Lal Singh Gurung joined the British Gurkhas at 14. In his oral testimony he describes how he managed to get recruited, despite being an inch shorter than regulation. His first few years in the army, just before World War II, is spent in training and fighting minor skirmishes like against the Nagas in northeast India. His story appears with that of several other Gurkha soldiers in Himal Books' Lahure ka Katha. It has been translated from Nepali by Dev Bahadur Thapa for Nepali Times.
I was born at Deopur Langdi village in Parbat district on 16 June 1917. My mother died when I was three days old, but my grandmother took good care of me so I was well-built compared to others motherless children.
A recruiter came to our village when I was 14 years and seven months old and took my measurements. My height was marked zero, which means I was below the required 61-inch minimum. Despite this, my relative subedar Dhan Bahadur sent me with another recruiter. I went to Kunraghat in Gorakhpur to join the army. It took us a full seven days to get there.
On the way the recruiter stopped at Waling to get a bamboo vessel of concentrated lemon juice. On our arrival at Kunaghat he asked me to carry the drink and took me to the jamadar. For an hour they discussed matters of the service. Then the jamadar pointed at me and asked, "Ganesh! Who is this boy?"
"My younger brother-in-law sir."
"He looks like he has just been weaned off his mother!"
"No sir, he came to Nautanwa to see me. He insists that he will take my place in the service when I retire. In the mean time he brought this with him."
When the jamadar asked what it contained, the recruiter said it contained pure concentrated lemon juice. The jamadar turned to me, "How many lemon plants do you have at your place, boy?" I kept mum as I wasn't sure what I was expected to say. The recruiter quickly stepped in by saying he had scolded all the way from Nautawa and so I had lost my tongue. "Seven, sir, he has seven lemon plants," he added.
A while later the jamadar asked me to get up and stretch my hands. He said since my fingers were long, I would grow. The next day was the selection of recruits at the parade ground. While the officer was taking measurement I raised my heel a little bit as I had been instructed. This increased my height by one inch and the examiner wrote down 61 inches. I got through the medical examination and was enlisted on 1 December 1932.
I was then asked to list what skills I had. All I could do was to count till 10, and that too in my native Gurung language. During three days of our stay there we were taught how to use a tin toilet and shown where to eat. We were then put on a train and four nights later we arrived at Abottabad cantonment. We trained for 22 days.
There I met subedar Dhan Bahadur, the relative who arranged my enlistment. He came close to me and we were introduced to each other. He instructed me to address him as 'father'. He was the senior-most subedar there and I became the son of a subedar. My height was measured once more, this time by a British officer. Of course this time I was an inch less, and the officer remarked the long journey seemed to have decreased my height. He prescribed an additional diet of one tablespoonful of cod liver oil, a quarter pound of milk and a quarter pound of meat with every meal. Since I didn't eat meat, I gave the portion to my friends. After three months I reached my goal of 61 inches. I was asked to forego one of the things in the supplementary diet and I opted to give up meat. However I continued taking cod liver oil and milk for one full year.
After 10 months of training, we had to report back to our respective battalions. I was placed in B company under subedar major Dhan Bahadur. We underwent three months additional training in the hills of Abottabad. On completing three years and two months in the service, one is entitled to earned leave. I came home for six months, plus the 28 days additional leave granted for travel time for those from Parbat, Baglung and Lamjung districts. During that leave I got married to the 11-year-old daughter of my paternal aunt. At the end of my leave I rejoined my unit at the new base in Kohima. We fought the Nagas. Then I was sent to a training centre where recruits were enlisted and trained. I helped train not only Gurkhas but even British recruits.
In 1934 and 1935 rumours were rife that war had started in Japan and that Mussolini of Italy and Hitler of Germany were going to join hands. There were also rumours that Abyssinia in Africa belonged to Italy, and that this prompted a German attack. Despite this, the Mussolini signed an agreement with Hitler. For becoming allies, Hitler offered to return the land back to Italy. That was followed by propaganda that the Germans would come any day. Stories that Japan too had advanced up to Burma started spreading. That was the beginning of the World War II.