Sir Ralph Lilley Turner (1888-1983), Director of the London School of Oriental Studies, had served in World War I in a Gurkha regiment of the British Indian Army. Later, Turner wrote one of the most famous tributes there has ever been to the legendary courage of the Gurkha soldiers. “Bravest of the brave, most generous of the generous, never had country more faithful friends than you.”
Tim I Gurung’s Ayo Gorkhali: A History of the Gurkhas is divided into 27 chapters, of which the first 16 trace the history, across time and space, of the Gurkhas (or Gorkhas). Gurung begins by recounting the rise of the Gorkha kingdom ruled by Prithvi Narayan Shah in the mid-18th century. How Shah’s Gorkhali Army began to overrun parts of northern India, enough to pose a threat to the East India Company, and how the British, fighting them in the Anglo-Gurkha War (1814-16), realised just what a formidable foe they were up against, form the basis for this history. From there on, Gurung discusses how the British, in the aftermath of the war, set about enticing Gurkha soldiers to enlist in the British Indian Army. How the Gurkhas went on to fight not just within the subcontinent—in the Anglo-Afghan War, for instance—but helped turn the tide in battles far afield in World War I and II, and later still, the Falklands and elsewhere.
The initial part of the book is almost entirely about the campaigns the Gurkhas went on, the victories they won, the feats of bravery that were awarded and applauded, as well as those that went unseen. This is where Gurung explains how the Gurkha contingents evolved with the passage of time, especially with India’s independence and the breaking up of the British Empire. In the process, he mentions other missions carried out by the Gurkhas across the world, including peace-keeping, guarding borders against illegal immigrants, and so on.
Beyond a chronological history of the Gurkhas, there is a more nuanced discussion of issues that concern Gurkhas. Through the injustices meted out to Gurkhas—from being branded mercenaries and subjected to racist behaviour even within the army, to being ignored by the Nepal government and preyed on by corrupt customs officials—the sad plight of the Gurkhas, when contrasted with the larger-than-life image of them as soldiers, comes across even more poignantly.
Besides, Gurung discusses many other aspects of life for a Gurkha: the legendary kukri, the Gurkha hat, literature and songs about the Gurkhas, and how Gurkhas are regarded by other Nepalese. He delves into the Gurkha Justice Campaign, and talks about the plight of Gurkha women—both the rare women who serve in the armies, as well as the wives of soldiers, who stay behind while their men go off to fight in faraway lands. The Nepali diaspora, the schisms between Gurkhas, the problems which beset the Gurkhas as a community: all of these are covered.
Each chapter of Ayo Gorkhali begins with a photograph of a Gurkha veteran, accompanied by a quote from the soldier. These, combined with Gurung’s own reminiscences of his years as a Gurkha soldier in Hong Kong, lend a personal touch to the book. Gurung manages, on the whole, to walk the tightrope between objective chronicler and emotional participant. On the one hand, his history of the Gurkhas is detailed and obviously well-researched; on the other hand, there is his equally apparent empathy for the often short-changed victims of propaganda that the Gurkha soldiers have been.
If there is one thing I would have liked included in this book, it’s the historic photos of the Gurkhas. Midway through Ayo Gorkhali are a few pages of photos of the author at various historical monuments and memorials commemorating the Gurkhas, but other than that and the historic photos on the book covers, there are ironically enough no photos of Gurkhas through the years.