The Ghurkha


By Minoo Avari

CIRCA 1968: It would be cold for at least another hour. Then, when the Sun peered over the hill and warmed the frozen earth, the frost would thaw and begin rising off the ground like sepulchral mist.

“It will be nice to feel the sun on my back,” thought Harkadhoj Limbu, for the winter months on Sukvah Tea Estate were long and cold.

The thousand acre property, which the British sahibs used to call a Garden, looked directly across the valley at another Company property, the Pahar Tea Estate. Pahar was not as pretty or as productive as Sukvah, and it did not face the magnificent Kanchenjunga Snow Range. The disadvantage of this majestic view was the cold wind that continually came off the mighty Himalayan massif. It filtered through the flesh and chilled old arthritic bones; bones long since splintered and mangled.

Harkadhoj Limbu's body had faced more than its fair share of privation and hardship. The cold water he splashed on his face now forced him to inhale sharply. One of these days, he thought wryly, he might inhale so hard there might not be enough strength left in him to exhale. Yet, it was a routine he had followed all his life. There was a short interruption because of the war, which had kept him away from this little rivulet but that was many, many years ago.

His wife Kanchi was alive then. So alive and so petite! His heart raced, as it always did, when he thought of her. He smiled a forlorn smile and pictured again that last time he saw her. She was radiant in the throes of early pregnancy, with little Birbhadur in her belly. A son for whom she gave her life for without medical attention in her village, she had died at childbirth.

He had left the country resplendent in uniform and a salute that served as farewell. Removing his cap he had kissed Kanchi full on the lips before leaping into the military transport van filled with grinning Ghurkha soldiers bound for lands across the Kala Pani but before that they would be taken to the nearby temple first: a Priest’s blessings were essential before their Hindu beliefs allowed them to cross the Oceans and Seas that lay ahead.

His thoughts turned to his son, Birbhadur, who grew to manhood without the benefit of a mother. What a mother Kanchi would have made! A pity she wasn’t there when Birbhadur suffered rejection at Sandhurst, for colour-blindness was unacceptable at England's prestigious Military College. But spoiled by the blinkered love of a devoted father, Birbhadur took for granted the many sacrifices Harkadhoj had made to put him through College and architectural training abroad. He finally settled down as a fully qualified architect in Nepal, never to visit or acknowledge his father again.

Harkadhoj knew that his son was ashamed of him and that was fitting. He was, after all, a mere estate labourer while his son now mixed in exalted company, where Royalty and the Palace were not excluded. He still continued to enjoy his father's pension. It had been essential when he was a student but although he didn't need it anymore, it was there for the taking. After all, what would his father do with all that money?

Thinking of Birbhadur made him smile again. Harkadhoj was proud of his son. It was a pity that he couldn’t have become a Ghurkha officer. How smart he would have looked in uniform, marching to a military band… he could still hear the strains of bagpipes, from a bygone era, playing ‘Cock Of The North’ and his thoughts strayed to distant battlefields before returning to the present.

Today the Chairman, Peter Ross, would be visiting Sukvah tea garden. Peter Ross, a retired Ghurkha officer was also the Managing Director of the company. He would have liked to meet him but that wouldn’t be possible. Old folk, past the retirement age and kept employed out of sympathy, would be tucked out of sight from any visiting dignitary. Instead they were to sickle weeds on a remote boundary bordering a tea field that had been hard pruned.

Pruning was an art. It was a job that Harkadhoj had been comfortable with in the old days. He had a natural ability with a knife. Most Ghurkha’s did but he could, with a flick of the wrist, slice through a two-inch diameter stem of tough tea wood leaving the cut clean and smooth. It was essential that it be smooth, without those visible marks made by less skilled pruners whose hacking would leave rough protrusions to serve as entry points for bacteria. Bacteria caused excessive die back on the pruned branches and sometimes even killed a hard pruned bush.

Now it hurt to even think of flicking his wrist, with or without a knife in his hand. Involuntarily flexing his arm, he remembered the shock on the face of a large German soldier when his kukri had severed the head of his bayonet charging comrade in the thick of battle. Hand to hand combat was the forte of the Ghurkhas and even now his heart raced to the cry of ‘ayo gurkhalli’ as they charged into pitched battle, their kukris held high… and then the blood, dripping down shiny steel blades.

The sun was beginning to paint the enormous mountain. Starting from the very peak, it began turning the ghostly ethereal snow into vibrant crimson; an enormous backdrop of blood. Beautiful as it was, Harkadhoj had seen enough blood during the war years to last his lifetime. He turned away, a sickness of old gnawing at his stomach.

The Sun completed its masterpiece and then began the earnest business of warming the frozen earth. The first rays of sunshine took the chill out of Harkadhoj's body. He shivered as the clawing cold released him but each day it seemed to retain a little of his spirit. He knew that soon there would be nothing left to give.

With the warmth, blood began circulating. Tongues loosened, and amidst the soft chatter of his companions, arms moved rhythmically wielding sickles in constantly changing arcs. Weeds cut down were left where they fell. It reminded him of the past. Everything reminded him of the past: then it was men who were mown down, to be left where they fell.

The mid-afternoon sun silenced the earlier drone of bees and arrested the chirping of birds. Such was the silence that Harkadhoj could hear faint voices from a mile away. There was little doubt to whom they belonged – the put-on airs of the Manger, John Benson and the softer cultured accents of the Chairman. Something was wrong. He couldn't put a finger on it until he realised that the voices were coming closer. But the visiting dignitary should not be coming in this direction.

It was soon apparent that they were heading for this work spot. Perhaps the Chairman had insisted on following his instincts rather than being guided by John Benson.

"Very sensible", thought Harkadhoj, "if that is the case."

But this was not so. Benson, overly keen to impress the Chairman, had got so carried away with boasting about his achievements, that he had taken the wrong path through the Tea bushes and was soon at the last place he would have wanted to visit with his Chairman.

The work here was never up to standard. The old folk were no longer capable of whetting their implements to the required degree of sharpness and to bend that low, to cut grass and weed just above ground level, was impossible. It was already too late when John Benson realised his predicament and he had nobody to blame but himself. His recourse predictably was to express astonishment and then rage at the poor quality of work.

"Yo ekdam naramro kaam ho!" He thundered. "Belight ma ... " Continuing in chaste Ghurkhali with a British ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ accent he said, "In England such work would be unacceptable. It is a pity that none of you have been to England. Little wonder then that India is in this sad state!"

Carried away by his eloquence, Benson thundered on, "You people have not seen good work. You never will see good work because you have never been to England!" The haranguing continued for some time.

His glasses glinted and his moustache bristled as fiercely as the noonday sun. Surreptitiously glancing at the Chairman to see what impact he had made, he glared defiantly at the workers. Dropping his sickle Harkadhoj straightened, bringing his weary mutilated body to attention. Barefoot, in old torn khaki shorts and a shirt full of patches, he took a deep painful breath and addressed himself to Peter Ross, ignoring Benson.

Benson's face was suffused with blood. His whiskers drooped a fraction and his outrage was manifest. How dare the natives usurp centre stage like this!

Chuup gar, you damned impertinent savage!”

"I have been to England." Harkadhoj stated. His dead pan voice cut through the hushed assembly as he continued. "I have been to parts of England that you have never been to, or will ever be allowed into!"

"Which parts of England are you referring to?" Asked Peter Ross. His voice was gentle and there was a hint of mirth that indicated he was prepared to enjoy what was to follow. Peter Ross knew the Gurkhas. He knew them well, for through the war he had served with Ghurkha Regiments as had his father before him.

"I have been to Buckingham Palace,” said Harkadhoj, sticking his chest out even further as he stood to attention.

Benson was about to splutter about the absurdity of that statement. A mere common labourer on a Tea Plantation – at Buckingham Palace indeed! The Chairman waved Benson into silence to ask:

“What were you doing at Buckingham Palace?”

"I was the Queen's personal Bodyguard for two years."

This spoke volumes for the man since the Bodyguards were normally changed annually. To have been retained an extra year must have significance. Ross was immediately curious.

"Which Regiment were you with?" He asked.

"I was with the Seventh Ghurkha Rifles."

"You were in Tobruk, El Alamein and Monte Casino?" Peter Ross was now fully engrossed and concentrating hard on the features of Harkadhoj.

"Hazoor! Yes Sahib," confirmed Harkadhoj.

"Were you decorated?"

Almost everyone Ross knew, who emerged alive from that arena, had received some award.

"I initially got the Military Cross. After a few months I was informed that a Bar had also been added. After the War I received the 'Nepal Tara' or 'Star Of Nepal' from King Mahindra."

Then reluctantly, almost ashamedly, looking at the ground he whispered:

"I was cited for the Victoria Cross."

The silence became electric.

That night Harkadhoj was the Chief guest at the party held in honour of the Chairman. Peter Ross had especially asked that Harkadhoj be present and that I, who was the junior most Assistant Manager in the Company, see to it that Harkadhoj present himself in full Military regalia. This had been difficult.

I put his un-ironed trousers under the mattress to be pressed. The coat had to be darned in a few places. The Military Cross, the 1939-45 Star, the Italy Star and the War Medal, along with some attendant Oak Leafs, which signified dual awards, had to be affixed to a piece of cardboard placed under the shirt. This was done to keep the weight of the metal from tugging the fabric askew and that wouldn't have done at all.

The Star Of Nepal was attached to a blue ribbon left over from a Christmas present wrapping, and put around Harkadhoj's neck. Shoes? Well he couldn't fit into my size twelve’s with his five and a half size feet but a khaki pair of sneakers, belonging to my butler, served the purpose.

"Harkadhoj, what was the citation for?" Asked the Chairman.

"Near El Alamein, a German Panzer division surprised us at dawn. They came over a low hill and we were caught stranded in the middle of the desert. Many of us were killed instantly. Most were able to flee to nearby dunes and escape. One British Officer was caught in the middle. He was alive but a bullet in the spine had paralysed him. I was close by and managed to drag him to safety."

"My God! So it was you. I was there but frozen with shock. That was my cousin you saved. He has spoken about you ever since. Struth! But you were riddled with bullets. I saw the dust come off your shirt. You shielded Andrew with your body. He owes you his life!"

"Sahib, it was he who helped put my son through College in England. He has done enough for me."

This was obviously not enough for Peter Ross. But Harkadhoj refused any monetary help and a saddened Chairman went back to England still determined to do something for this gallant soldier.

Six months later the Victoria Cross was awarded to Harkadhoj Limbu for Bravery Above And Beyond The Call Of Duty. It was posthumous. Harkadhoj had died a week before the award was made.

I think he would have preferred it that way