just one manifestation of people’s perfidy of the system and of leaders who shop with unrealistic list of “dreams” during elections. Our annals of lok geet scream at the ruling class who remain oblivious to the suffering of the people in boiling hot temperatures in the Middle East. Even those working at embassies in the region thrive from the ever-growing manpower business. A Nepali officer working in Nepali Embassy in Malaysia was recently fired after his involvement with manpower agencies was exposed by several media outlets in Nepal.
A total of 5,892 Nepalis—5,765 male and 127 female—have died in 28 destination countries in the last nine years, according to a recent Labor Migration for Employment report. This is around 650 plus deaths a year. I don’t know if some of our leaders have had the time and patience to watch Bola Maya but this should be a wake-up call to work on their promises of “Switzerland and Singapore” before the tragic dying spree of our young lives in the Middle East sparks another uprising here at home.
With rare exceptions, humiliation, suffering, abuse and torture of Nepali workers have rarely been a matter of concern to the rest of the world for bilateral and multilateral relations are intricately defined by economic interests of countries. As long as we remain poor labor-export economy, our dream of prosperity will continue to be engulfed by the flames of those returning in boxes with Bola Maya playing in the background—perhaps an elegy to our leaders’ incompetence, and obliviousness to million of Nepalis breaking their backs in foreign soil.