Of the 246 young men gathered at a school field in Those Bazar here recently, only one or two stand a chance of fulfilling their dream of fighting in a foreign army. The are two more rounds of selection, and the physical tests are gruelling. Some 25,000 Nepalis appeared for the selection this year, of these not more than 230 are finally recruited into Britain's Gurkha regiments.
Competition is fierce, the selection itself slow and thorough. One by one, they have their height and their chest expansion measured. Then the exercises are done under the scrutiny of the galla wallah, an old Gurkha soldier responsible for recruitment in the district. Every candidate must complete 12 chin-ups, twice what a British recruit must do at the end of his training. Sit-ups and squat thrusts follow. At every stage, more drop out.
"I'm really nervous," confesses Santosh Jagat Magar, 19, "I've been training for a year." He casts an eye over the other candidates, and adds: "The other guys have been training for two to three years." Many who are unsuccessful return every autumn to the temporary selection centres that open up at this time of year across the hills.
Like several of those gathered here, Santosh is an SLC graduate. "Even if we do college we don't get a nice job," he says, "but in the British army if we work hard we can earn a name and support ourselves." For others, it means following the tradition of their fathers and grandfathers.
Ganesh Bahadur Sunwar is here to help the galla wallah with the process that his son is taking part in. "If he joins the army, he won't have to worry," he says. "He can stand on his own feet." Suresh Bahadur has heard stories of his father's army days in Hong Kong, Brunei, Australia, Germany and the UK. He says that to get away from his village is his prime motivation. "The situation in Nepal is no good," he says. "The safest thing is to join."
In the school where the selection is taking place, Maoist graffiti on the walls espouses class war and exalts 'martyrs'. Despite loud cheers and encouragement from the other candidates Suresh managed only 11 of the 12 chin-ups. With a grin, a shrug and a smacking together of his hands he walked away past his expressionless father. He'll be back again next year.
According to Jagat Bahadur Ale, the galla wallah, the Maoists told him not to go ahead with recruitment but he did not take them seriously and so far there has been no problem. As the exercises progress the crowd slowly thins out. Despite intense competition, the candidates are supportive of one another if they look like they\'re giving up. By lunch time on the third day the sit-ups are complete and only half the hopefuls are left.
In his three years as a galla, Jagat Ale has seen 23 men from his selections make it all the way into the British Gurkhas. They send him letters and cards at Dasai. He says it is hard to reject people. He does the job in order to give the others the opportunities he had and to maintain the tradition of the Gurkhas, who he believes are the best soldiers in the world.
His sentiments are different from those of the young men trying to join this year, many of whom know little about the institution they are applying to. During 15 years in the British army, Ale fought for seven years in the Brunei emergency in the 1960s. What motivated him while he faced death in the jungle? "Not to let myself and the Gurkhas down in the Queen's eyes," he says. "Our fathers did well, we did well and now I want future Gurkhas to do well so our name is always on top."
Modern recruits have every chance of following their predecessors into action. Gurkhas have fought in all British war since the Falklands in 1982, and every Gurkha unit was present in Iraq during the second Gulf War. None of the candidates we spoke to said they were aware of the recent court action in London in which seven ex-servicemen lost their case against the British government for better pensions.
On the fourth and final day comes the 'Mr Handsome Contest', a thorough physical examination. Ninety-eight men have made it this far. After examining what seems like every inch of them, Jagat Ale will select 40 to progress to the next stage: Area Selection in Jiri .