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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Jamming with Nepalese security guards in Malaysia

A little shy, a little hesitant, quite a bit out of place; they are conspicuous with their uniforms; sometimes a cowboy attire, sometimes wearing a fluorescent volunteer jacket, or a white shirt with shoulder straps; security guards from Nepal are conspicuous all over Malaysia. They form the frontline, and the rear-guard; in shopping malls, condominiums, parking lots, and corporate towers.

At the rear gate of my friend’s condominium in Kuala Lumpur, one of them asks me who I want to meet. He is Niroj, 25, lean, with cropped hair, small eyes, sharp but small nose, and a deep tanned skin. He is from Phulwa, a village near the Indian border and the Indian resort town of Darjeeling. He has been in Malaysia for more than a year.

“I work 12 hours every day, seven days a week. There are no holidays for us,” Niroj is already smiling and friendly. He works from 8AM to 8PM, and his shift pattern changes every fifteen days.

Niroj is keen to share all, “I came here after paying 200,000 Nepalese Rupiah to the agent in Nepal. Here I get 1500 Ringgit every month as salary. Then my boss also gives me 200 ringgit for food and 100 for calling home. And I get a dormitory nearby. Every month, I send home 500 ringgit.”

“And how much is your salary in Singapore?” Niroj asks innocently. I have always heard this question from migrant workers, right after they had candidly disclosed theirs without me asking for it. And like always, I don’t return back the honesty. I cook up a number. Niroj also says what I always hear after this, “It is very good, brother.”

Niroj used to work as a policeman in Nepal. Under Malaysian law, only Malaysians and Nepalese men were allowed to work as security guards. And only those Nepalese men who had been in the army or police were eligible. Every year there are stories about migrants from other countries such as Pakistan or Bangladesh working as security guards under the radar, sometimes using fake identity cards. There are reports of there being anywhere between 10,000 to 70,000 Nepalese migrants working as security guards in Malaysia

I ask Niroj why he left the police.
“I ran into some problems with my friends there,” he lowers his head. Out here, in this gated condominium, his demeanour had shed all semblance of authority a policeman naturally gains on the job.

Niroj talks about Indian movies. “That’s how I picked up Hindi.” It was rather good, better than most people’s I had come across in Nepal.
“I get to speak often in Hindi here. So many residents in this condo are Indians.”

“I can stay here for another two years. May be I can save enough to get married. If I can’t, I will have to apply again.”

It is getting dark. Niroj turns on the light in the one square metre room built for guards at the gate.
“Do you like my office? Is your office nicer? Must be, I have no chair” says Niroj.
“But I don’t have all these pictures,” I say, referring to the posters of eleven headed Hindu goddesses he has on the walls. “These are not mine. My boss is a Hindu man. But it’s good this way. There was a Bangladeshi guard here sometime back. He was Muslim but would not mind these pictures. He was a good man. I heard he was caught and sent back.” The Malaysian authorities often conduct checks to fish out migrants working illegally as guards.

Late in the evening, I am sitting by myself in a desolate Indian Muslim restaurant in the business district. A somewhat overweight Nepalese guard enters, looks around with a faint smile, and then serves himself a big pile of rice and dal (lentil soup). He sits behind my table. His face is from somewhere halfway between the highland and the plains. I can’t help asking him about his choice of meal.
“I eat this every day,” Ram Bahadur unleashes a big laugh, “Because in Nepal we always eat dal-bhat.”  I watch him eat silently; such a look of content; he has created a small transient Nepal blanket around him at that moment.

In the morning, I look out for Niroj. But it is 8AM and I get to watch the change of guards ceremony. The new comer, Khagendra, takes off his denim jacket. Niroj puts in a denim jacket. Khagendra puts on a cap. Niroj takes off his cap. Niroj hands over his walkie talkie to Khogendra. The ceremony is over. Both of them live in the same dormitory.
“What will you do now?” I ask Niroj.
“Just go home, eat, wash clothes, sleep, then cook, get ready to come here. There is nothing much we can do. Every day is like this. But it is all good. Our boss is good.”

The new guards settle down; three of them, moving from front gate to back gate and then around the compound. Khagendra is now at the rear gate. But seeing us talk, another guard joins in. He is Lalim. Both Khagendra and Lalim are in there mid-thirties and have come around Kathmandu. Lalim looks like a copy of Niroj but Khagendra has more lowland features. They have been working in Malaysia for over five years with breaks in between. They used to be in the Army but had left it after a short stint.
Khagendra says, “The Maoists were after us. I couldn’t take it anymore. They came only when they knew that we were outnumbered and they could kill us all. At the army, every day was full of anxiety. When will they come? Tomorrow?”
“I had a wife and a daughter. And the pay was not worth it. I couldn’t stay long.”
I ask him about the contrast in his work here.
“You are right. Hardly much work here. See, we need to be really good at pressing this button to open the gate, like this,” he has a smirk on his face as he presses the button a few times, each time with a bizarre beep.
“And, we also need to know how to give a good salute when one of the resident’s cars passes by,” he gives me a demo. I realized that I got some pleasure from that. Outside of condominiums, where else could I hope to get such a military style salute?
“The most difficult things can get here is when a visitor comes in or when a contractor comes in with their van and we have to check whether they should be let in. In all my five years as a guard here, I have never seen any theft or anything more violent. Of course, if something bad happens, then it will be a problem.”
Lalim shows me the visitor’s register, “This is my list of Facebook friends,” they both laugh.

I ask them if they have picked much local language.
“Just a few words only. We barely know much English. Once I wished a man ‘Selamat Mati’ instead of ‘Selamat Pagi.’ That’s Happy Death instead of Good Morning. Imagine the man’s reaction.”

I tell them that I had been to Kathmandu and I was not allowed inside the Pashupatinath temple because my wife is Chinese.
“That’s horrible. Just not right for the Nepalese to behave like that,” both of them repeat this.
“Did you go to Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi in your India?” asks Lalim.
“Yes, and there they let us in.”
“Terrible. That’s how Nepal is you see,” both apologized on behalf of the whole of Nepal.
I defend Nepal saying the people we met were rather friendly, even when denying us the permission to go in to the temple.
“Maybe, because you are a foreigner,” says Khagendra.

In my subsequent trips, I meet them on and off. Typically cheerful, they sometimes do let out their frustration.
 “Boring, boring, life here is so boring.”
“Some of these contractors are so rude. When we ask which flat they need to go to and if they have a written permit; they speak in bad language. Just because we are foreigners.”
“We heard that the government will change law and send us back. What have we done wrong?”

Once I ask them about the political situation back home. Lalim, the most confident of all the Nepalese men I had met, sighs, “What can I tell you. So much has happened. So many big words. So many promises. So many died. And in the end it’s still the same. The rich are getting richer. The same politicians are getting even richer. Maoists, Nepalese Congress, there is no difference.”
That sounded a lot like Thailand. The only difference was that in Nepal, the king had to go. But the upper caste old elite managed to hold on. The same old faces, the same old habits, just that the royal palace has become a museum.
As for Khagendra and Lalim; back in Nepal, they had been entrusted with protecting this old elite from the peasant and low-caste Maoist militia. And now in Kuala Lumpur, their job was to protect the new elite; the rising middle class, the expatriates, their condominiums and their cars. Here, the nature of the enemy has changed; a faceless, generalized possibility. Here, they were no longer called agents of the class enemy; rather being marketed as ‘known for their loyalty, honesty, and courage’; a necessity to manage the ‘high attrition rates’ characteristic of the industry.
Khagendra sums it up, “In my army days, I wondered if I will see my wife and daughter again. Out here, I haven’t anyway been with my wife and daughter for three years. I feel like I have come so far away from them and I am scared they feel the same way.”

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