It’s another Friday morning, and Pancha Maya Limbu is with her friends in her cozy room. Her room is on the first floor of a recently repaired building in Grays, Essex, which looks no less than five-decade-old. The 65-year-old Gurkha widow apparently owns nothing, not even a sofa. Her neighborhood friends, Manmati Limbu, 71, and Maiya Limbu, 72, both Gurkha widows, innocently gaze at each other, listening to the conversation as they find a stranger in the apartment they often visit to share their life experiences.
A narrow passage at the main entrance that leads to the kitchen is full of worn-out footwear. On the wall are portraits of a variety of gods. The dining room is full of equipment which Pancha Maya uses during her shaman prayer. “Here is where I live,” she smiles. “No one knows where they will end up. I would never have thought of being here in my life.”
The story of Pancha Maya is the reality of most retired Gurkhas and their families in the UK where they have been offered a new hope for life.
While the Gurkhas had served in the British Army, after their retirement they were encouraged to restart their traditional way of life in the homeland: farming. But after 2004 when the British government announced a new law allowing the Gurkhas to settle in the UK, the number of Gurkhas has increased in major towns, including Grays.
The presence of the Gurkhas in the UK is a reminder of their strong ties to this country.
According to the Gurkha Welfare Trust, there are an estimated 14,000 Gurkhas (heads of family) living in different parts of the country, of whom 12,000 retired before July 1997, with the majority of them on benefits. Additionally, there are approximately 1,600 Gurkha widows. Altogether, there are about 58,000 people of Gurkha backgrounds, says Gary Ghale, Gurkha Welfare Officer at the Trust.
This emerging pattern of migration among the Gurkhas has now raised an important question, particularly for the likes of Pancha Maya who can’t read or write English: what to expect from life?
Citizens of the UK are eligible for several different welfare benefits depending on financial circumstances and national insurance contributions. For example, if a person has a total of 30 qualifying years of national insurance contributions, the person will qualify for the state pension; if the person has not paid enough national insurance contribution, little or no state pension will be paid. However, the person can apply for other means-tested benefits which are based on the needs of the individual. The majority of the Gurkhas and their families fall under this category as they have not paid enough national insurance.
Manmati Limbu, who came to the UK in the hope of having new life experience, is one of those living on means-tested benefits. She lives with her son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. In her early days, she found the UK homely because the Gurkha community was small and everyone shared their lives with each other.
But this does not happen so much now as the Gurkha community has changed with time. Besides, there are also changes in social behaviors amongst the Gurkhas, with the younger generation opting for Western lifestyles. These changes have brought about a dilemma to Manmati: What am I to do? On the one hand, she needs to be in the UK as she is on medication with follow-up hospital appointments. Moreover, being with her own family members is important as it allows her to feel loved and secure.
On the other hand, she knows she is getting older as time goes by and she has no idea of what to expect from life in a country where her own culture is non-existent. Now she is worried about her future. “I am sharing a room with my son. I am certain my granddaughter will soon need the room that I am living in,” she says. “I don’t know where I will end up when she moves in.”
Maiya Limbu, originally from Tehrathum, has a different story. Like most other widows, she left her homeland hoping for a new life but ended up being all alone on foreign soil: now she needs someone’s help to run her everyday life—from reporting to official appointments to visiting supermarkets. She doesn’t even know what benefits she is on despite the fact that she is in the welfare system. Her diasporic world is made up of only a small number of friends.
Although many retired Gurkhas and their families are illiterate, they were the ones who successfully created an urban class in their homeland, where their lives are similar to those of the elite class: most educate their children in private schools, live in good housing and some even employ maids. Gurkha residences in the homeland are often described to be moderate because of their Western influence, yet it is these ‘brave warriors’ and their families who are struggling in their land of dreams because of language: the majority of them can’t read or write English.
The British government is trying to address minorities’ issues by offering a range of vocational courses. In particular, local councils are actively helping minorities to improve their language skills. In 2012, it established several resources through local councils with the aim of helping the Gurkhas and their families enhance English language. Yet most elderly Gurkhas and their spouses failed to take an advantage of the opportunity because of age-related illnesses, such as diabetes.
While life in the UK is challenging, some Gurkhas and their families find the former world power a place of opportunity. Now many own their own private homes or small businesses and, in particular, working age Gurkhas including their wives and children are doing well. In 2014, Kent University reported the Gurkhas of working age to be the most economically active and self-reliant social group in the UK, with 95 percent in employment.
However, for those who can’t read or write English, linguistic challenges continue to be a driving force behind Gurkha pessimism. Despite these challenges, the British values remain as a lifeline for the likes of Pancha Maya who hopes to live a happy life in a foreign land. “The government is doing more than enough. It has offered me a council flat, assuring me of a future which I couldn’t have in my homeland,” she says. “I am not moving anywhere; I will continue to stay here until I die” o
The author is a researcher associated with South Asian Media Studies Center, UK