Lahure laments : Weena Pun
29 May 2016,
What songs say of the migrant culture.
By the time I met my grandfather for the first and only time in 2000, his mental abilities were fast deteriorating. More often than not, he did not know where he was. He could not hear very well and he peed wherever he wanted. Yet, every now and then, he would regain his senses and peer at me and my sister with his one good eye and exclaim, “Oh, my granddaughters, my son’s daughters.” Then, within a few minutes, he would be sucked into his memories. One in particular stuck out: from the years he spent as a British army man in Malaysia – in the 1950s and 1960s, a time so far in the past, that his recounting entertained those watching him. But to him, he was a young soldier, standing once more in front of his commanding officer. He would recite over and over again, his rank, his name and his service number: Sergeant Nim Bahadur Pun. Service Number: 21134376. Sergeant Nim Bahadur Pun. Service Number: 21134376…
Aage aage topaiko gola
pachhi pachhi machine gun barara
cigarette nadeu ma bidi khanelai
maya nadeu ma hidi janelai
(Cannon balls in front me
Machine gunfire behind me
Don’t give me a cigarette – I am a bidi smoker
Don’t give your love to me – I am someone who leaves)
My grandfather had retired for almost a decade when Danny Denzongpa and Asha Bhosle sang this duet in the mid-1970s. But the song helps me think of my grandfather as a young, jocular, brave, flirtatious young man he might have been. Most ‘happy’ songs about lahures are similar. They portray ‘lahures’, a term that initially described Nepali soldiers serving in foreign armies, as the ‘lucky’ ones, characterised by bravery. These songs downplay the horrors of war and violence with an apparent insouciance that combines cannon fire with cigarettes; in the voice of soldiers who accept the reality that love might not be for them since they could be here dancing and singing today, and a casualty in a war tomorrow.
Over time, as the social and political milieu changed, so did the songs and, in doing so, the songs mapped the landscape of Nepali migration, in which actors change, but the pathos doesn’t. It is hard to tell when the first song about lahures was sung. The lahure culture began well before the Sugauli treaty with the British in 1816, an arrangement following which the colonial army began enlisting Nepalis. Nepalis have been migrating to India for seasonal work for centuries. Today, the songs about lahures have expanded to encompass the voice of the Nepali labourers, who began migrating to the Gulf countries and Malaysia in large numbers at the turn of the century. As these migrants became a part of the construction industry abroad, separation, loss and longing became a permanent part of the Nepali landscape. That pathos is reflected in the songs regardless of how gleeful they sound.
The ‘happy’ songs talk about the economic freedom that comes with being a lahure, about falling in love and about coming home after a long time away. But the upbeat music manages only to disguise the sadness that always accompanies these melodies. Then, there are ‘sad’ songs which do not mince words at all and hold a mirror to the harshness of a lahure’s life and of the people he leaves behind. These songs talk openly about death here and abroad, about poverty and about the pain of separation from the loved and the familiar. The third kind of songs – such as J B Tuhure’s Jaanna ma ta ni Gorkha bharti (I won’t enlist in the Gurkha army) – is against the lahure culture. These songs are often called ‘communist songs’. Left-political parties have always been against the lahure culture as it meant sacrificing their lives for foreigners. They are ‘patriotic’ in nature and believe toiling in Nepal would make it as prosperous as any of the destination countries.
Irrespective of the themes, however, songs about lahures and migrant workers make acute the absurdity of working abroad in a place which so often squashes dreams. Yet to believe in something else, to believe in sweating in Nepal, as some songs ask the lahures to do, would be equally futile.
Intu Mintu Londonma
Hamro baba paltanma
Pahilo ghanti bajaideu
(Intu, Mintu are all in London
My father is in a platoon
Security guard brother of our school
Please strike the first bell
~ A Nepali children song.
My uncles tell me that my grandfather fought with the British in the Malayan Emergency, which lasted for 12 years from 1948-1960. Two hundred and four British-Gurkhas died during the Emergency. My grandfather is no longer here to tell me the whole story. After years of battling with old age, he died in 2012 at the age of 87. But I am told he came straight to the hills of Baglung after retiring and loved talking about his days, and those of others, on the battlefield. He would recount mostly the horrors of the World Wars – in which more than 40,000 British Gurkhas died – even though he participated in none of the wars. In fact, the Second World War had just ended when he joined the army in 1946.
I wonder how he told these stories. Did he see the irony of fighting for a country Nepal had once fought? Did he try to compensate for that irony with a humorous and light-hearted tone? Did he minimise the implications of being a lahure by accentuating the stereotype?
Nineteen Fauntin yuddha ladda pako maile takma
Tinta dushman chhwattai kate maile risautheko jhokma
Yo manle rojechha eutalai, phul chadhai dhogchhu deutalai
Laidiunla maya jhyaammai
(I received an honour in the battle of 1914
I hacked three enemies in anger
My heart has chosen one. I offer a flower to the God
I will fall in love completely)
~ Takme Budo Nineteen Fauntin, a song by Wilson Bikram Rai
Or did he feel lucky that the soldier in the most classic song about lahures, Aamali sodhlin ni, did not represent him. That he did not perish in a far-off land, unbeknownst to his loved ones. That he did not need a letter with a red ribbon or a singer with a sarangi to carry home the news of his death.
dasi dhara po naroye aama
banche pathamla tasbirai khichera
kasto lekhidi bhabile
karma lila chhaina lau hajura
Char paisako laha chhaina
Sirko swami sworge hunda
Ghara basnilai thaha chhaina
Mother, don’t weep over me
If I live, I will send you a photo
Look what fate has in store for me
My karma is dark
In the markets of Batauli
There isn’t a stamp worth four paisa
The household head is dead
But no one at home knows)
~ Aamale Sodhlin Ni, a song by Jhalak Man Gandharva
But could he count himself lucky? Does a lahure ever count himself lucky? What does it mean to be lucky when the employing country takes advantage of the fact that a person is escaping poverty? Then, again, perhaps for a lahure, Nepal does not have borders. How can it not, though? Did my grandfather not know how lowly paid he was compared to British and Commonwealth soldiers? Did he realise that even the 2007 British court ruling barred him from receiving a pension equal to what his British counterpart get? Or like many other lahures, was he just grateful to have had a job and dismissed cries for equal rights with, ‘We come from a poor nation. We shouldn’t be too greedy. Politics is a game for the privileged. Nations and governments are ideas that a satisfied stomach churns. The pangs of an empty stomach are “simple enough.”’
Paiyaan gudan laagya, Bombai jaane relgadika paiyaan gudan laagya
aba chhutan laagya pahadka danga khola aba chhutan laagya
roidinya koi chhaina paradesh maranyako roidinya koi chhaina
(The wheels of the train are ready to roll on towards Bombay
The hills and mountains will soon recede
I have no one to cry for me, if I die, in this foreign land)
~ Paiyaan gudan laagya, a song by Bhojraj Bhatta
The social and political contexts have changed since Jhalak Man Gandharva’s song, Aamali sodhlin ni, was aired on Radio Nepal in mid-1960s. After nearly 200 years in service and multiple court battles, Nepalis who enlist now in the British army are treated, financially, as equals to the British in the British army. Since 2007, all serving British Gurkhas are entitled to equal pay and pension. Two years later in 2009, the UK government announced that British Gurkha soldiers who had served for four or more years in the army were allowed to settle permanently in the UK. These rulings still discriminate against those who served for less than four years and retired before 1997, when the Gurkha headquarter was shifted from Hong Kong to UK. Though the campaign for equality is still on, for the few who enlist now, the prospects are rosy.
23 May 2016