Historian Dinesh Raj Panta remembers reading a smuggled copy of the first edition of Leuchtag’s book in secrecy because it was banned, ironically, after the Shahs came to power. As a historian, Panta was intrigued by the German’s relationship with Tribhuvan, his escape to the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu, departure to Delhi, and the events that followed.
“Was she in love with Tribhuvan? Or was it just loyal devotion towards the king? Maybe the book was banned because people might think that the king’s father had a romantic alliance with a European woman and that would taint the history of the restoration of the Shah dynasty,” Panta speculates.
Rajni Chand, the granddaughter of King Tribhuvan and daughter of Princess Nalini, was brought up in Happy Cottage inside Narayanhiti since she was two by both her grandmothers –Queens Kanti and Ishwari. Now 64 and living in Chhauni, she remembers her grannies talk about Erika and how everything changed after she arrived in Kathmandu.
It was not just Erika who was devoted to the family. Chand remembers being told the royal family was also extremely fond of her. They even named the room when she taught them to waltz the Erika Dance Hall in her honour. As a child, Chand remembers sneaking into the hall every chance she got to admire the colourful walls, the decoration and cute animal toys.
“My grandparents, mother and aunts were prisoners in the palace, and Erika was like a ray of sunshine in their lives, someone who they never imagined would help them recover from their miseries, and even in that short time, Erika managed to leave long-lasting memories for each one of them,” Chand told us in an interview last week.
Unlike many history books about Nepal’s longest reigning king, Erika gives us an insider’s personal perspective on the man, describing vividly his melancholy and frustration at being a mere pawn at the hands of five Rana prime ministers: Chandra Shumsher, Bhim Shumsher, Juddha Shumsher, Padma Shumsher and Mohan Shumsher.
Perhaps it is because of Erika’s influence that Tribhuvan confides that he wished to become a constitutional monarch like King George V of England. Which happened briefly during the transition in the 1950s, until his son King Mahendra took back absolute powers in 1961.
King Tribhuvan worked alongside Dharma Bhakta Mathema and other Nepali democracy activists politicians, but the book’s more revealing parts are about the softer side of the man who loved and respected his wives and daughters, and who reciprocated the love.
The King and his family lived in Happy Cottage, which was later known as Tribhuvan Sadan inside Narayanhiti Palace. As a royal prisoner, the king’s life was like that of a bird in a gilded cage. He was intrigued by Europe, and often pored over mail-catalogues for clothes, furniture and cars to order for the palace. The book describes Tribhuvan as a man of sophistication who yearned to visit the outside world.
Tribhuvan was childlike, and according to Erika he never liked alcohol – mainly because he did not want to be a puppet king spoilt by wine and women like his father and grandfather. He was fond of cigars, dressed well, and once smuggled two trunks full of books from India through Boris Lissanevitch, the White Russian émigré who managed Royal Hotel.
The book is a time capsule and through Erika’s keen sense of observation, we get descriptions of Narayanhiti’s majestic gardens and detailed portrayals of people she came across. The book is necessarily dated and in places turgid when she is describing the sights and sounds of Kathmandu, but one has to understand that this was one of the first books introducing Nepal to the outside world.