Kabita Bhandari has been living in Mumbai since 2006, with her husband and kids. I was introduced to Bhandari by Yashodha Acharya; both Bhandari and Acharya have worked with NGOs in Mumbai, especially on projects concerning migrant women. They are no longer working with any organization, but continue to organize Nepali women, in the neighbourhood, into smaller groups where the women watch out for each other, share their problems and help each other. Bhandari says that she learnt a lot about migrants’ rights, women’s rights due to her work and it is the work that allowed her to develop her confidence and shaped her into the strong woman that she is today.
Forced to move
Poverty, lack of employment, and culture of bribery to get a good job, forced Bhandari and her family, like other migrants, to move to India – to seek work for a better life.
My name is Kabita Bhandari. My home in Nepal is in Syangja, Waaling. That’s my maternal home. My home (martial) is in Galang. I came here for the first time in 2006. My kids were born here. Then we went back home. But you know how it is—the poverty there. Rather, it’s mostly the lack of employment. If you are not able to work the fields or carry loads, you do not have a substantial alternative in Nepal to work in companies and factories like you do in India. If you are in a good position, then you get the jobs. There are no jobs for those from the lower class, and those who cannot afford to bribe the authority. If I mention bribery, it’ll be like insulting my own county, so that’s not a good thing to do. This culture is the same everywhere.
Bribery in India, in Nepal – even if you have gotten a good education; there are people who have studied a lot and are working as buffalo shepherds. My husband has studied, and has a B.A. degree. But when the interview for Lok Sewa (Examination to enter Government institutions) was announced, Maoists burned everything. Because of that experience, he came to Mumbai. Then, while he was looking around in Mumbai, he found a good job, because he has had good education. We also had our aunt’s children here. He then called me.
“How do you run a family with a Rs. 3000-4000 as salary? Here, we wash clothes, wash dishes and also cook for others. We do these jobs in the morning and in the afternoon we work in an NGO.”
After having our children here, we went back to our village, but he was not able to find a job there. He looked around—moved between Kathmandu, Pokhara and Syangja. How do you run a family with a Rs. 3000-4000 as salary? Here, we wash clothes, wash dishes and also cook for others. We do these jobs in the morning and in the afternoon we work in an NGO. Here, no one gossips about where we are working, because everyone’s doing the same. In Nepal, if we wash other people’s dishes and cook for them, we will be mocked. They’ll gossip about us mentioning our family’s name—so, we can’t work. So here, not just Nepali women, but Indian women as well, are compelled to do other people’s work.
No one is paid the amount that justifies their work. Watchmen working in society security are paid for eight hours but they work for twelve, thirteen hours. If they work for twelve, thirteen hours, they must be paid accordingly—for both Nepalis and locals. That’s the sad part here. The women who work in households are kept under pressure. These women, some of whom are knowledgeable and active, are not allowed to demonstrate their abilities. If you try, they’ll tell you, “If you know so much, why don’t you work somewhere else?” But we can’t find jobs in offices without demonstrated skills. Then, it’s better not to speak. Here, you can raise your children by doing any sort of work. In comparison to Nepal, even if you are paid five thousand here, it’s eight thousand there. That’s also one of the main reasons why many Nepalis come here.
“When I first came here, I was very sad. I used to cry day and night remembering Nepal. Instead of living here in these conditions, I’d rather be in Nepal in our open space.”
The first time in India
Sad about leaving her own country, Nepal, Bhandari admits that desperation drove them to India. She says that circumstances gave rise to this situation where she and her husband are forced to work in Mumbai. She is hopeful that, in the future, the circumstances would change – allowing her to return to her country and hold her head high.
When I first came here, I was very sad. I used to cry day and night remembering Nepal. Instead of living here in these conditions, I’d rather be in Nepal in our open space. I’d rather stay in Nepal with a half-full stomach—maybe without eating for a day, even if I had to work blood, sweat and tears. I would still prefer Nepal, and my own village. I still feel that way—when can I go back to Nepal and be with my own people? I still think about when I would be able to leave this place and build my own house. My inner desire is to take my children back home, provide education for them there and find them jobs there. I am here because of compulsion and not because I want to. It’s not because of me and my husband’s wishes but because of compulsion that our family is staying here. We have to educate and raise our children. We are not living here according to our wishes, but with a lot of hardship. We work from five in the morning to ten in the night. If all men and women of Nepal would work this much, Nepal would do so well. But no one does—Nepalis are lazy.
Those who have struggled abroad, understand—what it’s like working abroad, and what it’s like working in Nepal. In Nepal, you don’t have to listen and be oppressed. You can hold your head high and be reasonable—if you can’t work today, you can do it tomorrow. We have come here in desperation. My husband does not want to stay here; neither do I. We grew up in Nepal, and we studied there and worked there. Circumstances have given rise to this period. But there is a rotation—it’s never the same. That’s how we are here—out of desperation.
When I first moved here, I could understand the local language but I couldn’t respond. I had thoughts but could not express them. When you cannot speak, others would say to you whatever they feel like. And in the evening when my husband returned, I would have a list of things that were said to me and ask him how I should respond. I would note everything down.
“I felt good being able to do the things that I had wanted to do. The fact that I was able to meet and work with Nepalis despite living in India made me happy. It gave me inspiration and also courage.”
Working with NGOs
Bhandari has worked for CARE in the past. CARE is an organization that focuses on the empowerment of women and girls. With CARE, she was particularly engaged in a project titled, Enhancing Mobile Populations’ Access to HIV & AIDS Services, Information & Support (EMPHASIS). Her experience at CARE has played an important role in her knowledge on migrants’ rights, women’s rights, and also in organizing other Nepali women in the neighbourhood.
When I came to Mumbai for the first time, I did not do any work for some time. I used to cry day-and-night, wondering when I will be going back to my village. I could not distinguish the days from nights; I did not feel like eating; and I used to feel like I was kept in a brothel. After my husband left for work, I felt like the clock stopped moving and the day ceased to pass. At four, my father-in-law used to come back from school. He then took me for walks in the neighborhood. I was still new, and wasn’t able to communicate that well, so that would cheer me up a bit. After my children were born, I did not work for sometime –my older son was two and a half years old, and the younger one was about six, seven months old. And I also stayed in my village for one and a half years. When I came here, I could speak Hindi. I could speak and knew about the lifestyle here.
“Now, I am not behind anyone here. Even though I can’t speak Marathi, I can understand it. I can speak a little. We don’t have to belittle ourselves and bow down to anyone here.”
Later, I met this Madam here – Yasodha Acharya. Then, I worked as a peer in EMPHASIS on a part time basis. Emphasis Project was a part of an ngo called CARE. Then, my children were still small. I worked with her for six, seven months, and learned how to work in an NGO during that duration. I had participated in a few NGO trainings prior to working there—while I was studying in Nepal. So, I did have some knowledge – not much, but some. I used to go to Sunday meetings with Yasodha Madam, where I got to meet other people like her. I felt good being able to do the things that I had wanted to do. The fact that I was able to meet and work with Nepalis despite living in India made me happy. It gave me inspiration and also courage. I felt like I can do everything, and later, the Madam told me that I should work there because I have learned a lot. I was active, the staff there liked me but I told her that I don’t like to travel. I never travelled anywhere. I used to come here from Gokuldham (an area close to her neighbourhood), not even from Goregaon. I said to her that I would work with her if she dropped me off right at my house, or else I wouldn’t. She agreed and did not leave me alone – for two, three months. The Sirs in the office were also very kind to me. They used to say, “Don’t let Kabita Madam go on her own.”
Having started working in the organization, my knowledge grew, and I also became more courageous and confident. I learned that I should not let anyone be unjust to me, and even if they are, I should not be afraid. And at the same time, I realized that I should also support other individuals facing injustice. When we work, we should not be working just for money, but should also work to gain knowledge and learn, and eventually we’ll have money.
“All women are equal. But we largely work for Nepali women, as we are groups of Nepali women. The groups are as big as twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty, sixteen and ten members.”
Then … and now
Bhandari is spirited when she talks about her work, and some of the things she has learnt through her work – how clear communication is essential, and one should not be afraid of speaking out against injustice of any kind. She also talks about the hardships of other Nepali women and how they help each other, and try to solve things within the community, first, and then go to higher authorities, if need be.
Now, I am not behind anyone here. Even though I can’t speak Marathi, I can understand it. I can speak a little. We don’t have to belittle ourselves and bow down to anyone here. Whatever that’s said to us, we act accordingly. What I learned from my earlier experiences is that if we do not communicate with them clearly, they will try to dominate us later. So, wherever I go to work I make sure I communicate clearly—this is how much we are to be paid for the work mentioned, if the work increases this is how much we ought to be paid more. It’s hourly based. In NGOs, these things are fixed; we don’t have to speak. For those who work in households, whoever is in our network, we tell them to do the same. “Don’t be afraid. If anything happens, let us know.”
We have organized groups in five, six neighborhoods. We are making savings and we give out loans to whoever is in need. If anyone comes across domestic violence or social abuse, we gather behind such victims—not just for Nepali women, but for all women. All women are equal. But we largely work for Nepali women, as we are groups of Nepali women. The groups are as big as twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty, sixteen and ten members. If their children get sick, they are not able to admit their children in school, pay their children’s school fee, buy books for their children, or buy ration for their family, we support them as per their needs. We provide loans for one rupee interest. One rupee interest is nothing. We assess how much money they need—five thousand, six thousand, seven thousand, three thousand, two thousand. What’s happening? How much do we give them? If they need five thousand, two thousand won’t be enough. Are they able to pay back in two months or four months? If they are able to pay back, that’s okay. If they are not, they have to meet with every member of the group and explain when she will be able to pay back. This sort of consultations must always happen. We don’t provide loans on individual basis.
Amongst the Nepalis in Mumbai, mostly, it has been Achhamis (migrants from Achham district, Western Nepal) who have suffered. Achhami men drink and beat their wives, and make their daughters do wrong kinds of work. We try to prevent these things. We try to do what we can and we also ask other organizations who are better equipped to deal with such issues. But, we try our best to solve these issues within our community. If we can’t, we approach a higher authority or work with other organizations. We try to avoid these incidents to unfold, and we also advise concerned individuals. We also try to preserve our art and culture, despite living in Mumbai, by organizing events.
“I worked in CARE for two and a half years, and in another organization called Udaan for around three years. In our work, we use polite language, even if someone speaks harshly to us.”
There is a woman from Palpa. She has lived here for twenty, twenty-five years. She leaves for work at seven and comes back at eleven in the night. She has five, six children, who she has to send to school. She talks a lot about her hardship, and how she is doing it because she must—she has to raise her children. She can’t just go home and find work. All she can do is work the fields. “Here, if there is no work for a day, neither will she have money nor will she be able to afford food. I’m here because I have to. I don’t feel like talking to anyone with a smile,” she says. “I don’t feel like saying where I work. And I don’t feel like smiling to people.” She comes and shares these feelings with me. “I wish no one asked me where I work and what I do. I leave at seven in the morning to work in households. I do whatever I have to, and come back home at 11 in the night. I can’t sleep at night because my arms and legs hurt. There, I would rather skip my morning meal and eat one meal a day, but at least I would not have to explain to anyone. I can’t wait for my children to grow up and live their lives, so I can go back to my village. I dream of that day. I don’t think of anything else. I don’t feel like smiling. I am not happy at heart. I don’t like going to fun places, as my life here is like this,” she says.
“What we want, despite living in a foreign land, is love and kindness. That’s what’s most important to us.”
Taking pride in self, in being a woman
Bhandari reiterates that working in the NGOs, built her confidence and made her realize her rights. She learnt to stand up for herself and other women – to not to put up with injustice.
I worked in CARE for two and a half years, and in another organization called Udaan for around three years. In our work, we use polite language, even if someone speaks harshly to us. We are working with the Nepalis, as well as the local Maharashtrian brothers and sisters, with a sense of togetherness. Even if someone is angry with us, we won’t be angry with them. Now, I’m not afraid to go anywhere in India and Nepal, be it on train, bus, taxi or rickshaw. This is also a matter of pride. Isn’t it? For a woman to be able to find the courage to work day and night is not a small feat.
I could have not worked, and just stayed in my room behind closed doors. I also learned what it’s like to work in households—I worked in households for six, seven months. How do the employers (seth and sethani) treat and suppress the women who work in their homes? How the things they say change in time? I understood this, and I brought up the issue at the same home I was working in. I said, “You have studied so much. You are a woman; you should not be suppressing other women.” Why does anyone have to suppress other women? If you do not agree with something, why can’t you respond with decency and warmth? Even an amount of five thousand that’s given with love seems like a lot; and ten thousand given with contempt does not seem much. What we want, despite living in a foreign land, is love and kindness. That’s what’s most important to us. For us, if anyone speaks to us harshly in Nepal, we can easily claim that it is ours as much as it is theirs and not be bothered. Here, the thing that gives pride to us is when people speak to us with kindness and love. We love Nepal a lot—because I am able to claim that it’s mine.
“In Nepal, Nepalis are mostly indifferent to each other, but here, they are more connected. Most of the women here have already understood these things, because we have been having monthly meetings.”
Living with the locals and other migrants
Politicians in Mumbai always play up the ‘anti-migrant’ card during the elections, but also know that the migrants are a ‘vote-bank’ that actually help them win local seats. Bhandari talks here, not about these politicians, but how things really are on ground – how the migrants (both Indians, and others) live with each other and the locals.
In the beginning, they (the local Maharashtrians) used to point out that we are Nepalis and used to behave differently with the Nepali tenants. They also tried to suppress us. Now we are united, so they are not able to suppress us. Earlier, they tried to dominate us, no matter what the issue was—even for water. The Nepalis, who were living in rented rooms, spoke differently. Now, all of us are well acquainted with the people here. They know what we do. We have also worked with them. We have helped them. If they are facing any sort of emergency, we come out to help, whether it’s night or day. And they now know what we do and that we also help them, so they don’t try to suppress us that much anymore. They help us. If we ask them for anything, they agree. It’s not like before, at least in this area. Before, their behavior towards us was too much. When we rent a room, they would charge us more than others. As you know, we have to collect water on a number basis. The locals used to get to fill as much as they want, but for Nepalis it would not be enough to even for food and clothes. It’s not like that anymore. We get what we are supposed to get, based on the numbers. If there isn’t any, that’s a different story. But whatever there is, we get as per our fair share. But I am not sure of what it is like in distant neighborhoods. I know what’s going on in and around my neighborhood. Here, Nepalis are living with courage and are not being suppressed.
We have this madam (pointing to the other lady, Yashoda) here. We go to many places together. She goes to wherever she is called, no matter what the time is. If there has been a murder of a Nepali, or whatever incident has happened to another Nepali, she goes there. We become sensitive just by the fact that they are Nepali. We are sensitive to everyone’s struggle but especially for Nepalis. In Nepal, Nepalis are mostly indifferent to each other, but here, they are more connected. Most of the women here have already understood these things, because we have been having monthly meetings. In the monthly meetings, whatever issues we have, good or bad, we discuss them. We can’t meet all the time. We go to work early in the morning and come back late. But we talk on the phone. We meet the ones who live nearby—not just during the monthly meetings, but whenever we need to. If someone has any emergency in the middle of the night, we meet for an hour, or even five minutes. Now, all the women here are working according to their capacity, and are earning money to sustain their livelihood. No one here has to stay in fear. We lay out the terms and conditions before hand, and we don’t involve ourselves in unnecessary things. But we can’t make any mistake, if we do, they’ll get an opportunity to complain. You can’t get away just because you are a Nepali, what is right and wrong must be applicable to everyone equally.
“From the moment we got married, he has said that whatever I desire to do and achieve I should go for it. I should not make mistakes. We should interact with others properly and not fight; that’s something he has always said.”
Bhandari speaks proudly of her husband and how he has supported her in her every endeavour.
My husband likes me going out and working. He motivated me to do what I do. He encourages me to learn; all I need to do is tell him that I’m going with Yasodha Madam. Initially, he was a bit apprehensive as I did not know much, but now I can travel on my own. He does not have to worry even if I travel abroad. When I’m working, I cannot be with my children all the time, but I can be assured that they are fine and safe with him. I have moved forward with the help of my husband. He encourages me to do everything that involves learning. From the moment we got married, he has said that whatever I desire to do and achieve I should go for it. I should not make mistakes. We should interact with others properly and not fight; that’s something he has always said.
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