The Valley in the1970s was a haven for biologists, ethnologists and anthropologists
It still stands, a rather plain large brick house whose once-spacious garden has since sprouted several new residences, cheek by jowl. Located on the corner of Sanepa and Kiran Bhawan, the so-called ‘staff house’ was where I lived after moving from Chitwan to work in the Durbarmarg office.
I would hesitate to call it ‘home’ due to the relentless intrusion of Tiger Tops company guests who came and went -– friends of friends, itinerant staff and assorted hangers-on. There was always someone passing through who needed a bed or a place to leave their bags. With the constant comings and goings, I was never sure whom I would meet at breakfast.
My favourite spot was the small square sitting room on the third floor with screened windows and floor-level seats, opening onto a big roof terrace from where the white peaks hovered across the rice terraces, mustard fields and tiered ridges beyond (pictured, right). Seemingly close enough to touch in the pristine mountain air, the crystal clarity that characterised those Himalayan hills has gone forever. In the limpid light, the white stupa of Swayambhunath floated on its sacred wood. But the Valley’s encircling hills were denuded and patchy, less forested and densely verdant than today.
Jim’s big brown horse lived in the garage, rescued from the Tollygunge racecourse in Calcutta, looked after by bandy-legged Ram Kaji whose other jobs were to tend the marigolds, grow vegetables and open the big clanging metal gates on demand. I used to ride sedately through the paddies and mud roads amidst the peace of Patan in the late 1970s –- saluting careful cyclists and avoiding the few cars, mostly painted in donor colours.
Sheila Laing was one who came visiting her stepson Nick and decided not to leave -– an older lady in search of sanctuary from a troubled marriage. I loved having her around. Short wired hair and sassy tinged with sadness, Sheila relished my eclectic collection of somewhat dubious Kathmandu friends, though they were a far cry from her colonial Caribbean home.
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After work we could be found lolling on the cushions in my rooftop eyrie. Sheila and I smoked and swapped art stories with antique collectors Mervyn, Andy and Dutch Bob, or long-haired Addison regaled us with Hump-a-Yeti trekking tales to forbidden regions.
Former army officer D-Boy traded duty-free whisky and entertained us with tales of illicit border escapades by elephant. His departure from the regiment had been hastened by his forgetting the General’s uniform on one crucial occasion.
Next door, the UN pilot Hardy Fuerer stayed on the top floor of an austere concrete house reached through a tangled path past his parked powder-blue Mercedes, opera music blaring from his open evening windows. At the top of the lane, the genial General Kiran personified Rana splendour with his extended family in a crumbling white palace, the extensive garden resonating with lost elegance –- overgrown walkways, box hedges and fountains that did not work. Just down the hill, father and son doctors and ornithologists Bob Fleming Senior and Junior lived in missionary simplicity, always welcoming with a cup of sweet milky tea in chunky china. Having founded Nepal’s first modern hospital in Shanta Bhawan, they were assembling watercolours to illustrate the first Birds of Nepal book.
Nepal in the1970s was a haven for biologists, ethnologists and anthropologists, and many found their way to the Kathmandu staff house. American Jeff McNeely stored tin trunks of specimens from his Arun expedition in the bulging cupboard under the stairs, including one he showed me containing white plaster casts of alleged yeti footprints which have since been lost to science. Perching uncomfortably on the low seats of our top room, Austrian Professor von Furer-Haimendorf was a frequent visitor in tweed suit and endless acolytes, and Corneille Jest from Paris charmed us with his ethnic pilgrimages in deepest Dolpo. Around our hearth Tibetologists David Snellgrove and Thadeus Skorupski debated Buddhist and Jesuit philosophy, whilst Pasang shared his fiery amber brew, the first samples of Marpha apple brandy.
The husband’s dalliance turned out to be temporary, so to my chagrin but her relief, Sheila bid farewell to the Kathmandu crowd after a few months and headed home to married life.
But she stayed in touch and our embryonic London marketing office later camped in her Fulham pied-a-terre with creaking wood floors, so cramped that meetings had to be held standing in the broom cupboard for privacy.
One day an intense young researcher dropped by the Sanepa staff house bearing a small puppy he had rescued from a Lalitpur gutter and named Hodgson after the second British Resident.
Tristram Riley-Smith was returning to Cambridge, his anthropological thesis on Nepal history and Newari family structures complete.
Hodgson grew into an unruly and disobedient liver-coloured street dog with a chronic skin condition that seldom healed.
My companion for the next decade, together we weathered some major milestones. But Hodgson never lived up to his grand name – he took my marriage in his stride but disdained baby Sangjay as unwanted competition, and distinguished himself by sleeping undisturbed on his cane chair throughout the 1988 earthquake that rocked the Valley.
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