By Ram Khatry, Sydney
26 February 2017
He was not a millionaire but he surely spent like one, withdrawing not a hundred or two but thousands of dollars at one time so that he could poke his life away at his favourite gambling dens in Sydney. Shishir Barakoti represented estimated few hundred hardcore Nepali pokies who had become fixtures at some of the most popular gambling joints in town.
The budding poet and lyricist was such a ruthless addict that if he lost $1000 on a given evening, he would happily exclaim, “Thank God it was only a thousand today!” As his addiction took deeper roots, one hundred dollars became a pittance, five hundred merely a benign loss! On his worst evening, one that ironically helped him turn sober and reclaim his life, he lost $6,000 in a matter of few hours. That sort of money would change lives back in his native Nepal. Here, he wasted it on few colourful buttons of a machine.
That evening, the evening he lost more than a month’s earnings in a rush of beer-fueled madness, Mr Barakoti went berserk – in crippling frustration and self-loathing. It was October 2015 and the venue, or rather the venues (he played at two gambling stations in Penshurst that evening), were only a few hundred metres from his unit where his wife was waiting for her husband to arrive home in one piece. She knew that the once loving husband had drifted far from her.
In less than two years since he arrived in Australia in 2009, Shishir Barakoti had developed the addiction which is fast becoming a worry for Australia’s Nepali diaspora. Most do not want to talk about it but Mr Barakoti did agree to open up to southasia.com.au in the ope that his story would encourage other addicts to stay away from poker machines.
Just how serious an addict he was back then became evident from what he thought of his better-half during the worst years of his addiction. “I used to wish that something bad happened to my wife so that I could drink as much as I liked and play unrestricted poker as long as I desired,” Mr Barakoti, a keen poet whose lyrics have just been used by one of Nepal’s most successful singers, said during an extended interview with this media.
The 34 year old man and his wife originally came to Brisbane but later moved interstate in search of job, finally settling down in Sydney – the man first and then the wife. He used to make less than two hundred dollars a week until 2010 but things changed early 2011 when he began working two jobs raking in over $1500 a week. His wife was also working in the healthcare industry and so had her own stable income. Initially, he and his wife had an understanding that she would give him $150 a week for his beer money and pocket expenses. “Even that was more than enough, beer used to cost only three dollars something those days,” he reminisces his early Sydney life.
Soon poker machines would destroy that equilibrium of his family life and his expenses would go through the roof. Relationship between him and his young wife would become a living hell by the end of 2011 and remained so until the last quarter of 2015.
There is quite a story how he got addicted to poker machines.
In 2011, Mr Barakoti began to work as a contractor for UGL – reading utility meters. He would go around Illawarra region, house to house, reading water meters all through the day and then take the train without a moment to waste to be at Wynyard by 6 pm where he would be responsible for cleaning toilets on eight floors of a high-rise building.
By the time the grueling shifts ended, he would crave ice cold beer. He would drink few pints on his way home, every night. The process soon became the norm – walk Southern Sydney suburbs throughout the day no matter how cruel the sun shone or how heavily it rained, then commute to city to clean toilets and then get drunk late evenings – preferably alone! Being a man who loved to drink in peace with a packet of cigarettes and a packet of pan parag next to him, the Kathmandu man began taking refuge in the comparatively peaceful gambling zones of Sydney pubs. He found pokies more welcome in that they remained engrossed on their screens rather than the rowdy crowd in the lobby.
“Initially, I used to stay on the gambling floor sipping my beer and smoking cigarettes. But then I began feeling odd. So one day I decided to throw in a dollar coin and play one cent per bet. Surprisingly, I used to win up to five dollars ninety percent of the times and the winnings used to buy me a beer and still save a dollar. I found it rather cool. I could have my beer in a peaceful environment as well as experience the excitement of winning a bet,” he shared his story over the weekend.
He became a fixture at RSL Penshurst as well as at the nearby Penshurst Hotel. One day he sought betting tip from a Lebanese couple he had befriended. “They told me I should play either 25 or 35 cents per bet. When I did, I began losing money up to twenty dollars at a time and I became very restless and disturbed,” he recalled his initial days of poker machine addiction. The peace of mind which he enjoyed until that point in his life was about to be doomed for ever. He began to make multiple withdrawals of $20 in a single evening. His $150 a week allowance from his wife wasn’t enough anymore. So he bargained to raise that allowance to $200. Although she had initial misgivings, his wife had to give in eventually.
Early on, he would keep a mental track of the money he was losing – “fifty dollars last week, hundred dollars the week before”. As he fell deeper into the quicksand of poker machine addiction, he lost track of his loss.
By 2012, his accounts reveal, he was as professional gambler whose mind was full of deceit and readymade stories – stories that would be used to silence his wife every time suspicions arose in the family.
“I always had a convincing story,” the former addict said, “But eventually, after few months, she would know that I lied to her but she got tired I guess because she stopped fighting with me about the lies. She began to let it go. We used to have terrible fights back then, things would fly in all directions.” In retrospect, he reckons his wife would hit him with unknown objects because the next day at work he would feel pain in different parts of his body and he would ask his colleagues to check out, “There would be blue scars sometimes!”
Mr Barakoti says he had four credit cards with four different banks – Commonwealth, NAB, HSBC and Westpac. He had troubles with all four banks because the credit limits would be exceeded in no time and the minimum payments would be regularly missed, “I used to get calls from HSBC in the middle of the night, from Hong Kong.”
His wife would pay the full amounts due for the credit card repayments with an agreement that he would close them. He would lie to her saying he did close them but in reality, he would have finished the fully-paid credit cards in a matter of days. His wife apparently paid the full amount of the same credit four times.
He would gamble late into the night at Penshurst Hotel, withdrawing cash at the in-house ATM machine. His gambling affairs would be tracked almost live by his better-half and she would call Mr Barakoti’s mother back in Kathmandu who in turn would call her beloved son, “Get out of that place called Penshurst Hotel darling. Go home immediately please!” His mother’s words fell on deaf ears. He would switch off his phone instead.
He also began to supplement his gambling funds by borrowing heavily from friends and relatives, from people as far as in Brisbane.
One of many friends he borrowed from was a young student from Nepal, Prasidha Oli, who also happened to be a relative of the gambler. “He used to play every day after work, he used to drink beer and play poker always. If he ran out of money he withdrew again and again,” the young man confirmed. He said Mr Barakoti used to frequently borrow from him, but always managed to return.
On that October 2015 evening when Mr Barakoti lost his $6000, he played at both the gambling stations available in Penshurst, across the street. The money had been brought from Nepal in order to pay off his multiple credit card debts. Once he was clean of the money, he lost his bearings. He got out of the hotel and shouted on top of his voice, in the dead of the night, “Shishir Barakoti would never every play this xxxx game again!” and spat towards the venue. And that was it: that one shocking evening detoxed the problem gambler.
However, by the time he had already lost over $200,000 of his hard-earned cash. “If you ask my wife, she may well quote close to $300,000,” he chuckled.
Today he has picked up his life again and enjoys a healthy relationship with his wife. However, he is prone to a “phobia” towards any places that ring out that familiar feature-winning melody of poker machines.
As he entered the hotel to pose in front of a poker machine for southasia.com.au, he bumped into an old man squatting on the patio of Penshurst Hotel. They both smiled and greeted each other. “I know him. He was the guy who won a jackpot of $6,000 few years ago. I was playing that day when I decided to change machine. He sat at the machine I had just been playing. The very first bet he placed, he won that jackpot!” he exclaimed.
Mr Barakoti has been in the country for seven years but given the years he wasted due to his gambling addiction, he feels as if he has been in the country for only a year. The good thing is he has gotten his mojo back and claims to have a healthy bank account now. When asked how much he had saved up since he quit gambling in 2015, the avid reader promptly took out a phone from his pocket and showed in black and white: $30,460.14. Not bad at all for an average immigrant living in one of the most expensive cities in the world!
Now that he does not waste time in the gaming parlours, he is getting back into composing poetry and lyrics. In fact, Nepali singer Deep Shrestha has just finished filming a music video made on his song. He could not be happier.
As Mr Oli put it, “There is colour in his face now!”