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RED FLAG OVER KENSINGTON

The last time I went to the embassy at the famous address of 12A, Kensington Palace Gardens I witnessed with trepidation the metal sign at the gate with "Royal" crudely chiseled out. It was just the "Nepalese Embassy" now - a stark reminder of home and a hideously profane epitaph for a historical building located amidst regal surroundings. Half-expecting embassy officials in Mao tunics I entered the reception hall to an indifferent reception hosted by uninterested diplomats. The beer was not even chilled. The occasion was the first anniversary of the success of the Seven Party Alliance and the Maoists in reinstating the Parliament in Nepal.

Embassy at 12A Kensington Palace Gardens
When General Bahadur Shumsher J. B. Rana selected the building for the Nepalese embassy in 1934 A.D. he was representing the King of Nepal as its first resident ambassador and plenipotentiary and his father Maharajah Juddha was the prime minister of Nepal. His choice of the embassy building did justice to the long association of Nepal with imperial Britain. It is located in a prestigious part of London nicknamed "Billionaires Row", near Kensington Palace, abode of British royalty. The palace is the residence of the Duke and Duchess of Kent, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester and Prince and Princess Michael of Kent.

The building itself was built as an extension to 12, Kensington Palace Gardens on its garden in the years 1863-65 A.D. The wife of the owner Sir Samuel Morton Peto wanted a larger place for family and guests. Eventually it made its way to the Crown Estate, the body that administers it today. In the neighbourhood are many ambassadorial residences including the Russian at 13, Finnish at 14, French at 11, Saudi at 24, the list is long. The super rich have started to live there too, Leonard Blavatnik the Russian born business oligarch at 15A and 15B, steel magnate Laxmi Mittal at 18-19, and the Sultan of Brunei at 20.

The first ambassador and plenipotentiary representing the King of Nepal was, in fact, Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana in 1850 A.D. He was the first among the titled Maharajahs and Nawabs of the Indian subcontinent to be invited at Queen Victoria's court, a tacit admission by imperial Britain that Nepal was an independent country, not a part of its Indian dominion. He had made his way to Calcutta on 15th January 1850 A.D. with a large party and sailed on the steamer P&O Haddington chartered at the cost of 5,000 Pounds. The route was Madras, Ceylon, Aden and finally Cairo sailing on the Suez Canal. From Cairo he had taken another steamer to Alexandria, then on to Malta and finally landed in Southampton on 25th May after having sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar. The journey had lasted nearly 4 months and survived considerable discomforts but indeed the ambassador was an extraordinary person. How a tiny island called Britain ruled the seven seas, how its industry and science had brought about epochal changes in the lives of its denizens and how they promulgated the rule of law were some of the questions Jung Bahadur needed answers for first-hand.

General Kaiser as ambassador in London
General Krishna Shumsher J. B. Rana followed Bahadur as Nepal's ambassador during the Rana period. He can be best remembered as the former owner of Sittal Niwas, now the residence of the President of the new Nepal. Then General Singha Shumsher followed. His brother General Kaiser Shumsher went as ambassador after Singha, the first to be concurrently appointed in 1948 to Washington D.C. The last Rana period ambassador was General Shanker Shumsher J. B. Rana. One can almost visualize 12A as a resplendent mansion with freshly burnished metal works, sparkling chandeliers, polished wood works and soft thick carpets. Of course, during the Rana period this building shone bright as an embodiment of Nepal's relationship with imperial Britain. The Rana ambassadors could afford to upkeep 12A from their own substantial resources.

Things were different after 1951 and the fall of the Ranas. London did not matter as much as New Delhi to a democratic Nepal. Wealthy Ranas were history. General Shanker chose to stay behind in Britain rather than come back to Nepal, cocooning himself in Belgravia, an address perhaps even more prestigious than Kensington. The fall of 12A had begun.

My father General Kiran as ambassador
I remember my own years at 12A as my father General Kiran Shumsher J. B. Rana was ambassador from 1973 to 1977. My first thoughts as I arrived at the dimly lit and cavernous building in the cold and dark winter night of 1974 from Liverpool Street Station was that I would meet Count Vlad and there would be bats flying about the balustrade. Fortunately Min Bahadur one of my father's help opened the door with a grin and a greeting. The building needed a major face-lift and refurbishment. It was as if time had somehow stood still since 1951 A.D. in protest at the democratic dispensation in Nepal, 12A still yearned for the free-spending Ranas. Floors creaked with old age, lifts were too rusty to ascend, curtains and carpets were much the worse for wear. 12A by then was not only the residence of the ambassador, but also housed the chancery, the consular section, a royal suite, all the diplomats and embassy staff, their families and dependents. 12A was Nepal in microcosm.

H.E. Prabal Shumsher J. B. Rana
The last ambassador at the Court of St. James representing the King of Nepal was my brother H. E. Prabal Shumsher J. B. Rana. History had come full circle from General Bahadur, the uncle, to Prabal Shumsher, the nephew. The new Nepal will no doubt send countless multi-hued emissaries. The metal signage should have changed by now to read "Embassy of the Republic of Nepal". "Peoples' Republic" might replace it in due course. The embassy might even be re-located to more egalitarian neighbourhoods - Highgate Cemetery would be my humble suggestion to ease the pilgrimage of our dear leaders. But until significant resources can be allocated for it, 12A will remain the odd building out in Kensington Palace Gardens, a slumdog in the garden of billionaires.

Comments

  1. Well written piece,Subodh.
    During the last Congress govt. there was a proposal to put up the building for sale and Laxmi Mittal was one of those interested . But such was the furore and objection to it mainly by the Nepalese in Britain that it was shelved.And there were rumors of massive commission for Sujata and Congress party.
    I think the best plan would be to erect a multistorey building in its place and rent out the extra space .The rent would be sufficient for upkeep of the embassy.The Crown Properties would have to agree to this proposal,I guess.
    Govind

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  2. Govind, yr proposal for a multi-storey building at 12A Kensington is perhaps practical, but I am quite sure that the Crown Properties would not allow it. It would mar the ambiance and architectural conformity of "Billionaires Row".
    If the Nepali government cannot afford the upkeep of the embassy, it will likely have to find another venue for it. The way things are in Nepal currently, Highgate Cemetary is indeed a good suggestion.

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  3. Thank you Subodh,
    Just read your blog and was impressed.Just returned from Nepal(met Prabal dai at a wedding) in March.
    It is by accident of birth that I was born in Bahadur Bhavan the last girl child of Com.Gen Sir Bahadur SSJBRana in 1948. The father I remember was a well adjusted retired man, who had all the time for me. He encouraged me to horse ride, held my hand and taught me to skate & most important of all ticked the Readers Digest and told me what I should read. When I questioned him about the Rana regime he told me he had no choice but had a job to do as the eldest son of the Prime Minister's son and he did it to the best of his ability. You cannot judge the history of that era by today as we all know.The important thing is he accepted the change and had no regrets. He provided me the privilege of education and the security of his presence. Having lived in a palace I learnt not to be greedy or covert.Had enjoyed beautiful things but also seen the vultures coveting and circling his wealth! It is time to take responsibility for our own actions and not keep blaming the past for what Nepal is not today. What good is education if you do not choose to stand on your own feet and continue to exploit the poor?
    Take care,
    Sushila

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  4. Darshan,
    yet anoher well written article by you, whom i have had the pleasure to read and be delighted about! Full of information otherwise less known and easily written!

    I agree with ou fully and find it very shameful that the Nepal Governmnet has considered to sell it instead of restore it (even though many nepali organizations in the UK has pledged to pay for it).

    A main problem is that our civil servants look more towards what they can gain then the presitge and good for the country. I have difficulties to belive that the Nepali government don`t have the money for its upkeep, among other reasons:
    - the Maoist party, is one of the richest political parties in South Asia due to all "donations" and during the civil war the many raids n loots of banks, institutions,, businesses and private people.
    - the main problem lays in the Nepal Governments lack of proper management of its resources; in that corruption, over staffing and alot more falls.
    - similarly many important historic sights in Nepal are falling, while the Government can get billions in loans for building a highway where 50% at least goes to private pockets our cultural heritage is falling...
    It shameful that our so called Leaders see no more then what benefit they have directly...and the Benefit of upkeeping and keeping the Embassy is far beyond the understanding of our government unfortunatelly, we can only hope that they do change and listen to us who want to make our country once again shine, as the Lion of the Himalayas!

    As a Nepali, i belive its our right to demand that our Embassies all over the World are in good order, that we are treated with dignity and that basic diplomatic protocol is followed by the staff, who also should have the proper experience (not political affiliation).

    Jay Nepal & thank you for a exellent blog!

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  5. Dear Mama,

    Once again you take us down the memory lane and I seem to go in a trance!
    I know I also have seen the decline of 12A as I was there in 1964-1967 when bua was MA and then again in 1976 when Afu bua was there. The last time I was in the embassy was when Prabal mama was there in 2003! Now I hear that the Crown Property has asked the embassy to remove the visa section from 12A due to lack of maintance etc., The visa section was made by Nepalese craftsmen during my father's tenure as the ambassador and the potential tourists had a chance to glimpse of what the expect in Nepal as regards to Nepalese architecture!

    Cheers
    Amar

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