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Back in 1988, R Haycock wrote how the Gurkhas “received more printer’s ink” than any other member of the British (Indian) Army. However, most of the printed ink was produced and read by the West. In fact, very few Gurkhas, or even Nepalis for that matter, have written and published their stories in the form of books. And less than a handful have done so in the English language. The scant stories written by retired Gurka soldiers are generally in the Nepali language and have seldom reached a global audience.
I cannot emphasize the importance of such writings enough. They help break the stereotype built by western authors who oftentimes present a skewed image of the Gurkhas by glamorizing and valorizing their bravery, martial prowess, and loyalty. Western authors seldom pick up on or highlight the harrowing experiences faced by the Gurkhas both on and off the battlefield. Tim I Gurung’s book The Gurkhas: A True Story disrupts this one-sided narrative by offering a more comprehensive and multidimensional view of the recruitment, pre- and post-recruitment, and post-retirement facets of the Gurkha life.
As a retired Gurkha officer, Gurung professionally took up writing, primarily fiction, only after he turned 50. At 57, he is currently busy on a number of book-based projects. The Gurkhas is his most successful publication so far and has been distributed by multiple publication houses all over the world. In South Asia, the book will be coming out with the name Ayo Gorkhali — a title that echoes the popular Nepali phrase “The Gurkhas are here!” that is chanted by the soldiers on the battlefield. According to Gurung, the Nepali language edition is set to be released in 2021, with the exact date yet to be confirmed.
The Gurkhas is divided into 29 chapters and comprises Gurung’s personal story along with a historical overview of the Gurkhas including their diasporic presence. The author has done extensive fieldwork within Nepal and beyond, and talked to over a hundred veteran Gurkhas in order to bring forth many of their unheard stories. The book is also an important addition to migration scholarship as it closely examines the Gurkha diaspora within the context of the larger category of Nepali migrants.
In this book, Gurung presents a historical overview of the Gurkhas spanning over 200 years in an all-inclusive monograph. It has also dedicated a chapter to Gorkha women whose stories have seldom been documented. Women like Major Radha Rawat, Major Saraswati Pandey, and many more not only served in Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps (QARANC), but also travelled across the world in the 1950s and 1960s. Prior to this, I have only come across the works of Mary Des Chene and Vron Ware’s writings that focused on Gurkha women, and most of them were about the wives of Gurkha soldiers.
Gurung’s perspective highlights not just stories of Gurkha bravery and heroism, but equally their hardships and the countless instances of racial discrimination and abuse they faced. Western authors, including the army officials themselves, have generally portrayed Gurkhas as heroic men packed with martial skills. Gurung takes care to show how this identification with martiality is in fact deeply ingrained within the psyche of the young Gurkha recruits through an excessive use of force during training along with the recurrent rhetoric that they are the best and bravest of soldiers.
In the book, Gurung also critiques the orientalist worldview that shaped the British Army’s treatment towards the Gurkhas. Many stories that he narrates reveal the British officers’ patronizing attitude towards the Gorkhas, with many treating the latter as if British Army was doing a favour on them by saving them from the extreme poverty they faced in Nepal while doing the bare minimum in terms of wages and post-recruitment services. In one instance that Gurung recounts, a senior British non-commissioned officer even jokingly exclaims “You Gurkhas, cheap like potato fries, ha!” at Gurung and his fellow officers.
The Gurkhas contains an incredible amount of information about the diasporic community and the lives of the people who are a part of it. Many of Gurung’s accounts are based on interviews he conducted with the Gurkhas while his extensive research of existing texts on the community is also evident in his work. As an academic, I found the absence of in-text citation a woeful omission, something other scholars will also likely miss.
While Gurung references a few Nepali language books, including Jhalak Subedi’s British Samrajya Kaa Nepali Mohora and Basanta Thapa and Mohan Mainali’s Lahure Ko Kathaa, The Gurkhas feels like a missed opportunity when it comes to bringing to a global audience some of the narratives around Gurkha lives that have already been published in the Nepali literary sphere. Western authors have generally not referred to such works, namely because of language limitations, but these are important resources for bilingual writers.
Overall, The Gurkhas succeeds in shattering the myth that western authors generally create by romanticizing the Gurkha soldiers while presenting an alternative narrative whose strengths are a combination of personal introspection and rigorous research on Gurung’s part.
Sanjay Sharma Sanjay is a PhD candidate at the National University of Singapore. His research looks at Gurkha militarization and migration from a gender perspective. He tweets @khetaarey.
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