Nepali Times
Dr Gurung, a tribute


A helicopter hits a mountainside, and wipes out an entire pantheon of Nepal's best and brightest, who believed in returning the commons to the people. These professionals, who, along with some equally committed foreign friends, were returning to Kathmandu having handed over the management of the Kangchenjunga Conservation Area to the local inhabitants. They were the gift of the central Himalaya, of Nepal, to the world. Each was a life full of creativity, courage, and Himalayan exhilaration, and will be remembered decades hence for how they helped define Nepal's future on the foundation of natural science, geography, and respect for people.

Seated in that helicopter was Harka Gurung, the Nepali who introduced Nepal to Nepalis. He was born in 1938 fast by the Ngadi Khola in upper Lamjung. Growing up at a time when Kathmandu Valley was 'Nepal', he decided to reject the ancestral call of Gurkha warriorship, and chose instead the path of scholarship. He ran away barefoot to Kathmandu, where he joined Darbar High School. Then it was onward to 'lain chhokra' schools in India, an IA back at Tri Chandra College, a Bachelor's from Patna University-and a PhD on the geography of Pokhara Valley from Edinburgh University in 1965.

That was a time, so soon after the eclipse of the Ranas, when Nepalis of 'ethnicity' were near-invisible on the national scene. Those outside the country, descendants of migrants, were able to rise to the level of their genius; within Nepal, however, Kathmandu's autocratic glass ceiling allowed no exception. It was by dint of his personality and steely determination, his rigour and love of learning, that Dr Gurung became a one-man role model and pillar of strength for the rest of emerging Nepal.

His first calling was geography, but Dr Gurung was a multi-tasking multi-disciplinarian who delved into planning, demography, art (under Bal Krishna Sama), history (of mountaineering, hill migration, Gurkha recruitment), economics-and, most recently, transparency in governance. He was once Minister of Tourism, in the middle of the Panchayat era, and we have never had someone in that position who better understood the country's cultural and natural wealth. Over the past decade, amidst the tide of righteous ethnic assertion, Dr Gurung was an exemplar, himself intensely concerned about overturning the national legacy of exclusion.

Dr Gurung had the stature and learning that allowed him not to be cowed by possibility of controversy. In 1983, he was pilloried for a report on migration that suggested regulation of the southern border. Last year, ICIMOD published a detailed monograph with four decades worth of photographic evidence from his native Lamjung. In it, Dr Gurung sought to debunk the 'theory of Himalayan degradation', which seeks to place the blame for downstream siltation and flooding at the doorstep of the midhill peasantry and its supposed biomass profligacy.

Ever the genial contrarian, Dr Gurung scoffed at the tradition, powered by the myth that it was a holy mountain, of not allowing mountaineers on Machapuchre. He maintained that there was no evidence the Gurung herders inhabiting its base in fact revered Machapuchre. A student of mountaineering history, he suggested that the first climbers of Nepal were not the Sherpas but Gurkha lahurays, starting with Karbir Budathoki and Harkabir Thapa in the Swiss Alps in 1884.

Dr Gurung believed in the power of statistics to reveal and thereby help improve the human condition, and so his latest immersion was in producing the book Nepal: Atlas and Statistics. A large-format work in preparation for three full years, it emerged from the printers the day before the author and editor left for Ghunsa at the base of Kangchenjunga. Himal Books, the publishers, was preparing for a grand presentation by Dr Gurung after the Dasain break. It will now have to be done in absentia.

Author of the widely-acclaimed Vignettes of Nepal (1980), among more than a dozen equally gripping and authoritative works, Dr Gurung's life cannot be encapsulated other than through vignettes. One of his most prized possessions was a set of black-and-white photographs following the march of the Himalayan ramparts, taken from a Pilatus Porter flight that he took across the 500-mile spine of Nepal.

When it came time to christen scores of the country's peaks so that they did not all get named by western climbers and cartographers, and alternatively to save them from the fate of mere numericals, it was Dr Gurung who was handed the task. That was also how Peak 29, towering above his home village in central Nepal, became Ngadi Chuli. Across the Nepal Himalaya, thus Harka Gurung left his personal stamp on the chulis, and it was amidst the craggy cliffs of the lower Himalaya, in Taplejung in the east, that he himself returned to nature.

Coming down from Manang a few years ago, and passing Ngadi Khola, a porter pointed out to me a collection of houses up the slope to the left. He said, "That one, with the kitchen smoke, is the house of Harka Gurung." It is by that wisp of smoke in his beloved Ngadi that I prefer to remember Dr Gurung.

Kanak Mani Dixit

An original Nepali hero
Harka Gurung was a gift from the Mountains

Where does one begin to make sense of this horrible tragedy? Losing such icons of the social and physical sciences must rank as one of the darkest days in our history.

Of the 24 dedicated individuals who perished last Saturday, Dr Harka Gurung holds a special place in my memory. I had the good fortune to work with him in Pokhara, when we were part of a team studying the environment around Phewa lake. Although many years have since passed and subsequent meetings have been brief, some memories are still fresh.

He called me the "American Nepali", poking fun of my expatriate status and atrociously rusty Nepali. He was a prima donna, BUT he knew Nepal like no one else. He announced with a wave of his hand on our first meeting: "You see, I can only spare about two weeks of my time on this project. I am meeting with a Japanese team on the Lumbini issue, then it's off to Europe for a seminar, and then I am committed on other projects."

His prima donna status was earned. Born in a village in Lamjung, where a young man's social identity and success were linked to being a Gurkha soldier, he ran away from home against the wishes of his father at the age of nine to study in Kathmandu. This was followed later by a PhD in Geography at the University of Edinburgh and onwards to a well-known and illustrious career that covered government, private sector, and international work. He was the author of dozens of publications.

Working with him, I found him entertaining, formidably knowledgeable, and a disciplined scholar, a walking encyclopaedia on Nepal and the Himalayas. He was always quick with a story from his travels, like the time he recounted his trip to Rara lake in the 1960s, when he found that people there had not yet discovered fishing hooks or nets and so needlessly went hungry. When we pointed out a document about Pokhara written by a Western aid worker, he would wave it off with a big smile and say, "ahhhh, superficial, superficial."

For those who didn't know him well, his strong sense of ethnic identity could be overwhelming. I remember him holding forth once during a night of drinking Marpha brandy, about Chettris and Bahuns, who he believed have progressed at the expense of janajatis.

But his deeds and career speak far more thunderously of a man who welcomed challenges with courage, not excuses, self-pity, or resentment.

His irrepressible curiosity and indomitable spirit of adventure propelled him far up the social and economic ladder. Over time, he became such an insider in mainstream Nepali politics and society that some within his own ethnic community thought he was a sell-out.

Unlike many of today's civil society and political leaders, he did not indulge in the easy therapy of victimology to explain away every shortcoming of our society but demonstrated through deed what a boy from Lamjung could achieve.

This son of Nepal was claimed by the same mountains he loved. If I close my eyes, I can almost hear him saying, "Pravin, if you look at the hills around Pokhara, you can see that valley was actually formed by a process that carried sediment from."

From his book, Vignettes of Nepal, we get a clear glimpse of his spirit: "The journey once begun in a small village in Lamjung must continue beyond the last rest-place and bridge, pass and vantage point. There are many more places yet to be explored and even those I know of will have taken a new aspect in a different season and time to lure me back."

I will miss him. And the fruits of his actions and character will live on in his writings and in the minds of the thousands he has touched.

Pravin Rana

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)