Namlo—a lockdown storyIn the silence of the morning, Govinda was lost in his own thoughts. Suddenly a sharp ‘oye’ pulled him back to reality.
The first crow of a rooster in his neighbourhood in the early dawn had been serving as an alarm clock for Govinda every day. After finishing his morning rituals, he would quietly bid good bye to his wife still in deep sleep. Clutching his namlo (a braided rope used to carry loads on a person’s back) in one hand, he would step out to earn meals for his family. This had been his daily routine for the last five years.
As the crisp morning breeze caressed his face, he felt an uneasy eeriness in the streets outside. In his last five years of treading these streets, he had never felt such an emptiness. As he walked the narrow alleys, his mind got occupied with a myriad of thoughts. “I hope I will get some extra rounds at the shop today...Ah, I need to remember Kusum’s medicines when I return in the evening…..and yes, not to forget cooking oil and vegetables, the little girl wanted to have eggs, and oh, milk for the little boy...” One after the other, these thoughts came to his mind. And they seemed to never end. As one thought ended another popped up. His legs were carrying him down these alleyways, no more requiring his mind to guide them as they had repeated this act regularly for the past five years.
In the silence of this morning, Govinda was lost in his own thoughts, and had just come out of the narrow alley to the main road. Suddenly a sharp “oye” pulled him back to reality. A policeman holding a bamboo baton was moving swiftly towards him from the corner of the road. He pointed the baton towards a small group of people held within a circle marked by a loosely held rope. The policeman motioned Govinda to move towards the circle. “Are you dumb? Don’t you know that the government has declared a lockdown for a week and movement is restricted?”
Govinda’s confusion was mounting by the minute. Had he heard the news on his small radio the night before, he might have been spared this ordeal. But he was too tired last night to tune into his radio. “Now stand as you are for another two hours and return to your homes and stay there till the lockdown period,” the policeman shouted. Govinda looked at the others standing in the circle and he could make out that all these people in this open confinement were aware of what the moustached master was saying. He did not dare ask the others or the policemen what was happening fearing his naivety would be laughed upon. Then it dawned upon Govinda and he recalled the news on his small radio a few days back and his chitchats with his fellow labourers about lockdowns in some countries around the world to control the spread of a disease that had spread globally. Seems it had been imposed in Nepal too.
As he stood there, again the wave of thoughts splashed back. “Would I get any work today? I was supposed to get my yesterday’s wage today, will the sahuji come to the shop to pay me? How would I manage to feed my family for one whole week? What would I do about Kusum’s medicine? How would I get the milk and eggs for my little ones?”
He had felt this panic only once in his life before and he had not forgotten the feel of it. It was 5 years back, shortly after the earthquake. The earthquake had destroyed his home in Gorkha. He and his wife along with their one-year-old daughter managed to escape the crumbling house, but his parents were not that fortunate. After losing his parents and his home, Govinda made up his mind to go to Dubai to earn a decent living for his family.
Many other youngsters from his village were doing the same and thus he was introduced to Khadka ji, who had managed the employment of many of the youths. The arrangement required some advance to be paid upfront. The ancestral land managed this requirement. However, after receiving the advance Khadka ji disappeared without a trace. Govinda then felt a sudden panic, the exact same one that he was experiencing now. Despite police complaints and a few rounds to Kathmandu, the whereabouts of Khadka ji were still unknown.
Everything lost, and limited with options, Govinda came to Kathmandu with his wife and a year old child. Given his education only till the fifth standard, a decent job was hard to come by. What little savings he had were getting exhausted by the day. Then one day, he got introduced to namlo and it had been feeding his family for the past five years. He would sometimes carry provisions from grocery stores to households; other times, he would labour at a hardware store carrying loads of cement sacks and steel rods.
After the policemen let them go with another warning, Govinda avoided the main street and took the narrow alleyways to reach his work area. There were already a few other labourers gathered there, but none of the shops were open. There was no sign of Sahuji.
By then the panic he felt was lodged more firmly in his chest. With this burden he arrived back at his shack where Kusum was preparing food for their children. Surprised to see him back so early, she looked at him questioningly. He explained to her the ordeal of the morning.
Languidly, Govinda reached out to the small radio and tuned in. A notice was being played regarding distribution of relief to the needy. A slight glimmer of hope passed him.
By the time he reached the distribution spot, the queue had already gotten almost a mile long. As he awaited his turn, he squinted at the queue ahead. The relief was being unloaded from a single truck and given the queue ahead of him, he lost any hope of receiving as much as a bag of salt when his turn came.
He returned back to his shack empty handed and looked at the nearly empty containers of rice and lentils. He calculated in his head, if he ate just a little once a day, the remaining ration might last for the week until the lockdown was uplifted. With this solution at hand, he raised himself to help Kusum with her chores.
Finally it was the seventh day. The lockdown will be over from tomorrow and everything will be normal, he thought. The thought of getting back to work came as a pleasant relief to him and despite an empty stomach, he fell into a peaceful sleep.
“…High level commission of ministers have decided to continue the lockdown for the next 15 days….” The radio stated as he drifted into a deep sleep dreaming of delivering groceries and carrying cement bags.