Eloquent foreign field
Very few people would have imagined that after a tumultuous war between two “expansionist powers”, Nepal and the East India Company, in 1814-16, the history of diplomatic relations between the two started from a corner obscure of Kathmandu or “Catmandhoo” . The Treaty of Sugauli signed after the war provided for the exchange of “ministers accredited to each other’s court”. The first British Residence was opened in a space where the British Embassy exists today. Edward Gardner and his assistant Robert Stuart were the two people who did the pioneering work at the residence. But Stuart died suddenly of “inflammation of the lungs” on the evening of 1820. Superior Edward Gardner informed the “Government of Calcutta” of this sudden death of his talented young deputy. But the point of significance here is the burial of 27-year-old Stuart in a “hastily dug” grave “at the edge of a farmer’s field just outside the boundaries of the residence”.
The history of the British cemetery begins from the first solitary grave of the young man. A book titled corner of a foreign field (2022) written by Mark F Watson and Andrew R Hall and published in Kathmandu by Vajra Publications begins with this humble story. Hall, an anthropologist and former British ambassador to the court of Nepal, is someone many of us knew personally. And I had a personal communication with Watson about this cemetery.
story of bravery
I was captivated by this meta-story of the Nepalese-British relationship which does not begin with a bang, as one would expect given the ferocity of the war, but with a few humble accoutrements in a corner of the capital. Interestingly, the story of this humble beginning is also preserved by what is called the British Cemetery on land behind the British Embassy. The burial of the young officer and several others constitutes the ancient history of this space. Although small, this cemetery serves as a museum of a different order. The great two-year war between the East India Company and Nepal is written in the Nepalese history books as the story of the bravery of Nepalese fighters which culminated in the signing of the Treaty of Sugauli on March 4, 1816. This is the outline of the history of the beginning of the diplomatic relationship between Nepal and Britain previously represented by the East India Company. The book struck me for the following reasons.
First, the book presents a very unique and unusual perspective on the relationship between Nepal and Britain. The perspective is humble, human and, in every way, very cordial. The cemetery becomes a place of this perception because it functions as a poetic ground, a theatrical corner and a tiny history of a space that records the memories of the characters who were buried there or who were linked to the history of the people. who were very close to them. Second, this small plot represents the history of European peoples who were closely associated with Nepal in many ways. First of all, this being the cemetery of the British Embassy, we come across a few graves of Britons who worked in Nepal at different times.
What I find interesting is the dominant perspective of writers who have written a story with the cemetery as the location. I have a caveat here. The book presents the lives of some Britons in the embassy as very isolated. Brian Hodgson’s long tenure as Charles Allen calls The Prisoner of Kathmandu (2015) is presented briefly. The vibrant atmosphere of the Hodgson Embassy, its artistic pursuits and architectural sites and cultural formations, and its collection of flora and fauna find no place here. A book of 12 essays edited by David M Waterhouse titled The origins of Himalayan studies (2005) presents the diverse image of the residence with all the above elements here. of Hodgson”de facto wife Meharunnisha Begum, a Muslim from Kathmandu and their two sons, and the crowd around him which included Buddhist scholars and the artist Rajman Chitrakar whose designs are included in Hodgson’s book Some birds of Nepal make up the texture.
The authors of corner of a foreign field have a very intimate and human view of history focusing on those who have spent most of their lives here. The writing style of the writers and their description of the different characters make this book very readable. It is a remarkable story of the Western people who had to bury their dead in this khet or a farmer’s field at different times since the 19th century. But it became a space, which also sometimes had to respond to burial requests from other Westerners. The place being very limited for this, this cemetery, this space in the heart of Kathmandu starting with the burial of Stuart whose stone sits prominently and those of the infant son of the surgeon and artist Oldfield and another young girl clearly marked at the entrance, has become a museum of another order. I couldn’t put down this book written in 13 chapters without finishing it.
I first visited this cemetery for no academic reason. A woman poet at a rally in London in the 1970s asked me, “Have you visited the grave of Poet Laureate John Betjeman’s wife in Kathmandu?” Returning to Kathmandu after many years, I spoke to poet and friend Greta Rana about it and wondered if it was possible to find the lady’s grave. We visited the cemetery together in 2015. It was an exciting time. The tales of the poet Greta Rana as we moved slowly through the graveyard were revealing, poetic and moving although we could not find the grave of Lady Penelope Valentine Hester Chetwode whose memorial, as the authors mention, is found in Sarahan, Himachal Pradesh. They mentioned my story in this book (page 246).
The authors focused on a very subtle aspect of the cemetery, which is a matter of care and maintenance. Although caring for the cemetery is not part of the Embassy’s responsibility, it is difficult for the mission to maintain a culture of indifference to this space which evokes the poetic, human and historical moments of the British linked to Nepal. As a student of English literature, I would like to end by recalling a stanza from the poem by the 18th century English poet Thomas Gray called “Elegy written in a country churchyard”: “On some fond breast the parting soul lies, /Some pious drops the closing eye demands it; /Even from the tomb the voice of Nature cries, /Even in our ashes live their usual fires”.