Hundreds of thousands of lives have been touched by Gurkha soldiering. Many toasts have been drunk to and books written about the Johnny Gurkhas, but reference to their womenfolk has been scant.v
Born and raised in Taplejung in Nepal’s far-east hill country, Sancha Maya Limbu was 16 years Old when she married Jit Man Limbu in 1948. Two weeks after their wedding, the 17-year-old groom went off to enlist in the British Gurkhas.
The community approved of the match. Sanchaya Maya had “done good” for herself and enhanced the family’s status by marrying a potential lahuray. The new bride was the subject of teasing among her envious girlfriends: Would Jit Man return without a leg or an eye? Would he return at all?
Even in Taplejung District, where going into “bharli” (recruitment) has long been a tradition, Sancha Maya’s family had unusually strong ties with the Gurkhas. Her father had seen action in the First World War and had had some close brushes with death. While one of her three brothers stayed at home to farm, one was killed in action in Burma fighting the Japanese only a few years previously. The other brother had gone down to India to be recruited but had never been heard from again. And now Sancha Maya’s youthful husband was intent on following the same path. Of course, no one questioned Jit Man’ s decision, least of all Sancha Maya.
Jit Man returned to Taplejung a full four years later, and there was much rejoicing. Villagers crowded around, wanting to talk to him, to touch him. Although the Second World War had been over eight years before, the questions invariably were, “Kati Jarman Maryo? Japan pani maryo? “. (How many Germans did you kill, and Japanese?)
As Sancha Maya tells i in her rented flat in Kathmandu today, Jit Man was astonished to learn that he was father of-a three-year-old son. In two months, however, his leave over, the soldier left home. He left without knowing how his child bride had coped in his absence because he never asked. To a 21-year-old, all the attention lavished upon him as a lahuray must have been quite exciting and disorienting.
Sancha Maya was pregnant for the second time. This time, she found it harder to adjust. With the responsibility of looking after in-laws and two infants, and the constant fear of widowhood (she knew he was in combat, though she never learnt where he was stationed), she began to understand why her mother so often sacrificed goats and lambs to the spirits and why her sister, whose husband was also a lahuray, cried in her sleep.
In time, Sancha Maya came to accept her life as a soldier’s wife and a single parent. Her husband came on leave and went a few more times. Then the word came. Jit Man was dead. She does not recall being told how her husband died.
Out of 18 years of marriage, Sancha Maya had spent only 21 months with her husband. “It seems as if all I have done is wait all my life,” says Sancha Maya, now 57, tears welling up in ‘her eyes. “When I was small we used to wait for my father to come on leave. When I got married, I waited for my husband. Now it is for my children that I wait.” All three of Sancha Maya’s sons have followed in the footsteps of a father they never knew. One is in the British Gurkhas and two in the Indian Gorkhas. One of her two daughters is married to an Indian Gorkha.
Sancha Maya’s experience, common to many lahuray wives during the two World Wars, is less frequent in these last decades of the twentieth century. Widowhood is a less likely fate for most wives. Today, Gurkhas are entitled to have their families accompany them to their duty station for stipulated periods. In the case of Indian Gorkhas, even if they are not assigned housing, families can move in close to the “lines”. Because their menfolk are assigned closer to home and generally in a recognisable socio-cultural milieu, the family problems of the Indian Gorkhas, who number far more than the British Gurkhas, are lesser. For the British Gurkhas. even though the pay packet is thicker (a married, unaccompanied rifleman stationed in the United Kingdom earns £6,790 per annum), the sense of dislocation felt by the family is far more acute.
On average, a Gurkha soldier is 18 when he is recruited and if single he usually returns for his first long leave in Nepal three years later. Most soldiers are ,married by the age of 21. Approximately 80 per cent of the Nepalis serving in the Brigade of Gurkhas are married. Married Gurkhas may serve accompanied by their families in Hong Kong and Brunei, with permission being granted on the basis of service and seniority. A soldier who puts in 15 years of service might have his family with him for 2.5 to 3 years.
NOT A SOCIAL SERVICE
Today, the Gurkha wives may not undergo the “waiting and worrying” that their mothers and grand-mothers did, but different worries have come to the fore. Among these, mainly social and psychological in nature, are one, the wives’ roles in a male-dominated military hierarchy in which they are mere appendages and, two, the impact of military life upon the children.
Poonam Gurung, who married Charam Bahadur (real names withheld upon request) two months ago, will be accompanying her husband on his second tour of duty in Brunei.
However, Poonam will be able to find her feet in Brunei more easily than most other young wives straight out of the Nepali hinterland. Lt. Col. Guy Pearson, Chief of Staff of the British Gurkha Transit Camp in Kathmandu, says efforts are made to cushion culture shock. “Almost a mini Nepal has been created in Hong Kong and Brunei,” he says. “While we try our best, the military, after all, is not a social service.”
To keep the women occupied, courses are available in dress making, cooking (Chinese and Western), swimming and badminton. If they are lucky, the “didi bahinis” are able to find work as sales persons in shops owned by Indians or in haircutting salons. Other than gain a few “housewifely” skills, few women venture into areas that would give them professional skills. Training in secretarial management is attractive to many, but it is too expensive. After all, the family’s priority is to save as much as possible in order to build a house in an urban center in Nepal and to bring back household goods.
When the “family permission” period comes to an end, the wives and children return, but, increasingly, not to their own villages. And no one can blame the Gurkha wives for wanting the same city convenience as their urban sisters: tap water, electricity, video, schools and transport.
MIND THE CHILDREN
With their husbands in absentia, the main worry of returned didi bahinis is their childrens’ education. Many children who make good on the exposure they received in the British Gurkha schools in Hong Kong and Brunei now find themselves in Nepali schools with far lower standards. While there is no difference in curriculum (the Hong Kong and Brunei schools teach the Nepali SLC curriculum), many returned boys and girls exhibit signs of maladjustment. This uprootedness, combined with societal disapproval, has linked many Gurkha children to the rise of gang robberies in Pokhara, alcohol problems in Dharan, drug abuse in Pokhara and Thamel, and alleged acts of hooliganism in Jawalakhel. Clearly, these Gurkha youth require more guidance and understanding than they presently receive, and it is unfair to expect the mothers to bear the entire burden.
Talk of wayward children annoys many Gurkha parents, who feel that their children are being unfairly targeted. Some, like Nana Gurung, an ex-Gurkha spouse who shifted to Kathmandu from Parbat District 16 years ago, acknowledge that there is a problem, but say that the blame lies with the fathers, who consider their duty done as long as they send money home for the childrens’ education. They feel that the absence of a father’s firm guidance, particularly in a urban setting where the family and village support is missing, spells trouble for the children of soldiers stationed abroad.
In the past, families bid farewell to their sons, husbands, fathers at the recruitment center and awaited their return from foreign wars. The main fear then was that of death of their loved ones in action, widowhood and orphanhood. Today, the problems and the challenges are different. Even though they may not be obvious, these problems and challenges turn around “modern-day issues” such as urban dislocation, women rights, education, childrens’ prospects and employment prospects. No more will the soldiers and their families remain content to return to their villages and not be heard from. The government in Kathmandu, as well as the nongovernmental sector, social activists and others will have to take note of the demands and expectations of Gurkha families and tackle them with care and understanding.
Aryal is a freelance reporter in Kathmandu.