It happens With Ghurkas - Tales from an English Nepali, 1944-2015 - J.P. Cross : Charm, grit and spirit of place.
I put things off to finish this book. It made me smile and remember conversations with my Uncle Jack.
Did you grow up with an honorary single Aunt or Uncle who was of another era entirely, always included in gratitude for past mentorship given to your parents in their youth? Kindly but sharp, interested, modest elders who’d share interesting snippets of their earlier years with the children, but over a third glass at Christmas you might get a whole tale, centre stage given to others in the story and deprecating their role even if you pressed them. Only later, as a mature adult, do you realise the depth of the achievements they skipped over so lightly - if they’d failed to divert you with a local ghost story or a sideways view of life when they were your age.
If not, expect that experience when you open this book. As the author (actually Lt. Col J.P. Cross, we eventually find out) sums it up ‘ in this second book of articles, reminiscences, essays - call them what you will - I have repeated the mixture as before, my limit being the amount of words allowed by the publishers’.
Cross mixes tales of living in Nepal with his surrogate family, traditions and village histories as he came across them and his service, disclosing incidents of luck or the successes won through hardship and slog during cross-border counter-insurgency work. He writes as if sitting together at the end of a long, pleasant day, gently unwinding with a drink and chatting. His explains his secondment to the 1st Ghurka Rifles , with so few trips home to England that now he speaks the language so fluently that only recognising his voice distinguishes him as foreign-born. Sometimes he slips into descriptive passages that halt short of poetry, so that you can savour the quality of the moment he is conjuring for you, rather than how well he handles language.
This is interdispersed with considered articles on Brahmanism, the Nepali language, names. At times he ponders the mystical (reincarnation, the concepts of fate, luck and virtue) and sometimes the practical (spotting the straight-folded leaf dropped on a track by the fleeing remnants of an incursion gang). He recounts the experiences shared with his soldiers as a young officer, anticipating the onset of blindness as an older man; of weddings in his surrogate family, of scenes and incidents from his daily walks and longer treks. He documents his long road to be allowed to own a house in Nepal and become a citizen; why it is so specifically limited that, after 34 years of application, formal supplication and popular support, he finally became the second Briton to ever be granted Nepali citizenship. He skims lightly over his wider charitable and personal contributions to Nepali community only mentioning it as a qualifying factor for the grant of citizenship. He ends with the trip as guests of the 1/1 Gorkha Rifles’ to celebrate their 200th Anniversary in India – a huge physical undertaking for an 89 year old, 23 hours by train from the nearest Indian railway station to the Nepal/Indian border, with his surrogate son, Buddhiman.
This isn’t a romanticised love of place. Cross understands the faults and necessities dictating daily life and accepts the full reality of his chosen compatriots, closing with the inscription on the marker set up near Buddhiman’s family shrine “…..I have found more love and happiness with my Nepali family and friends than I ever thought possible……The words written here are also written in my heart and no-one can rub them out”.
To say more would spoil the patchwork Cross lays out for us to enjoy. Let me put it this way: you too may struggle with linguistics in Onomastics and Teknonymy” , but you’ll enjoy the Ambassador’s staffing appraisal in “Bangkok Embassy Prowler Guard”!
I read the hardback. ISBN 978-0-7509-6636-8 if you are using a library, and it is digitally available on Kindle.