Pema Sherpa was opening the door of his rented yellow cab when the first blow came. A meat cleaver sliced open the back of his head and everything flashed white. The sun had not yet risen over the stretch of attached brick two-story houses on 62nd Street in Woodside, Queens; it was 5 a.m.
The cleaver came down again, this time on Mr. Sherpa’s chest, chopping through the layers of clothing he had donned against the early-morning chill. And again, slicing gashes into the rubber soles of his sneakers.
Bleeding on the pavement, Mr. Sherpa beheld his attacker: Debindra Chhantyal, his mild-mannered partner and countryman.
Each man had come from Nepal over the past decade, and attended the same taxi-training school in Jackson Heights. For a year, they had split the $1,400-per-week leasing fee on a yellow cab, Medallion 6M83, trading 12-hour shifts behind the wheel, seven days a week.
They seemed to be running side by side on a familiar treadmill. But their lives were actually mirror images of the immigrant experience in New York.
Mr. Sherpa, 28, drove days, chauffeuring strivers bound for business meetings, power lunches and auditions. Mr. Chhantyal, 30, shepherded the denizens of New York’s nightlife, the decadent and the dangerous.
Mr. Sherpa, also known as licensed taxi driver No. 5301202, had succeeded in attaining his asylum visa, and recently married a cheerful Nepali woman here who encouraged his Buddhist faith. He adored playing with their baby daughter, and spent evenings on the soccer field with friends. Mr. Chhantyal, driver No. 5303727, had grown increasingly worried that he would be deported after his coming immigration hearing. He had few friends, shared a small, spartan apartment with two other night cabbies, and suspected that his wife, back home in Nepal, had taken up with another man.
And Mr. Chhantyal was about to start being Mr. Sherpa’s employee instead of his partner. Mr. Sherpa had just secured a loan to buy a 2010 Ford Escape hybrid for $30,000, and a small metal medallion riveted to its hood: a city-issued concession that cost him $575,000 but turned the vehicle into a 24-hour money-making machine.
Nepali people pride themselves on being peace-loving, but also fierce fighters if provoked. They cite their countrymen known as Gurkhas, after the eighth-century Hindu warrior-saint Guru Gorakhnath, who have been part of the British Army for decades.
That September morning on a Queens sidewalk, Mr. Chhantyal finally had the upper hand, swinging the cleaver that he and his roommates used to chop vegetables. Until Mr. Sherpa, on his back, somehow managed to kick the big blade from his hands, sending it skidding under the cab.
Bleeding profusely, the day driver leaped to his feet and ran to a nearby gas station; he spent five days in the hospital, but survived. The night driver hopped back into their cab and drove three minutes to the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, where he pulled over and leaped to his death in the East River.
A short account of the attack appeared in The Everest Times, which comes out every other week and has a circulation of 2,000 — it was the newspaper’s first New York City crime story. At first, the rumor among Nepalis was that the attacker had used the traditional kukri dagger; soon, the details were well known and much discussed among the patrons of the Himalayan Yak and other Nepali restaurants in Jackson Heights that double as community hubs.
Friends and relatives of each driver said there was never any bad blood between them. Still, Mr. Sherpa stunned Mr. Chhantyal’s relatives when he turned up at his memorial service, cuts from the cleaver still fresh.
“There was never any problem between us,” Mr. Sherpa said. “We are both Nepali, but we never had much to say to each other — he kept to himself.”
Mr. Sherpa received Mr. Chhantyal’s usual wake-up call at 4 a.m. on Sept. 12. He said his morning prayers before the Buddhist shrine he had built above the TV set, then grabbed the bag with his soccer gear, for after his shift.
Typically Mr. Chhantyal, to avoid complications from one-way streets, would park and wait for Mr. Sherpa on busy Broadway, which comes to life early with cabs and service vehicles headed toward Manhattan. But on this morning, Mr. Sherpa saw that his partner had parked on deserted, residential 62nd Street. As usual, Mr. Chhantyal stepped out to give Mr. Sherpa the driver’s seat. But, strangely, he let the door close and lock. As Mr. Sherpa fished for his duplicate key, he recalled, he felt the first blow.
“I could not understand what was happening,” Mr. Sherpa said. “This man, my partner from my own country, he’s trying to kill me. He was a crazy man, like he didn’t know me. He said nothing — he just kept chopping me.”
The two men had shared little of their personal lives, but Mr. Sherpa had never seen his partner excited or unhinged, not even the one time Mr. Chhantyal visited his home. He came with a mutual friend, stayed late and left drunk on the homemade rice wine that Nepalis call chhaang, Mr. Sherpa said. Mostly, they exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes twice daily; each Wednesday, they went together to Woodside Management on Roosevelt Avenue, passing $700 apiece under the bulletproof glass to Sabur, the dispatcher.
The two were from different sectors of Nepali society. But both came from big families whose political affiliations had made life difficult amid the country’s current civil strife. And both left small villages in the country’s midsection to seek political asylum in the United States. They were most comfortable speaking different dialects but would chat in Nepali while handing off the cab each dusk and dawn
As Mr. Sherpa’s name implies, he belongs to the renowned tribe of mountain people who have helped many a foreign adventurer up Mount Everest. The Sherpas’ reputation for being trustworthy and tireless guides translates well to the profession of ferrying people around the more flat — but perhaps equally daunting — streets of New York.
Mr. Sherpa grew up in the Sindhupalchok District, in the Bagmati Zone, not far from Katmandu. He arrived in New York in 2001 and had been driving cabs pretty much since. He and his wife and baby live with his sister-in-law and nephew, paying $1,500 a month for a two-bedroom apartment on 62nd Street furnished with a small sofa and two junior mattresses on the floor covered with faux tiger-skin quilts; idealized illustrations of the Manhattan skyline hang on the walls.
Mr. Chhantyal was a member of the Chhantyal caste, which boasts its own proud heritage of valorous copper miners and mythical origins. He came from a village in the Myagdi District.
He landed in the United States in 2004, and lived for three years with an uncle in Milwaukee, delivering fast food at night and working at a gas station, where he was held up in a violent armed robbery. He grew depressed after surgery for a collapsed lung, and some traffic tickets and fender benders, then moved to New York in 2007.
He and his two roommates paid $400 apiece in rent for an apartment on 80th Street in Elmhurst, spending their days sleeping on the floor, the old Venetian blinds leaking sunlight.
Both men, at different times, joined the crowded classes run by AJ Yellow Taxi Tutors in a basement under a Thai restaurant, opposite the Himalayan Yak. A framed photograph of the Dalai Lama hangs next to a sign that reads “Cell Phone Rings: $5 Fine” Mr. Chhantyal also attended the taxi-driver training institute at LaGuardia Community College, and scored a 92 on the city’s taxi licensing exam.
He met Mr. Sherpa through a mutual friend who knew both needed a driving partner. Mr. Chhantyal embraced the night shift’s less frantic pace, lighter traffic, fare surcharge and good tips from partygoers.
“He liked driving at night,” Mr. Sherpa said. “He said the daylight was too bright for him.”
Splitting a leased cab is a common arrangement among new immigrants with little money and a willingness to work long hours, said Andrew Vollo, the director of the LaGuardia program.
“But we tell our students, ‘If you drive seven days a week, you will not be in your right mind,” Mr. Vollo said. “This is a tough job at night — a lot of strange people come out,” he said. “You find yourself in corners of the city that even the police don’t want to go. For a new immigrant, that’s culture shock.”
Mr. Chhantyal and his two similarly nocturnal roommates awoke around 2 p.m. on Sept. 11, a Friday. He went out for coffee and sandwiches with one of the roommates, Tak Chhantyal, 32, whom he had known since high school in Nepal.
Mr. Chhantyal seemed fine, the roommate recalled, and indeed, his shift started out normally. But, according to a satellite system and the fare box in the cab, Mr. Chhantyal stopped picking up passengers around 10:30 p.m. and just roamed the city, idling for long stretches. Then he stopped home around midnight to type an e-mail message to his uncle in Milwaukee. It read like a suicide note.
The message, in Nepali, listed Mr. Chhantyal’s disappointments and failures. He had lapsed in his Hindu faith and become obsessed with following the political turmoil in Nepal online. He feared that his asylum hearing, scheduled for December, would result in deportation because of traffic violations, foiling his plans to send for the wife and two young children he had left in Nepal five years before.
“I think that in one man’s head, all these troubles of the immigrant came together,” said Mr. Sherpa’s wife, Yangji Lama. “And then he sees things going well for my husband.”
Mr. Chhantyal wrote in the message that he was distraught that he could not keep his parents, back in Nepal, from divorcing, nor help pay for his siblings’ educations. These goals, he said, “in coming here will not get fulfilled.”
He thanked his uncle for all his help in America. Then, an ominous warning: “Even though there are many who have caused me pain, giving pain to the ones I am able to has become my obligation.”
The uncle, Ram Chhantyal, said in an interview, “I read it and I could only assume the worst.”
New York had made his nephew paranoid and desperate, he said. Mr. Chhantyal was furious with his parents for splitting, and, suspicious she was cheating, began calling his wife in Nepal constantly and even asked acquaintances to keep an eye on her.
“He was a very hard worker and a perfectionist, and things weren’t going well,” the uncle said. “All the frustration was too much for him to handle. He living a very uncertain life here — he was afraid of being deported.”
“He thought people were gossiping about him and slandering him,” he continued. “Often he wouldn’t make sense and was convinced people were talking behind his back.”
Mr. Chhantyal never came back to the apartment, and the roommates realized later that the biggest blade in the kitchen was missing from its drawer.
Kevin Chang, a 17-year veteran of the New York Police Department, arrived at the 108th Precinct station house in Long Island City around 8 a.m. that Saturday, and climbed the aging staircase to the detective squad room. He took over Case No. 883 from the overnight-shift officers who had responded several hours earlier to a 10-34, an assault in progress.
He knew he had an injured victim at Elmhurst Hospital Center with no rap sheet; he thought he had a maniacal killer out there somewhere with a meat cleaver. The son of Chinese immigrants who grew up in Flushing, Detective Chang had last dealt with Nepali immigrants the year before when helping guard Pushpa Kamal Dahal, then the prime minister, in town for a United Nations event.
Since Mr. Sherpa remained conscious at the hospital — doctors told him the cleaver had narrowly missed severing nerves and arteries — Detective Chang interviewed him there, hearing details of the attack and the background of the two immigrants’ relationship.
Then he got a call from M.T.A. Bridges and Tunnels, whose officers had found a yellow cab abandoned in the right lane, midbridge, keys in the ignition, engine running, lights on, two hack licenses inside.
“To have someone stab someone is unusual here,” Detective Chang said. “But to have the stabber jump off the bridge is even more so.”
Mr. Chhantyal apparently drowned in the waters of Hell Gate, Detective Chang said, though his actions were not captured on the bridge’s surveillance cameras. Police boats and helicopters searched for a body; it was days before the Coast Guard found it, miles away, near the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
The case was officially closed after Tak Chhantyal identified his roommate at the morgue. “The cleaver was never recovered,” Detective Chang said.
Mr. Chhantyal’s body was cremated, and his ashes remain at St. Michael’s Cemetery, just off the Grand Central Parkway near the entrance to the R.F.K. Bridge. About two dozen people came to his memorial service, including his wife, who flew in from Nepal and fainted when she saw his photograph.
Mr. Sherpa walked in gingerly and shook hands with Mr. Chhantyal’s Uncle Ram. The two men concluded that the suicide provided some closure to the bewildering attack.
“People there said it was beyond comprehension that he showed up,” the uncle said later. “Pema had no anger. He said, ‘I would like to know if I did anything wrong.’ I told him, ‘Listen, both of you had a loss.’ ”
Mr. Sherpa returned to work last month, driving his shiny new Escape, its new medallion gleaming. For spiritual protection, he has draped a ceremonial Buddhist shawl over the steering column, and hung traditional pendants on the rearview mirror. He has not yet chosen a new driving partner.
“This time, I am more careful,” the Sherpa said the other day. Then he drove off toward the mountains of Manhattan.