Hong Kong denied my visa because of my nationality, and I just can’t let it go

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                                                                          Photo: Andrew Colin/Flickr (Creative Commons) 

My name is Bibek Bhandari and I’m a Nepali national – and for that very reason Hong Kong rejected my work visa application.

I have been reporting for the South China Morning Post for almost three years as a freelancer. So when I saw an opening for a suitable position, I applied and secured a full-time job at the newspaper’s headquarters in Hong Kong after two interviews. I was ecstatic and looked forward to a new milestone in my journalism career.

But that abruptly ended when Hong Kong immigration denied my employment visa.

Hong Kong categorically bars certain nationalities — Afghanistan, Cambodia, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, Nepal and Vietnam — from entering China’s Special Administrative Region for training and employment purposes. Regardless of my years of professional experience, credibility as a journalist and an employment offer from the city’s leading newspaper, my application was overlooked based on my passport cover.

In a bold letter highlighting Nepal, the immigration department asserted that Hong Kong’s General Employment Policy was “not applicable to the applicant.”

And I’m not the only one.

In 2014, I met Shanta Nepali, a young woman who paid thousands of rupees to a middleman to go work as a housemaid in the Middle East, just as Hong Kong implemented the visa ban.

She ended up in Lebanon. Hong Kong, with its stringent regulations and supervised labour laws, she believed, would have been a better place to work.

Hong Kong introduced the ban on Nepali students and workers in 2005 — though the ban on students has been relaxed — without an official explanation. However, it is believed that the policy was aimed to discourage Nepalis fleeing the Maoist conflict at home to seek asylum in Hong Kong.

Annie Lin of the Society for Community Organization then told the Post that singling out Nepalis and targeting them is “racial discrimination.”

A 2009 UN Women report also slams Hong Kong’s policy “as not only discriminatory but also imposed excessively beyond reason.”

It has been 11 years since the ban and a lot has changed meanwhile: the war has ended in Nepal; Hong Kong is no longer a leading destination for Nepali migrant workers; and a new generation of Nepalis are now exploring opportunities across the globe.

“It’s high time for Hong Kong government to review and reconsider their policy towards Nepalis,” said Indra Wanem, a legal counsellor from Nepal who has lived in Hong Kong for more than 20 years. “Hong Kong’s view on Nepal as a weak and underdeveloped country in political turmoil must change now.”

He said if Hong Kong were to implement proper screening methods while stamping work visas for white-collar and blue-collar workers, it could benefit both parties, as thousands of Nepalis leave abroad for work and study every day.

I also left Nepal in 2005 and since then have lived and worked in many countries. Having a green-colored passport from Nepal— it’s one of the least powerful passports in the world— has prepped me for visa hiccups, and though the probability of  “rejection” is always imminent, the applications have never been snubbed due to my nationality, until now.

For the first time, even before landing in a city, I felt unwelcomed. Hong Kong made me question my nationality momentarily — I even despised having a Nepali passport for a second — because my future was at stake, barricading the career move that I deserved. Like Nepali, and many others, I was losing an opportunity to a policy that openly perpetuates prejudice towards certain nationalities.

This is unfair. This is wrong.

By arbitrarily banning citizens from a list of handpicked countries regardless of their skills, talents and potentials, Hong Kong is harbouring an archaic policy that undermines its so-called cosmopolitan values.

I am writing this today because I do not want to be just another silent applicant. I cannot ignore this and let go as a policy issue. For the immigration department to dump my application only because I am from Nepal doesn’t suit a city that brands itself as progressive.

So when I look at Hong Kong today, I no longer consider it as “Asia’s world city.” Instead, I see it as a selectively unaccommodating city that has crushed the prospects of many people, exclusively based on where they come from, even before arrival.

A day after the decision, one of my editors wrote to me and said he “hope[d] that out of all this, you get the job you truly deserve in a city that is prepared to welcome you.”

And Hong Kong is not that city.

 

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After the earthquake

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A year is a long time, and in Nepal, the length of the year since the April 25, 2015, earthquake is relative: it depends who you ask.

For the government, it’s been quite a short year: it hasn’t been able to accomplish much of the reconstruction work.

But for the earthquake survivors, it’s been one of the longest years. The quake swallowed their houses, shattered their livelihoods, and a year later, they’re still struggling to pick up the pieces.

It’s been 366 days since the 7.8-magnitude earthquake shattered parts of Nepal, including the capital Kathmandu. It was 11:56 a.m. when the ground shook – it was first a thud and then a thunderous roar that echoed from beneath.

It was violent and lasted almost a minute. It was so violent that I couldn’t reach for the door. My heart pounded, legs trembled, and my thoughts froze. And when it stopped, my surroundings had changed in a matter of seconds.

The street outside my house had cracked, and though many of our houses survived the tremor, just a few meters away, a neighbor’s two-story house had collapsed entirely.

And just an hour later, as I clutched my notebook and ran uncomfortably in my flip-flops, in Kathmandu Durbar Square, the city’s century-old palatial courtyard, I witnessed history was erased, almost. Several historic monuments and temples were levelled – and people were buried inside.

The chaos and the commotion in my hometown that day—and the powerful aftershock on May 12 — seemed as if a doomsday prediction had finally come true.

While Kathmandu and its surrounding areas, including Bhaktapur, Sankhu, Bungmati and Harisiddhi, suffered incomprehensible damage, tiny hamlets outside the city were entirely hammered.

In Sindhupalchowk, the district with the highest casulties, I witnessed death, destruction and despair. The scale of the seismic shift was deplorable.

“There are no houses left in my village,” Sujan, one of the waiters who worked at my friend’s restaurant, told me hours after the earthquake, as he was making desperate phone calls to his family members in Sindhupalchowk.

Upon visiting the district five days later, I could see what Sujan meant: settlements in Sindhupalchowk were obliterated.  Schools, hospitals, and houses were smashed by the quake.

This is where I met Uddhav. The 28-year-old was trying to see a doctor in a makeshift medical camp in the district headquarters of Chautara on a sweltering May afternoon.

The drive to his small village through a snaking dirt road was striking – it was a stark paradox between nature’s beauty versus the power of its devastation.

The view of the snow-capped Himalayas, rolling hills and gushing rivers was eclipsed by flattened villages and collapsed homes. Uddhav’s village was one of them.

Sitting on his hard bed with no mattress, under a temporary tent house, he told his story without  any visible emotions.

“I’ve lost everything,” he said, his eyes fixated on the ground.

The earthquake not only injured him but also killed his wife and two children. His two-story house was now nothing but a mountain of rubble.

“I need to be strong – I can’t show my tears to my mother,” he said, as his grieving mother sat beside him and wept profusely.

It had been more than a week after the quake when I visited Sindhupalchowk, and survivors like Uddhav were desperately looking for help – water, food, tarpaulin sheets, tents. Anything.

And while local and international non-profits, and most importantly, volunteers from communities across Nepal mobilized to deliver assistance, the government was slow to react. The red tape made humanitarian assistance entangled in the bureaucratic web with little sense of urgency.

“It seems like we are invisible,” Laxmi Gole told me last year. She was infuriated and were among the locals blocking part of the road in Sindhupalchowk that led to Chautara.

It’s been a year and many earthquake survivors still haven’t received much from the state.  Thousands of people like Uddhav have given up hope that the government or the representatives they elected and sent to Kathmandu would act on their behalf.

Most survivors still live in temporary shelters where they braved the monsoon rains, frigid winter and the stormy spring early this year. They feel ignored by the government.

A US$4.1 billion pledge by the international community has more or less turned into a fairytale fantasy. The country’s National Reconstruction Authority, responsible to lead the reconstruction efforts, was buried in a bureaucratic dillydally and was dormant until a few months ago. The Prime Minister Disaster Fund Relief, along with local and international aid organizations, raised millions of dollars in the aftermath of the quake, but the ones who need it the most seem to be entirely out of the equation. Alhough the survivors whose houses were destroyed were to receive Rs. 200,000 from the state, it was not until last week that they received Rs. 50,000 as the first installment – that too, only 641 of the thousands of survivors.

The promulgation of the new constitution in September was seen as an answer to many of Nepal’s problems but it further plunged the country into crisis. And as much as the government hailed the controversial constitution as inclusive, many ethnic groups and women felt alienated. As a result, the southern plains burned, unsatisfied India imposed an economic blockade—it denies the accusations though—and the country’s ailing economy slumped further while the government watched from a distance, indulging in inconclusive talks with the agitating parties and failing to address the issue.

At least 55 people, including civilians and security personnel, died between August and September – it was believed to be the most violent protests since the end of the bloody Maoist conflict a decade ago.

Up in the hills, as winter approached, people were dying too. By late December, at least 22 people had died. They were able to survive the seismic shake but succumbed to the state’s apathy.

Come spring, the situation has not changed much.

Far from home, as I sit to read an avalanche of articles, many reporters have picked up stories where they left them a year ago. And even amid the most encouraging stories, there was agony.

Al Jazeera’s 101 East team — I was a part of last year’s film — also revisited Uddhav and his village. And though there were signs of early progress, life was perilous for many.

Hundreds of men like Uddhav, who already had debt since before the quake days, have taken out additional loans and are now drowned in debt. Many are considering going to the Middle East or Malaysia for foreign employment despite the risks. Almost 1,500 Nepalis leave for foreign employment every day to feed their families back home, and while many return with considerable sum of money and stories of hardship in a foreign land, the unfortunate ones come back in coffins.

And yet, they are determined to leave – just like Uddhav, who told me last time I met in Kathmandu, that given a chance, he would leave despite his injuries.

Uddhav’s story is indicative of the government’s lethargic reaction to cope with the country’s biggest natural disaster since the 1934 earthquake.

“There’s nothing left,” Uddhav told me.

After what seemed to be the longest year for many survivors, they still have nothing left but hollow promises from the state.

And as leaders release balloons and light candles in Kathmandu to remember the dead at the first year anniversary of the quake that killed nearly 9,000 people, they seem to be less concerned about the living.

Those balloons will deflate and the candles burn out, and no one will remember what the leaders did to mark the earthquake anniversary. But people will never forget that they were forgotten when they needed their government the most.

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Pyongyang Marathon … It’s a thing

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has recently grabbed global headlines – from hydrogen bomb tests to recently declaring it had “invented” hangover-free alcohol.

Now the country is promoting an international event, inviting foreigners to run across the capital Pyongyang on April 10.

This is only the third year that DPRK has allowed foreign nationals to participate in the marathon. Last year, though it initially banned foreigners from running the marathon because of the Ebola scare, they later relaxed the ban.

Chas Pope, who ran the Pyongyang Marathon last year, described it as a “fascinating experience.”

For Pope, who works at Arup — a British engineering and design consultant firm in Beijing — the marathon was also an opportunity to see the country through a different lens.

“When you go to North Korea, you’re always with a guide,” Pope said. “But this was a chance to see the city – and run – on your own across the capital.”

Comparing this to his first visit in 2012, he said there was a “slight change” in the capital.

“A lot of people were taking photos on their mobile phones as we ran,” he said, describing the marathon scene and referring to a growing number of cellphone users in the country.

In a bid to boost its economy that has been hit hard by international sanctions, DPRK has established 20 special economic zones allowing foreign firms to invest. Companies like Egypt’s Orascom Telecom Media and Technology Holding, one of the largest investors in the country, has opened up communication links to 3 million people. In late December, DPRK also opened a new tourism zone across the Chinese border in Sinuiju, targeting more tourists from the mainland.

Currently, about 100,000 tourists visit the country. However, it has set a target to welcome one million visitors by 2017 and wants to double that figure by 2020.

DPRK’s tourism is dominated by Chinese tourists. However, the marathons are more popular with non-Chinese, said Simon Cockerell, a general manager of Koryo Tours that has been organizing trips to the country since 1993.

“It’s a kind of place which is a great paradox,” Cockerell said. “Everyone knows so much about it and yet so little. So if you want to scratch the surface, understand the country, taking this trip is perfect, whether you run or not.”

As with all tours to DPRK, participants for the marathon also need to sign up through an authorized travel agency. China-based Koryo Tours, the marathon’s official travel partner, is offering tour packages starting from 900 euros (983 US dollars). Other agencies as Young Pioneer Tours and Uri Tours are also providing marathon packages.

Pyongyang Marathon started as a men’s marathon in 1981 to mark the 69th birthday of Kim Il Sung, the country’s first leader after its formation and grandfather to current leader Kim Jong Un. He allowed women to participate in the marathon in 1984. Also known as the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon, it opened to foreigners in 2014 and now participants can run full, half and a 10 kilometer marathon along the 10 kilometer loop of the city.

Cockerell from Koryo Tours said about 1,000 foreigners — up from 200 and 600 in the last two years — are expected to run in Pyongyang this year.

Cameron Petie, a 37-year-old Australian teacher in Beijing, is one of them.

A sports and travel enthusiast, Petie said the marathon will provide a “unique opportunity” to combine two of his passions.

“North Korea was on my radar for a while,” Petie, who has ran six other marathons, said. “The marathon gave me an extra boost to travel.”

And for past runners like Pope, Pyongyang has been an important milestone in their travel and marathon history.

He remembers the enthusiastic bystanders cheering, running through Pyongyang’s landmarks and quiet streets – as compared to Beijing – and being greeted by a gigantic roar as he entered the Kim Il Sung stadium where the race begins and ends.

“I thought 50,000 people were cheering for me,” Pope said. “But they were waiting for the football game to begin after the match. I also got my personal best time in Pyongyang.”

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India’s first transgender band strive for success

India has a tradition of hijras, male-to-female transgender individuals, dating back thousands of years. They are often seen singing and dancing during important rituals and spotted at traffic signals across metropolitan cities.  Now, a group of transgender women are changing the dynamic – they’re taking their music mainstream, becoming India’s first transgender band.

Enter 6 Pack band.

Their first single is a cover of American singer Pharell’s 2013 hit “Happy” – band members Fida Khan, Asha Jagtap, Komal Jagtap, Raveena Jagtap, Bhavika Patil and Chandni Surarnakar burst into a mix of English and Hindi lyric, clapping and dancing to a blend of western and Indian instruments. The band is the brainchild of Y-Films, the youth arm of one of India’s oldest production houses Yash Raj Films.

“I’m feeling as if I’m on top of the world,” Khan said in a phone interview from Mumbai where the band is based. “‘Happy’ is our first single and we are extremely happy and excited singing this song.”

The video of their song, which is titled “Hum Hain Happy,” which means “We are Happy” in Hindi, has already received more than one million views on YouTube in less than 48 hours after its release. The three-minute music video encapsulates the energy and vibrancy of the hijras that “are a community almost in exile.”

“The third gender:  ignored by most, tolerated by some, misunderstood by all,” the video’s narrator describes the community.

Despite pivotal roles in Hindu mythology and culture, and the government recognizing them as third gender citizens, the hijras are often stigmatized and discriminated in society. Though visible, their presence is often less valued and is limited to singing and dancing during rituals – it is believed that it is auspicious to get their blessings.

Shameer Tandon, the project’s curator, said the band wants to break the stereotypical identity associated with the hijra community.

“We have been fighting for their rights and recognition, but many people don’t relate to that,” Tandon said. “So we’re using music as a robust medium to sandwich a message in a subliminal manner that touches people’s heart. So they’ll respect them without any impositions. We want this wall to break. We want their songs to not just transcend geographical boundaries but also gender bias.”

But it hasn’t been easy. Assembling a band from more than 200 participants over almost nine months, according to Tandon, was “a roller-coaster ride.”

However, for the 6 Pack band members, their debut single marks what they hope to be an end to their turbulent pasts and a start of a new chapter. Khan said it gives them an opportunity to overcome challenges they face on a daily basis.

While their first single has gave them instant stardom, at least on the Internet, they said the second song from the album with popular singer Sonu Nigam, which will release on January 26, will help them reach out to the mass audience.

Komal, one of the six band members, said the band and its songs will allow people to look at the hijra community through a different lens.

“This should help change people’s perspectives about hijras,” she said. “We are equally talented and can reach great heights being a transgender band. We demand and deserve equality and respect.”

 

 

 

Nepal’s Integrity Idol

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At a time when Nepal’s political leaders are throwing chairs and vandalising parliament property, and people disregard civil servants, one man has won the reputation as the country’s first Integrity Idol.

Gyan Mani Nepal, a district education official from the eastern district of Panchthar, didn’t have to woo people by singing or dancing to win public votes. But his honesty and commitment to reform his district’s education sector made him a winner.

“I haven’t done anything different, I’ve just done things differently,” Nepal said in a speech after he was declared the winner.

Nepal gained the maximum number of votes and was chosen among 303 nominees.

Here’s my story. 

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In Antwerp, coming close to art and culture

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The afternoon drizzle had deserted the square in front of the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp. For a moment I was the lone tourist gazing at the magnificent 14th Century church, struck by its intricate art and architectural details, inside and out. But then a group of middle-aged Japanese tourists came with their colourful umbrellas and compact digital cameras. They huddled over an area in front of the gigantic structure and started taking photos – not of the Roman Catholic church listed in the World Heritage Site but of a small plank in front it.

I later find that the dramatic climax of the book A Dog of Flanders by British-French writer Marie-Louise de la Ramée, hugely popular in Japan, is set in this premise. The tale of Nello and his dog Patrasche draws hundreds of fans to this city, an Antwerp native told me.

While the pathos of a bestselling book’s plotline attracts many visitors, this Flanders city, also Belgium’s second largest, still lags behind the Belgian capital Brussels by miles considering that it is only about 45 minute train ride from the capital. But I would have never visited this port town too if it weren’t for my friend, Ian, who told me that his city will not disappoint, and in less than 36 hours that I had, I would like the city, if not fall in love with it.

It was already dark when my bus reached its destination in Plantinkai— it was a seven-hour comfortable bus ride from London— and it was freezing. But my friend insisted that I should see what he called “the heart and soul” of the city.

I shivered staring at the long stretch of the Scheldt River with lights reflecting on Europe’s second busiest port after Rotterdam, Netherlands. This port holds significant economic value for the city and also the region, which prompted French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to build Antwerp’s first dock.

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The next day, I returned to the dock – it reminded me of a seaside pier in the US but without the Ferris wheel and a noisy amusement park. I liked the calmness. There I sat munching on frites, or Belgian fries with some spicy sauce, listening to the ship horns at a distant and admiring the crimson sunset from a wooden bench overlooking the river. On the other side was a stunning view of Antwerp’s old quarter, including the towering Cathedral.

The previous evening, Ian had whizzed me on a whirlwind tour though the town centre. In less than an hour, through narrow cobbled streets and some dark alleys, he guided me though his city’s churches, squares and streets narrating bits and pieces of their history. The next day I would be on my own.

I had a rough sketch of the city from that quick, guided tour along with some mental notes. My task, as it seemed, was to find all these places of interest in the daytime. Without a map, venturing into the unknown, following Dutch signs that sounded vaguely familiar, I explored the city. I found myself astray in the alleyways while bumping into beautiful courtyards and buildings that line up the streets.

The starting point to my sightseeing was the magnificent Antwerp Central train station, aptly known as the Railway Cathedral. Built between 1895 and 1905, the architectural design and details are awe-inspiring; it’s a classic mix between the traditional stone exterior with a dome— it could be mistaken for a church— and a futuristic iron and glass panel in the waiting area inside the main terminal. Compared to the other historic stations I’ve visited, including the ones in London, New York, Moscow and Mumbai, I was glad to pause and ponder the grandeur of Antwerp Central without being rammed by a sea of commuters.

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Just out of the station and without realising I was at Diamantkwartier, the city’s Diamond District, navigating through Pelikaanstraat to Hovenierstraat. Though the streets aren’t dazzled as Dubai’s Gold Souk, don’t get undermined by this 550-year-old marketplace with an estimated $54 billion annual turnover. As I peeked
through the glass windows and admired the sparkling diamonds and their “cuts” — though I have no knowledge of that whatsoever — I smirked with the thought that I don’t have to invest in one of those shiny stones anytime soon, not for now at least.

About 45 minutes from here, meandering the bike-friendly city, I walked down a narrow cobbled street that opened to the courtyard of St. Charles Borromeo. This grand architectural masterpiece is modelled after the Jesuit’s’ church in Rome festooned with the works of Antwerp’s much-revered painter Pieter Paul Rubens.

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Rubens’s self-designed house and studio from the 17th Century is now the Rubenshuis Museum at the Wapper Square, and his statue stands tall minutes away at the Groenplaats, a square with a cluster of outdoor cafes and restaurants in proximity to the Cathedral of Our Lady.

Another popular square nearby, and one of my favourites, is the Grote Markt. In the centre of this Square is the fountain with the 1887 statue of Brabo, hurling a piece of a cut hand; he is a heroic figure and locals talk passionately about his story.

According to folklore, a giant named Antigoon collected money from people crossing the bridge over the Scheldt and cut their hands when they failed to pay. So when Brabo killed the demon, he did the same – he cut his hand and threw it away. This is how the city’s name was derived: Antwerp, meaning throwing of the hand. A stone replica of the hand is on The Meir, Antwerp’s fashion and shopping conclave, akin to Oxford Circus in London but less crowded.

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Standing in the Grote Markt amid the centuries old elaborate gildenhuis, or guild houses, and the Renaissance Town Hall, the place could easily be characterised as a set from a classic period movie. It is however an immaculate slice of the bygone era that has been well preserved for countless generations to see.

On that limited time frame, I had crammed in everything that I could possibly see, at least Antwerp’s major attractions, all by foot though there are trams and buses that run frequently. And in between, I didn’t miss out on stuffing myself with Belgian waffles and chocolates. And sometime during the day, I also managed to take a stroll around Antwerp’s Chinatown, a short stretch of street with restaurants, supermarkets and nail salons; it is apparently the only one in Belgium. With a large number of multi-ethnic population – Jewish, Indians and Moroccans – the city is also considered as a melting pot of cultures and cuisines.

When the daylight diminished, which is quite early this time of the year (around 4:30pm), it was certainly time to taste some of the best Belgian beers. The menus at the bars are elaborate and it was impossible to try a lot of them looking at the alcohol content – some were as high as 18 percent. So I settled over a glass of Winterbok, a strong dark beer, as I detailed my day to Ian.

“You’ve seen more than what I had expected,” he told me. “I hope you liked it.”

And in that short period, I not only liked the city, as he had claimed, but also started to fall in love. However, it was time for another city. But I know that my love affair with Antwerp is to be continued, preferably some time summertime.

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City lights

There are countless hours of power cuts throughout the year. Evenings are usually dark and dismal. But then there is one night, the darkest of them all, when the city lights up. In that moment, we forget the darkness of the past and the numerable hours of load-shedding to follow in the coming days. We light the lamps, lit up the city and cherish the moment.

Let us enjoy the festival of lights. Let the lights reign over darkness. Happy Tihar.

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Ani Choying Drolma: The superstar nun

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I first heard Ani Choying Drolma in 2004 — her song “Phool Ko Ankhama” had become viral of some sort. It was everywhere — on TV, radio and playing across the CD stores in New Road. It seemed like almost everyone was addicted to that song. Its simple lyric and haunting melody soothingly introduced us to a Buddhist nun, an unlikely music star among the likes of Nabin K. Bhattarai, Girish-Pranil and Kunti Moktan whose songs lingered on the music charts.

In 2005, I was leaving for the United States for higher education. I packed a lot of things which I thought would remind me of Nepal in a foreign country. And I also packed Ani Choying Drolma’s super-hit album Moments of Bliss. I’m not sure why I thought her music would remind me of home — maybe I packed it because I liked her songs.

But in that lonely two-bedroom apartment in the US when I played her songs, they really reminded me, in a very strange way, of being somewhere close to home. I cannot say exactly how, but it did: maybe it was just listening to those words or the music and chants that often echoed along the streets of Thamel and Boudha.

Exactly 10 years later since I first heard her, thanks to my profession, I had a chance of interviewing her. There she was in her apartment, profusely apologising to me for being late as soon as she entered. She said she was taking guitar lessons and that kept her occupied in the mornings.

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As she made herself comfortable, we started chatting. Since we weren’t under a time constraint, I was at ease while talking to her. I have to admit, I was a bit nervous initially but as we chatted, there were bursts of laughter and moments of silence. In the two-hour timeframe, we covered a lot of topics — from her tormented childhood to music to her admiration for music, movies and food. And becoming a star, being branded as a ‘rock star nun.’

But then and there, she didn’t behave like one. Even in that formal setting, we chatted casually.

“You’re just like anyone,” I said when we were discussing about how people perceive about her and the notions of being a super star nun.

“Oh, thank you,” she laughed. “Thank god you think I’m a normal person – I am just like you and everyone else.”

Here’s my profile on Ani Choying Drolma for the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine

VIDEO: Ani Choying Drolma on how she became a singer

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The street that leads to Pashupati

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This piece was published in the Nepali Times as a part of Galli Salliharuma project.

“Galli Salliharuma is a public writing project that archives personal stories to build a walking-breathing map of Kathmandu as marked and narrated by its inhabitants and visitors. The project is an exercise at encountering and engaging with ideas of place, memory and belonging.”

Here I sketch, through words, and try to navigate and narrate the street that once led to Pashupatinath temple:

THERE WAS A TIME when the temple bells from Pashupati pierced through the windows of our old Newari house. Every morning, during winter recess, this sound was a call to go for a walk with my grandfather. Through the thick fog, all bundled up, I grabbed Baa’s wrinkled hand and followed him briskly through the stone-paved alleyways of Deopatan to the Pashupatinath temple.

Every day, my eyes met with the same string of ancestral Newari houses, familiar faces peeking through windows, and even more familiar smiles greeting us from the doors. Then there were small shops with wooden shutters; the busiest in the lot was Ganga Ram’s halwai pasal, distinctly famous for its halwa-swari combo.

When we reached Ganga Ram’s shop, we took the right instead of going through the packed street that led to the main temple. There were two reasons why I always dragged my old man that way. My favorite stationery shop was at the end of this lane, and I secretly took joy in shoplifting the smallest of things, like those fifty paisa filmy postcards. The second reason was to follow the road past the flower shops to the banks of the Bagmati to sail my paper boats. My little brain found both these activities adventurous. Especially the thrill of seeing my paper boats sail successfully, and then disappear into the river through the morning mist.

Times have changed and the hand that led me through these alleyways is not here anymore. The chain of old houses has now crumbled, and the shops have moved. This old place has a new character but little charm, including the river where I once sailed my paper boats. It now smells of sewage.

But I’ve kept these streets intact in my mind, the routes are mapped out in my memory. And today, in all its unfamiliarity, I can still see those shops, smell those sweets and sense the thrill in those boats sailing away. But when I open my eyes in the mornings, it’s usually to the punctuating sounds of vehicles and not the temple bells.

Photos: Training to become a Gurkha

Last June, while I was in Pokhara, I met some passionate young men who were training to prepare for the British Gurkha recruitment camp. Thousands of young hopefuls apply for the British Gurkha Army every year but a selected few are chosen after a rigourous recruitment process. I spent two days with these men who were giving their 100 percent to become the chosen ones. These photos are from an assignment in 2013. [Story link]

In Nepal, hundreds of young hopefuls have started to join pre-recruitment training institutions for the British Gurkha recruitment process. The training academies are like a mock-up of the actual recruitment camp, says Rahul Pandey, founder of Salute Gorkha, one such academy.

In Nepal, hundreds of young hopefuls have started to join pre-recruitment training institutions for the British Gurkha recruitment process. The training academies are like a mock-up of the actual recruitment camp, says Rahul Pandey, founder of Salute Gorkha, one such academy.

Rain or shine, these men believe in discipline and a strict training regiment, which they say will bring them a step closer to achieving their ultimate goal.

Rain or shine, these men believe in discipline and a strict training regiment, which they say will bring them a step closer to achieving their ultimate goal.

The British Gurkha selection process involves a number of physical activities that includes heaving, push-ups and the doko race among others.

The British Gurkha selection process involves a number of physical activities that includes heaving, push-ups and the doko race among others.

Hundreds of young Nepali men apply to join the British Gurkha every year.  In 2012, 6,134 men applied for 126 positions.

Hundreds of young Nepali men apply to join the British Gurkha every year. In 2012, 6,134 men applied for 126 positions.

Himal Shrees Magar from Rupandehi says he wants to be a Gurkha for the opportunities and benefits that comes with the position.

Himal Shrees Magar from Rupandehi says he wants to be a Gurkha for the opportunities and benefits that comes with the position.

 

At Salute Gorkha, about 150 men are undergoing a six-month training session. These men are applying for the British Army, as well as the Indian Army and Singapore Police.

At Salute Gorkha, about 150 men are undergoing a six-month training session. These men are applying for the British Army, as well as the Indian Army and Singapore Police.

They start their day from 5am and includes a rigorous, all-day training session.

They start their day from 5am and includes a rigorous, all-day training session.

As a part of the training, the men who are contesting for this year’s recruitment process do long and short distance run as well as cross country and speed distance running.

As a part of the training, the men who are contesting for this year’s recruitment process do long and short distance run as well as cross country and speed distance running.

Many young men say they are attracted toward the British Gurkha because of the good pay scale, prestige and the long-term benefits that comes with the position.

Many young men say they are attracted toward the British Gurkha because of the good pay scale, prestige and the long-term benefits that comes with the position.

The trainings are intense but these young men say they are ready to give their 100 percent and do whatever it takes to become a Gurkha.

The trainings are intense but these young men say they are ready to give their 100 percent and do whatever it takes to become a Gurkha.

This year [2013] will be the fourth and final attempt for Deepak Gurung from Tanahu. He says his hard work will pay off this recruiting season.

This year [2013] will be the fourth and final attempt for Deepak Gurung from Tanahu. He says his hard work will pay off this recruiting season.

Hundreds of young Nepali men apply to join the British Gurkha every year.  In 2012, 6,134 men applied for 126 positions.

Hundreds of young Nepali men apply to join the British Gurkha every year. In 2012, 6,134 men applied for 126 positions.

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