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.
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.
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.
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.
|Han Suyin in her youth|
|Actress Jennifer Jones in the movie|
|My father with Col. Vincent Ruthnaswamy of Indian Army|
|Col. Ruthnaswamy and Han Suyin at their home in Switzerland|