Last year, when Manju Ghimire went to Pokhara city to attend the birthday party of a teenage acquaintance, she was full of hope and excitement. It was the 17th birthday of Khagendra Thapa Magar, Nepal’s boy-wonder measuring just 22 inches, who became an international celebrity overnight after seeking to be recognised as the shortest man in the world by the ‘Guinness Book of World Records’. Although Khagendra’s application was turned down on the ground that the 17-year-old would need to wait until he turned 18, on October 14, 2010, the record will almost certainly be his, especially with the recent death of He Pingping, a Chinese, who at 2 ft 5.37 inches held the official title of being the world’s shortest man.
“Dwarfs like us revelled in the attention given to Khagendra,” says Ghimire, a 29-year-old actor and dancer, who measures 33 inches. “We thought the government would wake up to the fact that there are hundreds of little people like Khagendra in Nepal and that it is the responsibility of the State to provide for them.”
However, one year later, she has abandoned any hope of change in either the state or society. “I was told that little people classify as being disabled and so can claim a disability allowance from the government,” she says. “I went all the way from Kathmandu to Chitwan in southern Nepal to apply for the money and claim it. All I got was a measly NRS 300 (about $4) when I must have spent at least 10 times that amount travelling to the district administrator’s office. If the State thinks of us at all, and allocates a budget, it gets eaten up along the way,” she adds.
Ghimire’s disappointment is all the greater since, unlike Khagendra who enjoys the support of his family and a foundation established to help him win the Guinness record, she has no support. “My father was a poor farmer in Chitwan, who has three other children,” she says without recrimination. “When I was six and my parents realised I was not growing, that there was something wrong with me, they left me with the SOS Children’s Village in Kathmandu (an international charity for orphans working in 123 countries). My family never visited me until I grew up and contacted them on my own. Even now, although I am earning my own living, acting in films and TV serials, they are still not ready to take me back.”
Ghimire joined the entertainment industry – the only sector in Nepal that hires Persons of Short Stature – almost by accident. A film director saw her dancing when she was in school and decided to include a dance sequence starring the teenage Manju for its “offbeat” nature. Later, she joined a dance and acting group, Kusum Natya Samuha, and became a regular performer. Currently, she is shooting in a romantic comedy with two pairs of lovers, ‘Ki Sainole Bolao’ (By what sign should I call you) where she has graduated to a speaking role.
There are seven casinos in the Kathmandu and one in Pokhara and, from time to time, they hire people from this community as dancers in shows. Some bars-cum-restaurants, who specialise in entertaining people through folk songs and dances, also employ them. Their other career options are in theatre and the television industry, where they are cast in bit roles – mainly to make people laugh at their appearance.
Binda, 32 inches tall, who uses only her first name, was a regular dancer at a ‘dohori’ (folk) song bar in Thamel, Kathmandu’s prime tourist and entertainment hub. The doll-like Binda, with her same-size male dance partner, were regarded with amazement by many of the customers at the bar. “The salary was meagre but we made money from the tips we got,” she says, “People would want to hear us speak to make sure we were not puppets. Some even pinched us to see if we were real.” This year, Binda got a break – an offer to be the hostess at a bar in Dubai, where thousands of Nepali expats work.
Every year, many young Nepalis – both men and women – go abroad in search of jobs, leaving behind a country whose economy has been hit by a decade of armed insurgency followed by political instability. People like Binda are now ready to follow suit.
Nisha Pachabhaiya, 22, is trying hard to go to Japan. This 22-year-old came alone to Kathmandu two years ago from Palpa, a sleepy district nearly 300 kilometres away, famed for its handwoven cloth. It took heroic effort for a woman who stands 37.6 inches tall to achieve this. Women like her find it difficult to even navigate a flight of stairs, open a door where the bolts are located higher up, cross roads busy with traffic, or even cook.
For now, Nisha works as a child minder in an outlet of Bakery Cafe, a fast-food chain that hires the differently-abled, including waiters who circumvent loss of hearing and speech by employing sign language. Although the job offer came readily from the manager, who is also from her hometown, it took Nisha some time to say ‘yes’ because she first needed to find accommodation close to the cafe.
“Travelling is difficult,” Nisha says. “We can’t walk fast or for long distances. Also, it is difficult for us to use public transport. We need someone to hoist us up or help us alight from buses.” But she is determined not to return to her impoverished family in Palpa. “I have completed school and have enrolled to study in a junior college,” she says. “I am also communicating with a friend, who is in Japan, to get a job there as a hostess.”
Though is no survey that has been done on Nepal’s little people. According to a 2009 report by UNICEF and the Central Bureau of Statistics, Nepal, almost 50 per cent of Nepali children below five years suffer from dwarfism due to poor or faulty nutrition, including the absence of breast-feeding. Insufficient awareness among mothers and the absence of healthcare facilities, especially in remote villages, contribute to this. The report also noted that a higher percentage of girls – 44.4 per cent as against 41.3 per cent boys – displayed this trait.
Little men, however, are treated better than their female counterparts. Loknath Dhakal, in his early 50s, who measures four feet, is the founder of the Nepal Hocha Pudka Sangh, the only organisation for Persons of Short Stature in the country. In 2003 Dhakal, an actor, starred as a hero in the feature film, ‘Sarathi’. Its story was about how a little man wins the heart of a woman of normal height, and it reflects his own life. Dhakal leads a happily married life with a woman who is 5ft 2in and both the couple’s children are of average height.
“I was a part of the organisation once,” says Ghimire. “I took part in umpteen public rallies and gatherings held to demand better state facilities for little people. But I dropped out after feeling that people like me were being exploited, even by those from our own community.”
She believes that the only way out is to be self-reliant and that is what she tries to do every day of her life.