From the memoir: A Gurkha soldier’s childhood in the treacherous mountains of Nepal

It was a morning in the rainy season. I was nine years old, and I was about to set off with my father to walk to the house of my great uncle further down the valley. It had been raining heavily all night and we did not have any proper protection or umbrellas, so my dad was making some raincoats out of plastic sheeting. These would cover just our shoulders so our heads would get wet, but they were better than nothing.

As he folded the plastic I watched him. The picture of the two of us in our simple house told a story. He was sitting in a wooden chair that he had made himself. I was wearing a shirt that my mother had made from an old pair of my dad’s trousers.

It was not exactly stylish, that shirt, but it lasted forever. That was how we lived, mending and making do.

I had been so excited, that morning, when Dad had asked if I wanted to go and visit my tumba (i.e. “great uncle” in Gorkhali).

“Yes, please! Of course, babu!” (meaning “father”).

Tumba lived about 8 km down the valley. To get there we followed the path towards the Tawa River, which ran near his house. I loved going there as I got to play with my cousins and eat delicious food cooked by my great aunt – especially corn in buffalo milk.

It was hardly a dangerous journey but, as soon as we got there, we would always say the traditional prayer of thanks for arriving safely. It was also usual to sacrifice an animal as a gesture of thanks to God, who would then bestow good luck on our entire family. I was not so comfortable with this tradition. Would God really feel like blessing us after we had killed something that was alive? In my opinion, a better way of making God feel happy and grateful was to love animals – to love all nature, not destroy it.

Maybe I was too soft. One of my jobs was to look after the family’s chickens and goats, but when we were away from the house foxes would sometimes kill them. This made me so mad that one day I decided to make a trap – a box with food in one corner and a trap door so the fox could not get out once he had got in. It worked the first time and I caught a small fox, maybe a cub. I had planned to kill it but as soon as I saw how beautiful it was, and how frightened, I just let it go. Twenty-five years on, I am pleased to say that attitudes to animal sacrifice in the small villages of the Himalayas are changing. We usually offer up flowers instead.

Back to that rainy day in my childhood: my father handed me the plastic “raincoat” as I took off that old shirt and put on some smart new clothes so I would look my best for my tumba and cousins. The clothes came from the market in the nearest big town – Taplejung or Gopetar – where we went once a year to buy things we could not get in Khebang.

My parents would bring back material, which they then had made up into different items of clothing by a tailor in the village. This was another tradition that made me uncomfortable at the time and more so when I think of it now. The local tailors were from a lower caste than us and therefore not allowed inside the house. They would have to work outside and we would bring them food as they sewed up our new clothes. And we would always wash the plate thoroughly before taking it back inside. To someone of my generation, this strikes me now as really rude and prejudicial.

Full of excitement at the thought of visiting my great uncle, I was getting dressed as fast as I could in case my father left me behind or changed his mind. “And wear your new shoes,” he said. These shoes were my pride and joy. My parents had given them to me the previous autumn on the festival of Dashain, one of the most important Hindu festivals in Nepal (think of it as Christmas and then some). It falls in September or October, running through shukla pasha (the fortnight when the moon is waxing) and ending at poornima (full moon).

At that time people returned from faraway to be with their families in their ancestral homes. The idea of the festival is to honour the goddess Durga, who symbolizes goodness and power, and her battle with the forces of evil. On the tenth day of the festival, she finally triumphs over evil and this is when we receive tika, the distinctive red spot on the forehead made from a mixture of yoghurt, rice and vermilion, and the yellow mark made from jamara, i.e. barley seeds. The elders of the village bless us, and everyone has lots of fun dressing up in new clothes, joining processions and flying kites as well as (I’m afraid to say) sacrificing animals.

As part of these celebrations the year before, my parents had given me the smart shoes. After I had worn them for Dashain they were put away in a safe place until there was a special reason to wear them. And that was today. Then Mum tried to ruin everything, as mums sometimes do, by being far too sensible. “Kailash,” she said, “just look at that rain. I do not think it is a good idea for you to go. The way down will be slippery and dangerous.”

I knew she was saying this for the right reasons. She always did. She loved me as only a mother can and always had my best interests at heart. And she did have a point about the rain which, far from showing any sign of stopping, was now coming down more heavily than ever.

She knew that the rain would make the path treacherous. The route down the valley followed a hillside and rice paddies on one side, with a stream on the other. Rocks and boulders lined the edges of the rice fields, which were sodden with rain.

And the rain could trigger a mudslide on the hill that would sweep down through the rice paddies, catching the boulders – and us – in its flow.

“Oh, muuuum!” I whined. “Please let us go! Pleeeeeease!” I begged her with all my heart. There had been lots of times when she had decided it was just too dangerous for me to go out. I was determined she would not get her way on this occasion. Like all children, I knew how to get round my parents. My strategy was basically just to go on and on till she caved in.

Eventually, it worked. She sighed and gave us her blessing, making us promise to take the utmost care and to turn back at the first sign of trouble. Dad, meanwhile, had been waiting impatiently outside the house, anxious to get going. “We’re running really late, son,” he called. “Remember, we’ve got to get back home before darkness falls. The path will be ready dangerous in the dark.”

“OK, babu. Coming!”

I was so happy in those moments. Full of energy, jumping with joy at the thought of playing with my cousins and eating scrumptious food. The journey to my great uncle’s house really was not so far, I told myself. I felt as if I was flying and actually started to run and jump along the path in front of my father.

Excerpted with permission from Gurkha Brotherhood: A Memoir of Childhood and War, Kailash Limbu, HarperCollins India.

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