Print Edition - 2015-01-11  |  Free the Words

The dead tell tales

  • The cemetery near the British and Indian embassies speaks volumes about Nepal’s relations with Britain and Europe
- Abhi Subedi
The dead tell tales

Jan 10, 2015-

Amid all the talk of the bicentenary celebration of Nepal-Britain relations, images, books, and memories inundate me. As a non-political, non-historian, I rely on my own blend of memories and readings, metaphors and time sensibilities to understand events.

Reflections on a cemetery

A visit to a British cemetery located on the western flank of the British and Indian embassy compounds has revealed much to me. A large chunk of land, which used to be the seat of the British residency, was partitioned after India became independent from British rule in 1947. Ironically, Partition, on a historical scale, has become the primary burden of post-war South Asia, especially between present-day India and Pakistan. The comparatively minor partition issue of the embassy’s turf and its pine groves did not create much of a commotion here, but it did reflect the psyche of the post-independence occupancy of an important piece of land in the heart of the ancient metropolis between two countries friendly to Nepal. A 200-year history, which saw various transitions and changes of relationships between Nepal and Britain, cannot be understood by adopting a monolithic line of interpretation.

I had long been trying to visit the cemetery but had not gotten a chance to do so until recently, when British-born writer Greta Rana made a visit possible for me. I was struck when I visited the cemetery with Greta and a young academic colleague, Shiva Rijal. A somewhat confusing yet important history of Nepal’s association with the British once again made me pensive. My attempt to review the history of Nepal-Britain relations from a cemetery may sound bizarre, but I have this to say about this method—the cemetery opens up the history of the residency, people’s connectivity, and to some extent, the two World Wars.

The dead and buried

I am not writing this like Thomas Gray in ‘Elegy written in a country churchyard’, a romanticisation of the space, but alluding to this “serious place on serious earth”, to use English poet Philip Larkin’s expression from his poem ‘Churchgoing’ to understand the texture of the spot. Hector Oldfield’s memories are uniquely inscribed in this cemetery. This remarkable person wrote a book, a memoir with sketches of his stay in Nepal as surgeon at the Kathmandu Residency from 1850 to 1873 entitled Sketches from Nepal published posthumously in London by WH Allen in 1880.

Oldfield’s family life was tragic. Two of his children apparently died here in Nepal. But he became a personal friend of Jung Bahadur Rana and that friendship is reflected in this cemetery. We can see how close Oldfield was with Jung Bahadur and his brother, Dhir Shumsher, whom he accompanied on an excursion to Tibet. Oldfield’s paintings of the fleecy clouds of Tibet, the inaccurate dreamy colourful landscape paintings of what we know of the Kathmandu metropolis today, floated before my eyes when Greta showed me two big gravestones for Oldfield’s two children, made under Jung Bahadur’s special orders.

Greta said that memories abound. I had never realised that so many people known in Nepal in the past are resting here. One old, charming lady, the wife of the late pioneering hotelier Boris, whom I used to meet on various social and artistic occasions, was lying beside her husband. I forgot the date when Boris himself expired. The last I heard of him was a small advertisement in an English daily like this—‘Boris is still alive and cooking’. Greta was metonymic in her expression. She said stone for grave. I listened to this poet quietly speaking about these buried expatriates, her countrymen and women, and others whom she had befriended in her half-a-century life here in Nepal. After spending sometime in the graveyard and listening to Greta, I began to feel that there is a history, an ignored turf lying behind the hill that speaks at least of a linear history of Nepal’s relationship with Britain in particular and with Europe in general.

Speaking volumes

The cemetery is the texture of a history that is not usable, for sure, but it can speak volumes about the nature of Nepal’s relationship with the West, especially with Britain, over the centuries. It also shows how expatriates came here and by fighting against various odds, made Nepal their home. I was awed to think of how the Europeans who came as expatriates and others who lived here were drawn by the love of this land and are buried in the subconscious mind of history.

We only sift through historical records that are stacked in archives. Brian Hodgson’s collection tops the list. I was mainly drawn by a desire to see the grave of the wife of one of my favourite English poets, John Betjeman (1906-84), who was appointed Poet Laureate in 1972. A poet in Britain told me that she was buried in Kathmandu. But we could not locate the grave of this woman, whom Greta calls Betjeman’s kanchi swasni.

The cemetery still occupies an important place here. There are graves of those Englishmen who had returned wounded from the Burmese front in the Second World War and subsequently died here. It has begun to look like a corridor of history, a turf that has a fixed space in history. But the story today is different. The Nepali state under the Rana rule and even before, kept itself insulated from the world. The rulers felt that the safest way was to stay like that. Any outer connections thus were limited to the visits of some persons and official residents. They have some history, but very limited. This cemetery speaks to that isolationism and the unrecognised narratives of contacts with European personas. I was surprised to discover more about such narratives after John Whelpton’s research on Jung Bahadur, his Nepal, and his visit to Europe in 1850 was published.

The cemetery behind the big embassy compounds is indeed an eloquent turf. It speaks volumes.

Published: 11-01-2015 09:35

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