12 May, 2005

CITY OF DREAMS

SUSHMA JOSHI IN MUMBAI, MAY 12, 2005
Source : www.kantipuronline.com

About 500 Nepalis wait in the Arun Kumar Vaidya Maidan in Gatkopar, Mumbai for a cultural programme featuring Nepali talents to start. The programme expects Usha Mangeshkar, one of the siblings of that famous clan, to be chief guest. The outdoor stage has a large poster of Boudha up and gigantic speakers on either side. Smoke rises up as a man in a Nepali topi escorts an old man on stage. "I met this old man crying by the door," he narrates. "He says he used to have a happy family with sons and daughters, and now he doesn't know where they have gone. He came to search for his son in Bombay." The man in the topi is Badri Pangeni, a well-known folk singer, and the old man is part of an act for his famous song "Jetho chora kaha cha, kaha cha" (I don't know where my eldest son is)."

My eldest son is in the Maobadi, my second son is in the Army, the third is in Bombay, and my fourth has become a laptan in the Lahurey," the song goes. "No matter which son does what, it is this old man that gets hit." It takes about five minutes for Pagari to change the mood of the crowd from light Sunday afternoon banter to the moodily existential. Pagari hosts "Suseli", a folk song programme on Nepal Television, and is well known to Nepali audiences globally.

Mumbai hosts one of the largest populations of Nepalis outside Nepal; the estimates run from 200,000 to 1.2 million. The numbers have swelled with the conflict. "I would say 75 percent of the Nepali migrant population, both first and second generation, comes from the Farwestern region," says D.B. Raut, former assistant editor of Nepali Samaj and also caseworker at Saathi, an HIV/AIDS awareness programme.

So much so that one of the most popular cultural acts was by Dilliraj Fullara, who sang Deuda songs exclusively in the Farwestern dialect. People clapped and whistled as he sang, chanted and recited what sounded like chutkila-like bits. But how could the non-Deuda speaking population know what was going on? "Here we go again," says Tulsi "Manjil" Gaudel of Syanja, rolling his eyes. "I don't know what he's saying." The crowd, as in any other Nepali gathering, is multi-lingual and multi-cultural, and the squabbles about whose language should be on stage is humdrum familiar.

What is less familiar is the sense of comfort and belonging the crowd exudes. "I don't feel like I am in a foreign country," says Raut, as one of the singers extorts the crowd not to forget the homeland. "I feel like I am still in the village." With six Nepali papers, several community organizations and a large established Nepali community, there is reason for Raut to feel at home in Mumbai.

Nepalis in Bollywood
The Assistant Chief of Police Lalit Daksharaj is of Nepali origins, as is B.K Thakur, one of the top corporate leaders of the Life Insurance Company. Bollywood is chock-full of lesser-known Nepali celebrities who have made it, from film distributors and choreographers to assistant directors and make-up artists.

Numerous success stories, like those of Lokhnath Pandey who arrived in Mumbai with Rs.30 in his pocket and is now assistant director are abound. Ramprasad Pandey is chief assistant director of "Jassi Jaisi Kohi Nahin," the popular television serial. Binod Pradhan, one of the most sought after cinematographers, has worked with director B. Chopra to shoot well-known films like "Mission Kashmir" and "Love Story". Sher Bahadur Singh has worked on major productions as make-up artist.

Manjil is the pen name of a 22-year-old journalist and writer who bagged an assistant director job on a television serial after just 13 months in Mumbai. Manjil says that as the pressure of the conflict mounted in his village, he left to study abroad. His agent, however, never took them to Cyprus, the final destination - he shuttled them back and forth between hotel rooms in the Middle East and Thailand, before finally abandoning them. Unable to return home, Manjil headed to Mumbai, where he knew just one man - a hotel worker. Thirteen months later he works for Star One. He is also author of "Time and Monica", a book of short stories he claims is the first Nepali book to be published in Mumbai.

Success, of course, is contingent upon fighting the discrimination that Nepalis face in Mumbai. The stereotype of the "Bahadurs" who work as security guards is hard to escape. There are whispers that some people also change their caste to escape discrimination once they arrive in Mumbai.New place, new identityMumbai is a new world where new identities can be imagined and claimed. The caste-obsessed Nepali society does not allow people to forget, but the egalitarian nature of the city, whose rewards are based on merit rather than on caste, by and large judges people by their achievements. These multiple discriminations- caste, nationality - is the reason why people change their names and assimilate in order to lose the stigma attached to Nepali origins.

The programme was organized by the Nepal Jana-Kalyan Samiti. Recently founded by second-generation Nepali and Mumbaikar Namraj Joshi, the samiti is a local organization that aims to serve the Mumbai-based Nepali community. Namraj's father, a Brahmin from Baitadi who joined the Indian Army and later Air India, was the first pioneer to lead a chain migration into Santa Cruz.

"Nepalis resent anybody else taking the initiative, but they won't do anything themselves either," says Namraj gloomily. A cultural gap between first- and second-generation Nepalis is apparent. The second generation rarely speak Nepali and their loyalties are split between the two countries. Having grown up in India's democratic culture, the second generation sees more possibility in public institutions. Joshi's announcement that the money raised from the event will go into a health camp in Baitadi is laughed away by spectators who claim there is no accountability of public organizations and that individuals pocket money meant for charity.

Maobadis in Mumbai
Nepali migrants are weary, and wary, of politics on both sides of the border. Besides the major party factions, Maoists also thrive in Bombay. Maoists pressurize people to pay membership fees out of their 12-hour day salaries. This aversion to politics is perhaps why Sudam Thapa and Sindhu Malla's song "Lathi Charge" - "Don't do an Andolan if you want my love; don't do a lathi charge on my love" - receives an enthusiastic handclapped response.

Namraj is editor of the Indo-Nepal Samaj weekly, a broadsheet that is filled with breaking news filed by Nepal-based news networks, downloaded and printed directly off the web. Copyright issues are cheerfully waived aside by not just the Indo-Nepal weekly but also the host of dailies (Nepal Samaj, Nepal Front), weeklies (Nepal News, Indo-Nepal Samaj) and monthlies (Nepal Sandesh, Nepali Yubha) that are sold in newsstands in Mumbai. But papers may soon find they can do better by hiring journalists to write local news for them - with a large and increasingly successful population like the one that collected for this cultural event, Nepalis may have more than stories of trafficking, hardships and deceptions to report to from Mumbai.