The Call of Nepal
by J.P. Cross
Bibhotheca Himalayica, Kathmandu, 1998
241 pp, NPR __
An intense account of how a Gurkha colonel made Nepal his home.
reviewed by Mark Turin
Since my first meeting with Lt Col J.P. Cross over five years ago at his modest house in the central Nepal town of Pokhara, I have been loath to use the word “unique”. We were sitting together in his front study, in near darkness to ease his failing eyes, and discussing the involvement of Nepali citizens in the British Army. I had asked, somewhat naively, if the position of a particular ethnic group could be seen as “quite unique”. Cross was silent for a while and folded his hands together under his chin, as if in silent and contemplative prayer. After a moment he sighed and then said, obviously quite distressed: “Well, I really can’t possibly agree with you.” I was concerned that I had said something culturally unforgivable, and braced myself for what he would say next. “I mean how on earth can you expect me to agree with such poor grammar: either something is unique or it isn’t, it can’t be quite unique.”
It is thus with a sense of victory as well as with confidence in my choice of words that I describe Cross’s astonishing autobiography as unique. The Call of Nepal is a slightly modified reprint by Bibliotheca Himalayica of what was first published in 1996 by New Millennium in London under the title The Call of Nepal: (A Personal Nepalese Odyssey in a Different Dimension). The subtitle, unfortunately absent from this reprint, is carefully chosen and is an accurate summation of both the style and the content of the book.
Now nearing 75, Cross, a retired British Gurkha Colonel, left England for India in 1944 and was in the British Army until 1982. He first came to Nepal in 1947 and the last six years of his service were spent recruiting for the British Army’s Gurkha Brigade. Despite a life-long career in the military, Cross has a string of quirkily titled books to his name that deal with specific facets of soldiering and jungle warfare, the latter being a field in which he is an undisputed authority.
Compared to his earlier military and historical accounts Face Like A Chicken’s Backside; First In, Last Out and others, The Call of Nepal reads somewhat like a romantic confessional, although the precision inculcated in the military dies hard. Some readers, for example, may not warm to his unending attention to detail, be it his paternal grandfather’s halfmile world record in 1880 (of 1 minute and 54.4 seconds), or his uncanny ability to remember 50-year-old conversations and dates with accuracy. Details aside, however, Cross has written a disarmingly honest account of his successes and failures, both as a soldier and as a man, and he reveals all aspects of his colourful life to his readers in a way that few people, let alone Gurkha colonels, can.
The account is essentially a eulogy to Nepal and her citizens, brought to life through Cross’s descriptions of living with Gurkha soldiers. The common thread running through all the disparate and often seemingly unrelated stories is the soldier’s feeling more and more out of touch with Western life each time he returned to Britain. Increasingly, Nepal became his home, and Nepal: friends his family. Although his dissatisfaction with the commercial and soulless nature of Western society is now common fare in many personal accounts by those who travel to the Himalaya, to hear such sentiments from a seemingly old-fashioned Gurkha Colonel is surprising, not to say unique. Throughout his chrono logical account, it becomes clear that his story has been one of gradual yet steady improvement from his modest beginnings as an “embryo infantryman” to a retired soldier “superbly at ease”, whose relationship | with his adopted Nepali family “makes sense of this life”.
Handle him with care
Cross’s detractors will have a party with The Call of Nepal. Those schooled in modern social science will pounce on such comments as: “Burma had never been ours in the same way as India had been”, and will decontextualise statements such as “a Gurkha has a limited imagination” to render them offensive. What they will miss, however, is that in good reflexive tradition, Cross then turns these statements around and re-directs them towards his own society, his family and even himself. An “Anglo-Saxon” and a hill man from Nepal, he suggests, have “basic qualities [that] seem to be the same: both peoples are fierce, obstinate and untameable and both peoples need special handling to get the best out of them”. A further excerpt may serve to prove the point: “I found that the eastern Gurkha is like a cat: friendship cannot be forced and the chemistry takes some time to work. The westerners are more like dogs: it was productive to make positive advances.”
In short, his tendency to objectify, rarefy and categorise ethnic groups and individuals, is neither barbed nor colonial, it is simply the way that he sees all those who are part of his world, and most of all himself. Un derstandably, Nepali readers may react against such comments since they smack of a time which is all too fresh in the collective memory when Nepal and her citizens were characterised in the English-speaking world according to their racial virtues. However, one hopes that Cross’s critics will read him carefully and note that, although conservative in many ways and one among the ever-dwindling survivors of an era that has surely passed, Cross is a man whose experience of Nepal and fluency in spoken and written Nepali remain unrivalled by most other foreigners who have made this country their home
The colonel’s sheer love for the country shines through his sometimes verbose accounts and he reminds us time and time again that “to settle in [Nepal] became something that I wanted more than anything else in the world”. This wish was granted by royal decree, and Cross became the first-ever foreign citizen to be allowed to own land in Nepal. He writes that he has “never accepted a Nepali as less than an equal and never regarded myself as intrinsically in any way superior”. Some readers may wonder if this can be true given the colonial flavour in his slightly archaic English, but Cross’s deep friendships with Nepalis must bear testament to the truth of his claim.
Likewise, the author’s handling of the subtleties of the relationship with his adopted and surrogate Nepali son, to whom he dedicates the book, is so gentle that his motives are beyond suspect. His love for Buddhiman, and his belief that their relationship was predestined is deeply touching. This is how he places the relationship: “we [are] as one tree, I the roots and he, with his wife, the branches”. It is a tribute to Cross that he handles this personal story in the candid and careful way that he does.
Cross’s astonishing autobiography is as challenging to read as it is difficult to review. Reviewing the book is tantamount to reviewing the man himself. He swings with great ease from racial stereotypes of Gurkhas to such fashionable concepts as “morphic resonance” and even telepathy, and genuinely seems to believe in both. It is this peculiar mixture of humility, self-effacement and honesty on the one hand, and contentedness and pride on the other, that makes the book such an extraordinary achievement.
But even as this reviewer urges everyone to read this remarkable book and form their own opinion, they must do so keeping in mind the sadly absent subtitle, “A Personal Nepalese Odyssey in a Different Dimension”. Cross has written an intensely, at times even embarrassingly, personal account and it is firmly rooted in an altogether different dimension —historically, politically, culturally and linguistically. For Colonel Cross, despite the changing social and political climate, the “Call of Nepal is still as loud as it ever was when I first heard it so many years ago”.