Saturday Features

Remembering a rock called Miss Hawley

  • How a woman can be the source of strength to others just by living life on her own terms
- Prateebha Tuladhar
I walked into a bathroom that was as cozy as a bedroom. There was a kind of warmth in there, unlike any bathroom I have ever used anywhere…her bathroom felt like a person

Feb 3, 2018-It was the day of Bhai Tika. He could not hope to rush things like he desired. What he did desire was to dash to Durbar Marg, where he would be interviewing for a job. But that was not happening. His sisters fussed over the procedure. Over the special meal. Over the garlands and the lights. And he got delayed.

Kathmandu streets in the 70s were deserted. There were a few cars and taxis here and there. Pedestrians mostly and some cyclists. Durbar Marg was a fifteen-minute walk from home. He rushed, quickening his pace as much as his legs could speed him up.

He arrived for his interview panting.

“Mr Tuladhar! You’re late! You should have been here half an hour ago! It is a job interview!”

“I’m sorry. Today is Bhai Tika. My sisters, they wanted me to do puja to wish me good luck for my interview,” he stammered as he provided an explanation.

The white woman, who appeared to be in her 50s, did not wait for him to finish. She waved him aside. Literally. And then handed him over to someone she addressed as Ed. As he followed Ed, a big American man, into another cubicle, he felt like it would be a good thing to get this job, because the woman made sense even though she had sounded not-so-pleasant. How could anyone afford to be late for a job interview? He felt like he’d just been educated.

That was my father’s introduction to Miss Elizabeth Hawley, the Administrative Director at his new job. Yes, he was hired! Acting Managing Director, Edward McCarthy (Ed) told him he had the job once the interview was over.

Unlike in his previous job, my father mostly interacted with international staff at the new one. There were American, British, and Indian colleagues. The Nepali and the Indian colleagues quickly took the young man under their wing, taught him now to write applications, to improve the management of ledgers. With the British and the American colleagues, he had to struggle to communicate as the English they spoke wasn’t quite the kind he’d grown up learning in the government high schools he had attended. They spoke with entirely different accents altogether.

As opposed to trying to figure out the accents, he however found it easier to decode Miss Hawley’s way of operating. It was simple and direct. Miss Liz Hawley, as she was known to her colleagues, was a methodical person. She clocked her schedule like she had been fitted with an inbuilt alarm. Even toilet breaks were timed.

In his first week at work, a senior Kathmandu colleague pulled him aside and said, “Be careful and make sure to do a good job. Miss Hawley is a tough woman. She likes discipline. She even goes to toilet by a time table.”

And as if to provide evidence, Miss Hawley instantly stepped out of her room and headed for the toilet. That day onward, my father made sure not to steer close to the toilet at that time of the day, even if it meant holding on to a full bladder for a bit longer.

Miss Hawley was extremely efficient, and she expected the same from the people she worked with. Her only moments of rest were when she stepped out to lunch or to the bathroom. At other times, she would sit at her impeccably organised desk, marking documents with a pen in her left hand, scribbling in writing that slanted left.

Once, my father overheard Miss Hawley talking to a colleague on the phone.

“Headache?” she asked. “A headache is not a disease. Take an asprin and come to office.” And she hung up.

In those days, phones were a novelty and a luxury. The office had three telephones in the front office and one was in the Managing Director’s office, which Miss Hawley would often answer. Some of the calls would be for Ed. Every time Ed got a call, she would sound his name out loud and he would shrug before his colleagues before heading her way, as if to indicate his reverence for Miss Hawley, while also saying he did not know what he was in for.

In a mostly male business, Miss Hawley was clearly the woman who moved things.

“She dealt with the royalties, the foreign ministry, top travel agents, international matters, groups, and assigned procurement. Nearly everything. No task seemed small to her,” my father recalls of the woman he worked with for five years.

Once, there was a difference in the cash box and the balance sheet. A 1,500 rupee amount was missing. The finance staff came under the purview of suspicion. A week had passed when Sher Bahadur Dai arrived with the aerogrammes from the printer, neatly labelled:

Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge

PO Box 242,

Kathmandu, Nepal

 

When he put the stack, wrapped in an edition of The Rising Nepal, on the table, the mystery of the missing 1,500 was solved. Miss Hawley had sent a thousand aerogrammes to be printed with the office address and forgotten all about them. She conceded and apologised to her colleagues for “the misunderstanding.” It was unlike her to commit such a mistake.

“If I had been one of the people to lose my job then, the shame might have killed me, but also poverty because the sum was close to two months’ salary. But we understood how much she did for the company and that it isn’t unnatural for a person to err,” my father explains.

“Miss Hawley was the kind of person who made sense. Everything she said made sense. She wanted everything to be done on time, the right way, systematically, as she wanted or as was prescribed by the company. If that wasn’t done, she always had a question ready for the first person”.

My father has always spoken about her in awe and I’ve often made him repeat the details of their exchanges, because I enjoyed hearing about her. What I know from his descriptions is that she was strong, single, beautiful, organised, immaculately neat and unapologetic for who she was.

When I visited her residence-cum-office in Dillibazar in 2012 for an interview, I had arrived there with a preconceived notion of her. I watched the lady in her office get busy, as I waited for Miss Hawley. I had arrived ahead of my appointment, as if to make up for my father.

The mesh screen door to her office opened and she stepped in. She was frail now, a woman in her 80s, unlike the feisty one in my father’s descriptions. But nothing about the way she moved or spoke seemed to have changed. The first thing she told me was to sit without moving my elbow. I asked why and she said, “You’ll knock down my typewriter. It’s behind you.” I turned around and noticed the old machine, which still looked like it was in working condition and being worked.

She asked me to introduce myself. I was careful to only mention my work and my interest in hers.We spent over an hour talking about her work for the Himalayan Database. About how she had kept a log, year after year of every single climber on the Himalayas—the task that earned her the title of the Everest Climb Chronicler. I remember Tashi Tenzing Norgay saying she knows Everest better than most mountaineers do and will easily catch a lie related to expeditions.

At the end of the interview, I asked her if she had ever thought of climbing a mountain.

“Why should I?” she shrugged. “I’d rather eat my dinner on a table and sleep in my own bed.”

When our interview was over, I asked to use her toilet. She looked at me like she would refuse. But pointed out, “Over there.”

I walked into a bathroom that was as cosy as a bedroom. There was a kind of warmth in there; unlike any bathroom I have ever used anywhere else. It wasn’t a cold, wet place. In fact, quite the contrary to her office, which was so neat, it felt unreal. Her bathroom felt like a person.

So, I not only used her toilet (careful not to drip on the furry commode cover), I also quickly took some shots of her bathroom on my phone. For my father.

Walking out the mesh screen door, I stopped for a moment, turned around and said, “Miss Hawley, my father worked with you many years ago.” It did not exactly pique her interest. But she did send her regards. Then she asked, “What’s his name, again?” But when I told her, she did not seem to remember. I left. Went home. And told my father about my meeting. Showed him the photos of Miss Hawley and her bathroom. He asked me if I’d spotted her car. I hadn’t.

“Her blue Volkswagen Beetle was registered Ba Aa 1221 and had an emblem. The only car I’ve seen with an emblem of American Automobile Association”.

On the day, Miss Hawley passed away, my father and I got talking about her again.

“The last time I met her was eight years ago at a party,” he said.

I was surprised as I could not remember this mention before. As a lover of the vintage, he had asked her about her car.

“Now, I have a driver,” she had said, and my father had figured she was no longer driving. She told him her car was still good. He had always seen her use the same car, except for the time it had to go into servicing. Then, she would be seen navigating with her assistant in a vehicle that resembled a tiny truck.

My father and Miss Hawley had spoken over the phone about expeditions even after they were no longer working for the same company.

She would call him seeking information, like she must have done with a hundred others associated with expeditions. But she was unique, and hard to forget for anyone who had known her.

“I sometimes felt like she was born old,” my father said.

“Like me?” I tried to joke. But he continued talking.

“Actually, I also always felt like she wouldn’t even die. I guess I thought of her as invincible.”

His voice rings with awe still when he speaks of her. And that fascination had somehow transferred to me without me really realising it. I would ask my father about her friends, her family, her life outside work. If she had lovers. He did not know. He only knew the professional side of her and that she lived alone. She had led something like a cloistered life, even though she remained in public eye because of her work, I suppose.

Yet, something about her has always felt familiar. I finally understand why. I’ve sensed familiarity in the possibilities she created by daring to live life on her own terms: Fiercely independent, single, highly efficient, unapologetic to the world and never afraid of judgement. It’s what I make of Miss Hawley from the very little I know of her. And it is what makes her endearing.

 

Elizabeth Hawley passed away at the age of 94, on January 26, 2018 in Kathmandu, where she moved in 1959.

Published: 03-02-2018 08:37

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