Future in doubt
40-year old Phulmati Limbu worked in a coal mine at Meghalaya, India, when she was 15 years old in 2059 [B.S.} A young bride, she went there following her husband, and returned two years later, with a daughter. She is now farming in her hometown, but has received a notice, which is asking her to leave the farmland.
Working at the coal mine
Fifteen-year old, and her husband, seven years older than her, went to Meghalaya and worked in a coal mine.
Limbu’s husband worked in a coal mine, while she cooked rice for the other men who worked there. “I used to cook for eight, nine people. Like in a Langar. Do you know what a Langar is? I used to serve them Langar. I cooked rice in the morning, cooked puri in the evening.” She says, “Cooking for others is about trust.” The men that she cooked for – they also gave her money to store. She used to cook rotis for them from the morning, and cooked three meals a day for them. “And they gave me their money to store out of trust, before they sent it home.”
“Cooking for others is about trust.”
It’s been many years since she has returned. Talking of her daughter, she says there wasn’t any hospital in Meghalaya. Her daughter was born in the house, and she was bedridden for a month while her husband was working all the time. Her daughter was a year old, when she returned from India. “I went empty handed there. I came back with a daughter.” Her daughter who was born in Meghalaya, is already over twenty years old, and has her own children now.
“I was married, and I went with my husband. What would I feel (about living in India)?”
When we talk about Limbu’s first thoughts at leaving for India to work, she says that she had no say in it. Her parents got her married at a young age, and she was told that they were going (to India), so she went. “I was married, and I went with my husband. What would I feel (about living in India)?” It was good, she says. She spent two years there, but regrets that she didn’t have the brains to earn more back then or save much. “In India, there is a lot of money. But I didn’t have the brains … I was still a kid. What can I do?”
Like her and her husband, there were other men working there – some were older. There were men who had left their family, including children, to get married there. “One of them had three children—poor children —one daughter and two sons. I looked after them for a month. Their father used to work and give me money—to pay for his children’s food. I don’t know where they went from there. I heard that they were sent to an orphanage. They told me to keep the children. … I looked after them for a month. But how can I keep someone else’s children? If I had the brains like now I would have kept one of them—to work the fields. He would earn and feed me.”
“I mostly came across women from Achham — Rai, Gurung and Magar. There were also many others from the West (Western Nepal), but they were mostly men.”
Living with other Nepalis and the locals
There were other Nepalis where she lived, and she describes the Khasi culture in much detail.
Limbu did meet other Nepalis, who were also working in Meghalaya. She was friends with some of them but has no idea where they are now. “I mostly came across women from Achham — Rai, Gurung and Magar. There were also many others from the West (Western Nepal), but they were mostly men.” The Nepali men, she says, brought Nepali women to cook rice for them. In the large camps, there were around two, three women, but where she lived she was the only woman.
“There was one extremely nice Khasiani girl. She could speak a bit of Nepali. We would sit and talk.”
Living there, she learnt the local language a little. She feels that had she stayed there longer, she could have learnt the language completely. She doesn’t remember much, “For ‘where are you going’, they say ‘Thina lai’ … I’m not sure … For ‘rice’, they say ‘nangjya’. For ‘brother’, they say ‘mama’. They say ‘kong’ for ‘sister’. I knew a little, but now I’ve forgotten.”
Amongst her close friends, there was a Gurungni from Achham, and she was very close to a Khasiani girl, she was good – Limbu says. And they got along well. She says that the Khasiani (the term for locals in Meghalaya – of the Khasi Tribe), they treated her properly, and she didn’t come across anyone impolite. “There was one extremely nice Khasiani girl. She could speak a bit of Nepali. We would sit and talk. She stayed with me all day. She was afraid that her parents and brother would see her.” This girl used to really like a Chhetri guy (from Nepal) and she tried to marry him.
“There, the groom has to go live with the bride. And unlike how it is here where men have the authority, there the women have the authority.”
Talking of the Khasi culture, she says she is amazed at the authority that women yield. With her Khasiani friend, she used to talk about the culture in Nepal, and how it is different from Meghalaya. “I told her that in Nepal, women have to go with their husband, and that’s why I came to India with my husband. And she told me that she can’t do that. She can’t leave her home; she has to look after her parents. Her brothers do not get any inheritance because they have to go to someone else’s house.”
“There, the groom has to go live with the bride. And unlike how it is here where men have the authority, there the women have the authority. Men have no rights there. And they (the women), can exchange as many husbands as they want—it’s okay. And when I asked them why it is like that, the explanation they gave me was that men forget their children—they earn and they feed themselves. That’s what that Khasini told me.” The men keep wandering—they earn and eat. That’s why they don’t give it (the authority) to the men. The authority is given to women, and so is the property. That’s what the Khasini told her, she says. In Khasi culture, the women have the right to own property. They also take care of their parents. She says that she was told by the Khasini that the men don’t bear children. They earn and feed themselves. They don’t look after their wife and children. So, that’s why the Khas have this rule.
She knows of one Nepali girl who married a Khas man, and they have two sons. She says that the girl has now gone abroad, but she has the baby. “That’s what they say happens to Khasinis. For the men, if they marry a Nepali girl, they say they have been ‘Dakaar’ – Dakaar is to go to waste.”
“Who would provide compensation? No one. You die and that’s it.”
The dark coal mines
She says she returned to India when she had heard of some untoward incidents, and also she did not want to stay away from her own country.
When questioned on why she returned from Nepal, she says, “Why would I stay in someone else’s country? I heard there was some problem—in some year. They said that the Khasiyars chased away Nepalis. I didn’t want to stay there.”
The Nepalis who worked in coal mines, worked under perilous conditions. Many Nepalis were heard of having died in the mine. She is not sure how they dies, btu she knows that they received no compensation. “Who would provide compensation? No one. You die and that’s it.” She recollects an incident she had heard – in some year a huge boulder had fallen through the mine’s entrance. The people there used to talk about the incident. Eight or nine Nepalis were inside the mine. They screamed from the inside but the Khasiyas did not allow others to take them out. “They warned me that it was that kind of place. We could see the mine. It was really black. I used to go inside carrying a lamp, but I don’t know how they dug in the mine.”
The weather where she lived, was mostly foggy. But it didn’t snow there. It’s foggy in the winter, she says. “There aren’t huge hills, but rather smaller ones. It would get hot momentarily and cold all of sudden. There were sal trees. And I used to go around—I went till Sunapur. They said we will be able to see Bangladesh from there. I went till there—on buses.”
“We were on the run in Bhutan, so I don’t know through which places we were taken. I know the names of a few places—Phuntsholing – we stayed there and then at Guwahati.”
They went to India, running and hiding away from the authorities but returned rather freely.
Limbu, and her husband, went to India as there were people her husband knew; people who had travelled the route many times. “We got there hiding and running from the authority. We got there fleeing from the authority.” They first got on a bus at Siliguri and then stayed in Bhutan. From Bhutan they went to Guwahati. “We were on the run in Bhutan, so I don’t know through which places we were taken. I know the names of a few places—Phuntsholing – we stayed there and then at Guwahati. In Guwahati, we were on a truck that was carrying coal. We got to the coal mine, hiding in a truck.”
She says they hid because the guards at the border probably would have tried to take extort money, or rob them. It would have been dreadful to be robbed in the middle of the road, she thinks. “I was afraid when I had to hide, but what can you do? I was young and did not have brains. I was probably fifteen then. My daughter was born when I was seventeen. I was travelling with those other people, so I wasn’t afraid.” There was no trouble on their way back from India. “While coming back, we came freely—with the baby and other things.”
Limbu, since her return to Nepal, has been farming in her hometown, Jhapa
Since her return to Nepal, she has been farming. She started farming this land after returning from Meghalaya, but it looks like it is difficult to continue as she has now received a letter from the municipality office. “We have to empty our fields in a month.” The land we were sitting and chatting on – four biga, thirteen kattha and around fourteen dhoor, it turns out, was given by the Nepal government to a person named Hastha Narayan Rajbanshi, from Manipur. This man was now said to be dividing the property among his three sons. And they plan to build an ENT (Ear Nose Throat) hospital here. For that reason, they have received a letter – Limbu and other families in the village. It is difficult to comprehend how she can empty it within a month, having stayed here for so many years.
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