This year, Nepal ranks as the 132nd most unequal country in the world, with a Gini coefficient of 0.328. (The closer to 1, the higher the level of inequality.) It’s not a bad place to be. By this measure, income and wealth are more evenly distributed in Nepal than they are in, say, the United States (0.411), Bhutan (0.374), India (0.357), Pakistan (0.335)—or South Korea (0.354).
Yet the stark disparities between millions of those who have to toil abroad just to feed their families and Nepal’s richest few who have stashed hundreds of millions of unearned dollars in tax havens still rankle.
Perhaps this is one reason the superhit South Korean Netflix series ‘Squid Game’ is so relatable to a common Nepali, or the citizens of most countries around the world for that matter. Singer Hemant Rana’s poignant 2017 song ‘Saili’ captures the misery of Nepali migrant workers who are forced into a Devil’s bargain: to trade away the most productive years of their lives for an elusive promise of a comfortable life back in their own country when they ‘cross 40’.
They could easily identify with the Squid Game character of Ali Abdul, a struggling Pakistani worker—a husband and a new father—whose wages are cruelly held back by his South Korean employer.
The series’ plot revolves around a series of children’s games that 456 participants compete in for a grand prize of around $33 million. (Spoiler alert: Don’t read further if you are thinking of watching it.) But there can be only one winner—the rest will have to die. The games’ organizers carefully select these players, who are all neck-deep in debt and so desperate they are ready to embrace a near-certain death for the long shot at the prize-money. The organizers, meanwhile, cater to a cabal of sadistic ultra-rich folks who pay a premium price to watch people die horrible deaths. Ali is among those desperate players.
In the abovementioned ‘Saili’ song from the film of the same name, the actor, who is about to leave the country to work abroad, promises his beloved that he will return one day and they will then spend a happy life together. The sad reality is that after years of gruelling work, many migrant workers come back with severe mental and physical traumas. Some don’t make it back at all: Around 8,000 Nepali nationals have died while working abroad over the past dozen years. In many ways, their situation is hopeless.
The same can be said of the character of Seong Gi-hun, the eventual winner of the Squid Game. He enters the series of dangerous games after he fails to put together enough money to treat his diabetic mother, whose leg is already beset by gangrene. On returning home triumphant, he finds his mother lying on the floor, dead. Nor can Seong Gi-hun, with all his money, go meet his daughter who is living with her mother and stepfather in the US. In this dog-eat-dog world of unfettered capitalism, the poor lose even when they win.
Most Nepalis have known the helplessness that accompanies the knowledge that a handful of powerful politicians and super-rich businessmen control their lives.
Governments come and go, as and when these plutocrats fancy. The cartels they control enjoy monopolies over vital sectors like health, education, and transport. Prices of daily commodities are forever on the rise and there is zero guarantee of the quality of products in the market. The concerns of these money-minded elites are completely divorced from those of ordinary folks. It often feels like they are playing a cruel game on the rest of us—a game they can’t lose and we can’t win.