Skip to main content

WHEN THE MOUNTAIN WAS YOUNGER

Two books bear irrefutable testimony to Nepal's lifting its snowy curtain in the early fifties and both have seen many reprints as they are still sought after by a younger generation of readers seeking a peek at Shangri-La. It is probably not any coincidence that one of them is Michel Piessel's biography of Boris Lissanevitch the father of the Nepalese hospitality industry titled "Tiger for Breakfast". The other is a fictional account titled "The Mountain is Young" written by the celebrated author Han Suyin who visited Nepal to cover the coronation of King Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev in 1956 A.D.

Han Suyin in her youth
This is not a book review. I am writing about the background story that I am familiar with that went into this book. Han Suyin is the pen name of an Eurasian writer born Elizabeth Chow in China from a Chinese father and Belgian mother. She was one of the first writers of her generation who helped bridge the cultural divide at a time when anything associated with foreignness was anathema in Mao's China inviting scorn and worse. In her major novel published in 1952, "A Many-Splendoured Thing" she defiantly proclaims, "We must carry ourselves with colossal assurance and say, 'Look at us the Eurasians!...the meeting of both cultures, the fusion of all that can become a world civilization.'" It was her romance with Australian war correspondent Ian Morrison who she met while practicing medicine in Hong Kong that formed the basis of her romantic novel later turned into a movie, "Love is a Many Splendored Thing" starring William Holden and Jennifer Jones.

Actress Jennifer Jones in the movie
Han Suyin was an incorrigible romantic. After her second marriage to British officer Leon Comber went sour she came to Nepal as a correspondent covering the fairy tale coronation of a Hindu monarch in a country that had just opened up to the outside world after centuries of seclusion. This was probably just a subterfuge. She was running away from her besmirched past to a more pristine future she was seeking in the laps of the Himalayas. She found in Nepal a new meaning to her life as a romance burgeoned and it became the background for her next best-selling novel, "The Mountain is Young" published in 1956. The story in the book about the protagonist Anne Ford discovering love once more in her life in the character of Unni Menon is actually her own cathartic story of meeting and romancing the Indian Army engineer in charge of the Tribhuvan Highway construction project under Indian Aid, Colonel Vincent Ruthnaswamy. Some fictitious characters that appear in her book are recognizable as real life legends such as Father Moran, S.J., Tony Hagen and Boris Lissanevitch. The grand wedding party in the book Anne Ford attends is none other than that of my cousin "Mana Dijyu" Dibya Rajya Laxmi Simha's marriage to Narsingh Rao Pawar of Gwalior as my father General Kiran was then the Commander-in-Chief of the Nepalese Army and she was given away in marriage from our estate Kiran Bhawan.

My father with Col. Vincent Ruthnaswamy of Indian Army
I had the opportunity of hosting both Han Suyin and her husband when they visited my father in 1982 soon after I returned to Nepal with my wife. I could not help but marvel at the improbable pair of a frail pale lady and her giant dark husband reminiscing with my father on those wonderful days of yore that had fleetingly disappeared over that young mountain. Boris Lissanevitch once told me and my wife that Han Suyin collected gold as a hobby and he wondered aloud how rich she might be. She passed away in 2012 and I do not know what happened to her gold but she has left behind a rich treasure trove of her writing for us all to enjoy, immensely more valuable than the yellow metal.

Col. Ruthnaswamy and Han Suyin at their home in Switzerland



Comments

  1. Mr. Subodh,
    I have always wondered if there were any books written about Nepal right after 1950's.
    I will definitely be studying this " Mountain is young" Book. Thanks for the Info.I hope this contains lots of political, historical and cultural topics of Nepal, Specially kathmandu, beside the writer's romantic stories.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank You Subodh for this post.
    I will definitely be studying this " Mountain is young" Book. Thanks for the Info
    I was wondering if there were any books written about Nepal in between 1950-1960.

    ReplyDelete
  3. While studying Medicine in Darbhanga, Bihar in 1960s, I saw Professor Nawab reading one after another novel by Han Suyin. He gave me Mountain is Young and Many Splendored Thing. Emigrating to England in January 1970, I bought and read her remaining books. I still got them in my home library. It was Mountain is Young which developed my romance with Nepal. Perhaps another reason may be that I am half Nepalese myself - my mother side comes from Nepal where she was born and my maternal grand father emigrated to Champaran in 1920s after qualifying as a doctor from Temple School of Medicine, Patna, later Prince of Wales Medical college. Even today, the bond with Nepal is unbreakable. My maternal uncle, a very prominent surgeon in Kathmandu is married to the granddaughter of Late Man Shamsher.

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

THE SATI WIVES OF JUNG BAHADUR, MAHARAJAH OF NEPAL

If only the Tudor King Henry VIII of England were as lucky as Jung Bahadur Rana, he would have had male heirs aplenty and he would not have had to behead a few of his queens in the hope of his next one presenting him with an heir. All the Maharanis would live together at Hampton Court Palace in seeming harmony at least until the death of the Maharajah. If England had the tradition of Sati, who among Henry's wives would have had the macabre honour of being buried alive with him? Would her be Catherine of Aragon his first queen? Or Anne Boleyn? Or the fair Jane Seymour, his favorite queen who gave him his only male heir, had she not died in her postnatal illness?

Maharajah Jung Bahadur Rana had many wives because he did not have the Catholic Church to worry about. He had at least a dozen sons and innumerable daughters from at least 13 recorded wives. He married some for love, others for political alliances with various noble houses, including a sister of Fateh Jung Shah, one of th…

FEATHERS IN THE CROWN

As a kid I used to gape in wonderment at the magnificent crown my father possessed not knowing that the jewels were only for show. The dark green emerald drops were made of glass, the sparkling diamonds were probably zirconium and the pearls were not of the best sort. Every Rana general had his personal crown in those days and my father was no exception. I did not recognize the difference between this personal crown of father's and the other more valuable crown of the Nepalese Commander-in-Chief of the Army that my father was seen wearing in many a portrait displayed about the house. Little did I know that my father was the last person to put on his head the army chief's crown from the Rana era, real glittering diamonds, snow white pearls and thumb-sized emerald drops and all. The feather in the crown was the magnificent plumes of the Bird of Paradise that gave it such a majestic look.

Nepal had only three crowns that were genuinely the real stuff bedecked with expensive pear…

ROMANCING THE MOVIES

The first time that I remember going to a cinema was when an angrezi film was running at Kathmandu's first movie theater named "Janasewa", translated as "in service of the people", alluding to the political changes brought about in 1951 by the ouster of the Rana regime. The year was 1960. Nepal's first election had been carried out and the Congress Party had won it handily. The naysayers had pronounced the new dispensation as "damn-o-cracy" but nevertheless there was a breath of fresh air with press and media freedom tingling the senses. My personal experience in the theater though was agonizing at best as the large, threatening images flickering on the screen accompanied by the deafening sound sent me into paroxysm of wailing and I had to sit out half the movie in the foyer with my minder placating me with sweets. I was five years old.

Janasewa opened in the early fifties to show Hindi movies for the very first time to the general public. One …