Stateless in Nepal
Saraswoti Chhetri was one of the first women I interviewed in Gulariya, district Bardiya. When I reached her house in the village, she was busy working around the house. Seemingly reluctant at first, she was at ease later. Meanwhile, I sat around chatting with the other women from the neighbourhood and her mother. Chhetri is around twenty-three years old, and a mother of four. She has lived and worked in India for several years and is now living with her parents at their house in Nepal. She says that she will have to return to India to work, as there is nearly no source of income in Nepal. Married at the age of thirteen, her husband deserted her over three years ago – this left her with no documents or proof of marriage, leading to her inability to gain citizenship through her husband.
My first time in India
Chhetri first went to India at the age of eleven, and was married at the age of thirteen. After her marriage, she returned to India with her husband.
I first went to India when I was a child. I was eleven years old. I had gone to a place called Aligarh. I came back from there after working for six months. I first went to India with Bir Bahadur Bika. I worked in a kothi back then as well. Back then, when I first went there, I did not even know Hindi. I could not speak. I did not know how to work. Having left my parents, often I would feel like going back home, and sometimes I felt like crying. That kothi (household) wasn’t good as well. The reason I had to leave that place was also the same. I could not speak. I could not reply if anybody said anything to me. Now, if anybody says something to me I can answer back, and question—why did they say such a thing? Back then, I was a small child, and I didn’t understand much. If somebody threatened me, I would get scared, thinking they might kill me. Because of the fear I wouldn’t tell anyone about it. I pleaded to go back home. I asked my father to come get me. And he finally came and took me home. It was very difficult at the start. I did not know how to wipe the floor. I faced a lot of hardship in the beginning. I had to go to India at a young age.
“Back then, I was a small child, and I didn’t understand much. If somebody threatened me, I would get scared, thinking they might kill me.”
I was married off at the age at thirteen. It was to someone whom my neighbor knew. He (the neighbor) brought him to meet my parents, and they got me married. And I went to India again with my husband. We went to Delhi, Haryana, Gurgaon. In Harayana, where I lived with my husband, we worked in a factory. There was a cooker company. I worked there for six months and then I worked in a kothi (household) again. I worked mostly in kothis. Kothi is where you have to cook rice, wash clothes, mop floors … we have to do all kinds of work. My husband was working in another factory—Relaxo company, slippers factory, also in Haryana. When I worked in a kothi, I did not like it in the kothi, I lived outside, and my children were at my mother’s place.
I stayed with my husband in India for five years. I worked in a cooker factory there; there were other Indian women, too – not many Nepali. The work involved making cookers, tightening screws, fitting handles, etc. I liked working in the factory better. We worked for eight hours in the factory. In kothis, we had to work for twelve hours. The people who gave us our wages were good. They weren’t very strict. They were just fine. It was good working in the factory back then. That’s why I like factory better than kothi. In kothis, no one knows what’s happening inside. In a factory, there are other people, and if there is any problem you can tell other people. Inside a kothi, if something happens, you can’t tell anyone. If something happens inside, who are we going to tell? We don’t know anyone. In a factory, we talk to other women. We can share our issues with them.
We returned to Nepal after five years. My husband left me and our children, three years, ago. My children – one is nine years old, another seven years old, and the other two—five and three years old. My oldest son disappeared a few years ago, and the other three are with me.
“I stayed with my husband in India for five years. I worked in a cooker factory there; there were other Indian women, too – not many Nepali.”
After my husband left me, I went to India, again, with a man named Khadag Bahadur from Kanchanpur – he took me to India. Then I worked in a kothi (household). I worked in many places; some places were good, and some weren’t. I didn’t get to make friends. I had taken one single room. I stayed with an uncle for one or two months. Then he got me a job. Then I got a room of my own and lived there alone. I did not meet many other people. I didn’t pay much attention to all that. I used to go to work, and come back. There were many Nepalis. There are many Nepalis in Delhi.
I came back only recently, during Diwali. I also went to Rajasthan from Delhi. Things got difficult in Delhi, so I ran off to Rajasthan. There I worked in a kothi again. The people there were kind, and they brought me back home.
“Things got difficult in Delhi, so I ran off to Rajasthan. There I worked in a kothi again.”
The good Samaritans in Rajasthan
Having run away from Delhi, she landed in Rajasthan and worked with some good employers who drove her home, to Nepal.
Leaving one’s own place and having to work in someone else’s is not such a great thing. But it was okay. One has to work everywhere, but you feel sad when you have to leave your home and children, and live alone. Employers were not always nice; there were people who used to scold, there were people who looked at me with the wrong intentions. I had to leave many jobs for this reason. The employers were bad, so I used to run off. And eventually I ended up in Rajasthan (from Delhi). There also I worked in a kothi. But the people there were very kind. They were the ones who brought me back home. I worked there for a year. In Delhi also, I worked for a year—for eleven months.
“And in Rajasthan, I was able to make good amount of money. Not that much, around ten thousand. I was able to make a way back home.”
I could not even send money from Delhi. They (the employers) were not paying me. I couldn’t call my parents. I didn’t know if my children were fed. I couldn’t send money for three months. That’s how I lost money in many places. I couldn’t ask. I took money from one place and I fled from there. After facing difficulties in Delhi I ran off, and only later, did I realize I was in Rajasthan.
And in Rajasthan, I was able to make good amount of money. Not that much, around ten thousand. I was able to make a way back home. I couldn’t come empty handed. I felt like going home when I faced difficulties, but how could I? I didn’t even have money to buy a ticket. I decided that I would go back only if I had certain money to take back home, no matter how small the amount was. So I went there, made around ten thousand rupees and came back.
“They dropped me home in their own car. They were good people—like God. It turns out that all people are not the same.”
I did not know anyone in Rajasthan. I just bought a ticket and sat on a train. I went to a place … Mmm, what was it called … Kota. Everyone was buying their tickets, and I was thinking where to go. There was a group of people in the front that was going to Kota. And they asked me where I was going. I told them my sister was in Nagda and I am going there. They said that Nagda is not that far from Kota, asked me to travel with them, and get a ticket to Kota. They said from there, they would get me on a vehicle that went to Nagda. But then, I lost my mobile phone in the train and I lost my sister’s contact number. So, I had to go with them. There were ladies, along with their whole family with small children. At first, I was scared. Then they tried to convince me that they were not bad people and asked me to trust them. But I had no other option, so I had to go with them. But they turned out to be nice people. I told them my story, why I came there and how I got there. They asked me to work for them for some time, so I could make some money. And then, they said they would take me home. They dropped me home in their own car. They were good people—like God. It turns out that all people are not the same.
The return to Nepal
Chettri returned to Nepal, from Rajasthan – the family she worked for, they dropped her home in their car. Chettri’s mother, here, recounts that episode.
Those people were such good people. The people here are the ones who are bad. Nobody asks what kinds of hardship this Nepali girl had faced, having these children to feed. Instead, seeing her get dropped off by a car, other people in the village got jealous. What happened was, they dropped her home and were planning to leave the same evening. But the gate at Mission danda was already closed for the evening, so they couldn’t go back. We asked the family to stay with us and leave early in the morning. But at eleven that night, a police bike came to our door. Some of the people in the village had told the police: “So and so person from so and so house came home in a car with some Indian people.” The police took the car with them, that very night—at eleven o’clock. It was the month of Poush. It was so cold. The police made us all panic. If someone within the neighborhood complains to the police, won’t they make trouble? Would the police have found out otherwise? “Weren’t you showing off that car? We told the police and made them take it,” said some of the people later on. Such bad people!
“I somehow managed to get the car out, but eighteen thousand Indian rupees had to be deposited—only because I had good people in there.”
The next day, I was called by the police—the asai. I took some of the guys and went. He says, “This is a twenty, thirty-lakh car. I’ll send it up. If not, I’ll put you and your friends in the cell.” What had I done? This is how much these people were after us—without any reason or any existing fight; only because they were jealous to see her come in a car. They were just dropping her off. They dropped her home, and took her to her younger sister. They met her sister, parents and children. Those people were so kind, and our Nepali people were not all kind.
I somehow managed to get the car out, but eighteen thousand Indian rupees had to be deposited—only because I had good people in there. If there is a twenty, thirty-lakh car stuck, eighteen thousand rupees is nothing. And after they passed through to India from there, I came back. And then later, I found out what some of the people in the village had done. I didn’t know before that. They were going around boasting about what they had done. But what can we poor people do to them—with her situation, having to take care of the kids, and without any knowledge of where her husband is.
“I still want to go to India but let’s see. I can’t go to India by myself. I need a companion. Alone, I wouldn’t be able to figure out where to go.”
Leaving Nepal, again
Chhetri says that she still wants to return to India to work, to earn and provide for her children.
“I still want to go to India but let’s see. I can’t go to India by myself. I need a companion. Alone, I wouldn’t be able to figure out where to go. I have been there many times, but I always had companions. So, I’m not very experienced to travel by myself. I wouldn’t be able to figure out which bus to take from which place. I do want to go again. I need to find someone to go along with. We have to earn”, says Chhetri. She says that she will return to India because there isn’t any avenue to earn money here. “I am not much educated—actually not at all educated. If I were, I could have done something here. So, I have to go to India. Go there, earn money, and feed my children.”
“She has already gotten married. She was supposed to get her citizenship through her husband, but he’s disappeared. She cannot make it through her parents.”
Chhetri’s neighbour, added, “If you don’t go to India and make money, who will feed all these children. She (Chhetri) doesn’t have her citizenship to find work here. Not having citizenship has made it difficult for her.” It wasn’t clear at first, why. Then another woman clarified, “She has already gotten married. She was supposed to get her citizenship through her husband, but he’s disappeared. She cannot make it through her parents.” Citizenship through mother has been an on-going debate in Nepal. Progressive on many fronts, Nepal’s constitution, its first as a federal republic, denies citizenship to children through their mothers. And in the absence of documents, like in Chettri’s case, it is difficult for a married woman to achieve citizenship without her husband’s documents. Chhetri continues, “Even if I wanted to go to India, it’s difficult. If somebody comes to inquire, I can’t even tell them I’m from this country. Neither do I have India’s document nor Nepal’s. My husband doesn’t have any family. His parents had died long time ago. They are two brothers. He has one older brother, but he is somewhere in India.”
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