The body arrived weeks after the death in a faraway land of the laborer. It was almost nine p.m., and the village was still dark.
Because it was too late and no one knew the exact condition of the remains, the family didn’t risk stopping at home. Following a small group of villagers, the truck drove slowly to the banks of a river where men were building a bonfire.
The soft light from the moon overhead led to the village opening the coffin of Rakesh Kumar Yadav with pliers. “Show him his face,” shouted a man. Renu Devi Yadav was the laborer’s widow. She struggled to get her children away from him, and she kissed his cheek. The flames stood still in the distance.
hundreds, if not thousands, of Nepal’s Himalayan people travel abroad each year to build a better life.
Every year, hundreds of migrants die, unraveling delicate dreams thousands miles away. Mr. Yadav (40), was killed while working as a Dubai security guard. Others are drivers and laborers in countries such as Saudi Arabia or Malaysia. Qatar is hosting the World Cup. The backbone of the years-long construction blitz was Nepalese migrants.
Men like these are exposed to layers of vulnerability and in life. It also follows them on their final homecoming. Nepal and other struggling countries have no leverage to accelerate the return of the bodies that remain in the morgues rich nations. Middlemen, government clerks, and even the harsh terrain of the mountains can be used to help grieving families.
It is a tribulation to simply wish for a dignified and quick completion of cremation, which is central to salvation in Hinduism.
Three months after his arrival in Dubai, Mr. Yadav died before he could send any money home. His coffin was delivered this spring in his village, southern Nepal.
When his wife asked the recruitment agent about his death in Dubai, he gave her a simple response: Her husband “couldn’t wake up after sleeping.” A United Arab Emirates death certificate attributed his death to “heart and breathing failure.”
Due to the very limited employment opportunities at home, Mr. Yadav had taken up a number of foreign jobs, borrowing thousands of dollars each time his employment contracts expired to pay recruiters. The fertile land in his village has been shrinking; the only job he could find, as a substitute educator, was not enough to make ends meets.
The Yadavs, who were looking for a better lifestyle, split their lives and lived in three locations.
While Mr. Yadav was working overseas, his three teenage kids lived in a rented bedroom in the closest town. There, they attended private schools. His wife was his anchor at home. She took care of her elderly parents, dealt with the village creditors, and packed vegetables, lentils, rice, and other food for the kids when they returned home on weekends.
The three worlds of their three children were isolated, but they were connected through video calls at night. They also believed that this would lead to stability if the children became engineers or doctors.
In Dubai, Mr. Yadav served as a security guard at a hotel. He sent his family a picture of himself in his new uniform. His heels were twisted together as if he was requesting military attention.
On late-night family calls, the man complained that he wasn’t working enough to reduce the debt at home.
Ram Bikash, his son, last spoke with Mr. Yadav at close to midnight on March 9, while his sister and brother were already in bed in the shared space. The video chat lasted for about fifteen minutes.
Ram Bikash said, “Good Night” before he ended our call. “He smiled.”
The consequences of Mr. Yadav’s sudden death on the next day were immediate. What would happen with the children’s future, their education? Who would pay for the debts in excess of tens and thousands of dollars with increasing interest each month?
However, before all of that could be done, the family had the task of bringing the body back home to perform the last rites.
Even though flights were restricted during the pandemics, many families felt blessed, even though it took months for their loved one’s body to arrive. Many other families had to cope with the fact the cremation would occur overseas. The ashes were not even received by most.
A total of 12 insurance agencies offer packages for migrant workers that include coverage for injuries and death. The amount paid for injury depends on whether a worker has lost a toe, finger, hand, or leg. In the event of death, the insurance covers up to $800 in transport costs and the family receives about $10,000.
The country of 29million Nepal has granted permits to more that four million Nepalis to work abroad in the last decade. That does not include the millions who cross the open border to India.
In the five years since 2005, over 3,500 bodies were returned by the Nepali government. Most often, heart-related causes of death were mentioned, followed by other diseases, traffic accidents and workplace injuries, and finally, suicide.
Five weeks after his death, Mr. Yadav’s body arrived in Kathmandu. The coffin was taken on a stretcher from the side gate of the terminal. It was close to the entry for migrant laborers.
Purna Bhadur Lama, the driver of the truck, lifted the coffin and tied it to the truck’s left wall using a rope. He then set out on the eight-hour trip, winding through lush hills and to his village.
Mr. Lama was a migrant himself. His last stint in Qatar in 2006 saw him leave for the United States.
He said that over his seven years of delivering coffins, he’s transported approximately 1,500 bodies. He gets about $15 per delivery. The number of bodies that arrive can affect how much he makes. He may make $230 or $270 depending on which month. It’s lonely work, and often he only has the dead body. One time, at the peak of the pandemic he drove 500 km with just a jar full of ashes.
When Mr. Lama returned to the village with Mr. Yadav’s body, Ms. Yadav broke down as she held onto her younger sons and daughters.
After Mr. Yadav’s visage was revealed and the coffin was placed on the riverbank, villager after villager covered their faces. One woman entered to kiss him.
The women and children left the village, with their weeping gradually fading away. The men stood on the pyre, throwing any wood and even the lids of their coffins into the flames.
Slowly, riverbank started to feel eerie — cricket sounds and soft chatter from men as they waited for Mr. Yadav’s fire, its flames and crackles just a dot in all the darkness.
Mr. Lama, the truck driver turned around, and began the long trip back to Kathmandu. The next morning at 9 AM, he was back at the airport. Another body was coming in.
The Yadavs’ dreams have been diminishing in the years since.
The funeral, cremation and food costs were covered by a large part of the $10,000 insurance they received. Ms. Yadav is still being contacted by village creditors to collect the $20,000 that the family owes.
She was unable pay six months’ school fees for her boys. They fear that if the balance is not paid, they won’t be permitted to take final exams.
As it is often the situation, Anisha was the first to die. Ms. Yadav pulled Anisha out of eighth-grade at the private school. She returned to the village to spend time with her mother and go to school at the public school.
“I had dreamed about becoming a doctor. Anisha shared that it was papa’s aspiration. “Now, I don’t think my mother will be able money to pay for medical education.”