Although a fully-fledged member of the Biratnagar-based Koirala dynasty, direct descendent of the great BP and uncle of the matchless Manisha, ‘Niruda’ as he was known in the family wore his politics lightly and preferred a life in the shadows savouring the freedom to travel and study.
Having witnessed the upheavals of the royal takeover in 1961, he studied political science in Banaras Hindu University and the University of California Berkeley, then worked in tourism before retreating to academia in the United States.
I met Niranjan only after he was wrenched back to Nepal public life as political adviser to the Minister of Tourism and Civil Aviation, Ram Hari Joshi. He was an unlikely figure amongst the dusty desks, smeared windows and civil service culture, more professorial than political, gentle but determined, smiling but steely, preferring tweed jackets and colourful sweaters, a neat moustache and thick hair curling carelessly over his collar.
The perfect person for the role, Niranjan’s well-travelled vision and drive for Nepal’s tourism economy was refreshingly tempered by his impatience with bureaucracy and innate political realism. “Never underestimate the complexity of running a poor mountainous country with precious few natural resources,” he counselled me. At home in Boudnath he kept a pet monkey in a tree house, and his hospitality featured produce from the garden, and much talk of travel, films and books.
Despite inevitable opposition, it was during Niranjan’s tenure that Nepal’s modern tourism policy was forged. The industry was liberalised by carefully opening up forbidden areas such as Upper Mustang and Dolpa to benefit local livelihoods, instituting mountain and trekking trail clean ups to beautify the Himalaya, world promotion by permitting ambitious international movie shoots such as Little Buddha, Eric Valli’s Himalaya, and Enigma’s Eyes of Truth, and allowing private commercial airlines to flourish within Nepal that ended the national flag-carrier RNAC’s monopoly and revolutionised domestic travel.
I can envisage Niranjan humbly shaking his head in vehement disagreement with my words, but Nepal could not have achieved what it has without his wisdom and behind-the-scenes interventions. With his advocacy for aviation reform and safety, it was especially ironic and tragic that his first wife Santosh was killed in the Thai Airways disaster that year, leaving their two small sons returned from California and dazed with grief.