Hidden Life is now my life’s focus

My name is Vivek Upadhyay. I’m 26 years old, and I currently live in Kathmandu where I assist with my family’s businesses. 2 years ago, I founded the Hidden Life foundation with a few of my closest friends, and that organization now works to improve prison conditions throughout Nepal and to release prisons who are kept imprisoned because of minor financial issues. Today, I’d like to tell you a little bit of my life story and why I founded this organization, and to do that I think I’ll start at the beginning. I was born in Pokhara, but raised and schooled in the Kathmandu valley. When I was a teenager, I returned to Pokhara to continue my studies and help with my father’s business. Eventually, I went off on my own and by the time I was 22, I had become a successful businessman in my own right. I owned a café, several clothing stores, I ran my own finance company, and I owned a large share of a school. To say that I was proud of myself would be an understatement. I was successful, financially well-off, young, and confident. The school was by far my favourite of my businesses, and after acquiring my share I began to devote more and more of my time to the operation of the school, trusting the day-to-day running of my other assets to my employees, whom I deeply trusted. At this point, a perfect storm of betrayals led to me losing everything I had worked for, and everything I had found myself so proud of. Unbeknownst to me, one of my employees at my finance company betrayed my trust and had been embezzling company funds and creating false deposits to cover for the loss. When the loss was finally discovered, I found the culprit but it was far too late to prevent the damage and I found myself in debt to the tune of 45 million NPR. To cover the loss, I sold my personal land, stores, assets, and shares so that I could repay the losses to my investors and employees who had entrusted me with my money. On top of this, a very close friend who I had trusted with everything betrayed me. I had borrowed 700 thousand NPR from this friend in a blind trust, giving him a cheque for the same amount as insurance. When he heard of my financial troubles, he intentionally bounced my cheque and began legal proceedings to regain his money. Before I heard about this though, I paid him back his loan in cash, but didn’t think to obtain any sort of receipt or proof because of the trust I held for my friend. Despite this repayment, he continued with his legal proceedings, and brought me before the court for failure to repay his debt. Since I had no proof that I had repaid him, I was convicted and sentenced to a jail sentence. For the first 29 days of my incarceration, I was kept in a single room with between 25 and 30 other prisoners. This experience was beyond difficult, and I still struggle to really describe how I was feeling during that time. A very short time ago, I had been on top of the world, and utterly satisfied with the way my life had been going. Now, as a person who had never had any kind of run-in with the police or law before, I was incarcerated in a single cell with dozens of other people at all time. When the police failed to find any other evidence of fraud than my friend’s bounced cheque, I was transferred to a regular prison and kept there for another 16 days until I could post bail. The real prison was a different experience, far more comfortable than the previous month, almost like a hostel. We had access to cigarettes and other amenities, and allowed to move around freely to other parts of the compound. While I was in prison, I began to write a journal about my experiences, writing about the people I had met, the conditions I was experiencing, and what I was going to do after I was released. While I was in prison, I paid the bail of a few of the other prisoners, as their fines had been set at 3000 or less NPR and they were still unable to pay.
After 16 days, my family managed to collect the 750 000 NPR necessary for my release, and I was let go. Returning to society was far, far harder than I had imagined it would be. Friends, family, acquaintances, business partners, people I had loved and trusted looked at me in a fundamentally different way. In their eyes, I had been in prison, and must therefore be a criminal. People who I had viewed as some of my closest friends now looked at me as if I was capable of anything, I had already been proven to be a danger to society and there was no way of telling what I could do next. I used to hear members of my family say in private that I was clearly a bad guy, totally untrustworthy. Even more, it seemed like my incarceration was hurting the image of my family within our community. People looked at them as people related to a common criminal. I felt betrayed, even more so than when my friend had lead to me being sent to prison in the first place. These betrayals, by my employee, by my friend, and now by society, shook me to my core. I was innocent, and even if I wasn’t hadn’t I already been punished enough? I was angry, angrier than I had ever been in my entire life, and that anger took me to a dark place which, while I’m not proud if it, I feel is important to discuss. I began drinking far more heavily than I had before, and I became something of a functioning alcoholic. I used to take stupid risks, hang out with the wrong kind of people, and I felt like my family was neglecting me and leaving me behind because of something that was not even my fault. I used to pick fights, get into arguments with anyone who would fight back. I had a lot of anger that I needed to release, and felt in some way that even if I did something terrible that I would do is earn the reputation that I seemed to already hold. People already looked at me like a criminal, what was the harm in earning that reputation? Eventually, I sank so low that I attempted suicide. Twice. I felt lost, angry, neglected, and victimized. Thankfully, I failed in those attempts. Shortly after the second attempt, I found the journal I had kept in prison amongst a stack of books that I had brought back with me. Reading through it, I found the passage where I had written that I wanted to continue working to release people kept incarcerated for tiny amounts of money. I had written that no one deserved to stay in prison just because of poverty, and that message resonated with me. Very slowly, I began to put my life back together. This was very, very hard to begin with, as I had lost any faith people still held in me over the last year during my downward spiral. When I went to initially set up the organization, I had to find seven supporters from different families as sponsors to get government approval as a charity, and could not even find that many people willing to have faith in me. Eventually, I reconnected with some friends over Facebook, and they decided to buy into my new dream. I founded Hidden Life with those friends, and they continue to work with and support me to this day, and for that I am eternally grateful. Ever since, Hidden Life has worked to release prisoners kept in prison because of an inability to pay small fines,usually under 30000 NPR. I was incredibly lucky to receive the support of various other local NGOs early in our journey, and I would also like to thank all of them for their support. To this day, we have released 40 people from prison. Three had relapsed and been re-incarcerated, but the other 37 have returned to their families and down their best to reintegrate into society. The journey for me to this point has not been easy, but after everything I do believe I have emerged a stronger person. I have a circle of supporters who believe in me, and I feel confident that this project can continue to succeed into the future. Hidden Life is now my life’s focus, and I hope to continue this work for the rest of my life. Thank you so much to my supporters, and here’s to a future in which Nepali prisons are free of those unable to pay minor fines.
, I wrote in the journal that when I was released I would do something about the people kept in prison for such small amounts. After 16 days, my family managed to collect the 750 000 NPR necessary for my release, and I was let go. Returning to society was far, far harder than I had imagined it would be. Friends, family, acquaintances, business partners, people I had loved and trusted looked at me in a fundamentally different way. In their eyes, I had been in prison, and must therefore be a criminal. People who I had viewed as some of my closest friends now looked at me as if I was capable of anything, I had already been proven to be a danger to society and there was no way of telling what I could do next. I used to hear members of my family say in private that I was clearly a bad guy, totally untrustworthy. Even more, it seemed like my incarceration was hurting the image of my family within our community. People looked at them as people related to a common criminal. I felt betrayed, even more so than when my friend had lead to me being sent to prison in the first place. These betrayals, by my employee, by my friend, and now by society, shook me to my core. I was innocent, and even if I wasn’t hadn’t I already been punished enough? I was angry, angrier than I had ever been in my entire life, and that anger took me to a dark place which, while I’m not proud if it, I feel is important to discuss.
I was incredibly lucky to receive the support of various other local NGOs early in our journey, and I would also like to thank all of them for their support. To this day, we have released 40 people from prison. Three had relapsed and been re-incarcerated, but the other 37 have returned to their families and down their best to reintegrate into society.HLF is Making toilets in prison,providing drinking water facilities,distribution of clothes, sanitary pads,regular health checkups,sports materials to people in prison, meditaion and different skill development trainings for maintaining their daily life after their release. The journey for me to this point has not been easy, but after everything I do believe I have emerged a stronger person. I have a circle of supporters who believe in me, and I feel confident that this project can continue to succeed into the future. Hidden Life is now my life’s focus, and I hope to continue this work for the rest of my life. Thank you so much to my supporters, and here’s to a future in which Nepali prisons are free of those unable to pay minor fines. Thank you so much for everything, Vivek Upadhyay[President of Hidden Life Foundation].
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