Guest Blogger: Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith visits Nepal with The Gurkha Welfare Trust

Bestselling author Alexander McCall Smith CBE visited Nepal this Spring to see at first-hand the vital work of international charity The Gurkha Welfare Trust.

The author, who is best known as the creator of The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, visited Nepal to find out about the charity’s work with Gurkha veterans and their families across the country.

During his visit Professor McCall Smith saw how the Salisbury-based charity ensures that Gurkha veterans, their widows and their wider communities are able to live with dignity in Nepal. This is done through the provision of financial, medical and community aid, which is often complicated by the beautiful but challenging landscape.

Highlights of the visit included meeting a 105-year-old Gurkha veteran whose retirement was made much more comfortable thanks to the charity. And another of 92 years, whose house had been rebuilt by The Gurkha Welfare Trust following an earthquake that devastated the county in 2015.

McCall Smith has had a special interest in the charity for a number of years.

You can read more about the visit in the author’s own words below.

From Nepal, by Alexander McCall Smith:

The desire to visit Nepal can occur at any stage in life. For some, reading at the age of eight about the conquest of Everest is enough to trigger the ambition. There’s the mountain, clean and white against the sky; there’s the line of Sherpas – what an evocative word! – toiling across the fields of snow; and there are Hillary and Tenzing on the summit, begoggled, triumphant. And at that age one does not give much thought to poor brave Mallory, frozen down below, where he fell, his body not to be recovered for three-quarters of a century.

Of course, there are other reasons for deeply-embedded hankerings to visit Nepal. There are the temples, pictures of which used to be in the Children’s Encyclopedia that some of us devoured when young; there is the name of the capital – Kathmandu – one of the great romantic place-names of the world, along with Rio de Janeiro, Dar-es-Salaam, and Constantinople; and then there are the Gurkhas, those stocky Himalayan volunteers who pop up in military histories, striking fear and trembling in their adversaries.

I have just returned from my longed-for trip to Nepal. My immediate reason for going was a connection I had established with The Gurkha Welfare Trust, a well-regarded charity that looks after Gurkhas and their families, including many veterans of the various conflicts that Britain has been involved in since 1939. The Trust had offered to show me what they did if I were ever to find myself in Nepal, and that was encouragement enough. Four hectic days at the Jaipur Literary Festival in Rajasthan might justify a few days in the mountains. More than justify, I thought, and bought tickets to Kathmandu from Delhi.

And then I was there. One further hop – on the wonderfully-named Yeti Airlines – took us to Pokhara, a major centre of The Gurkha Welfare Trust activity. Once in Pokhara we booked into Tiger Mountain Lodge, owned and run by a gregarious and charming Englishman, Marcus Cotton. Marcus was bitten by the Nepal bug in his twenties and has never looked back. He returns to North Devon for a couple of months every year, but the other ten months are spent on top of his Himalayan mountain, helping others to enjoy the view of the Annapurna Range.

The Gurkha Welfare Trust proved to be splendid hosts. A gleaming white Land Cruiser with a Union Jack on the front arrived at the lodge to take me, and my small party (of four, not a small party, in the sense of a small friend) down to their headquarters in the middle of Pokhara town. And there were the Gurkhas – a splendid body of men in immaculate blazers and highly-polished shoes, with the unmistakeable bearing of former soldiers.

We saw their clinic, where ex-Gurkhas and their wives – and widows – are looked after for life. We saw the nearby retirement home, built around a spotless courtyard; lunch was being served in the dining hall and generous helpings were being ladled onto the plates of the octogenarians and nonagenarians. On one of the doors, the room of a ninety-two year old ex-Gurkha, I saw his photograph proudly displayed, in uniform, with his military number. His face, like the faces of all the residents, was etched with the character that comes from the leading of a hard life at high altitude.

Later, in a side-street in the town, I was taken to the home of a Gurkha veteran aged one hundred and five. In Nepal it is difficult for people to be absolutely sure about how old anybody is, as records are not always reliable. This estimate, however, was made on the basis of age at enlistment, and so it was probably correct within a year or so.

We met in the courtyard of his son’s house. He walked quite well for a man of one hundred and five, supported by a walking frame bought for him by The Gurkha Welfare Trust. He sat down, and I sat down opposite him, our interpreter at his side.

He told me his story. After signing up, he had been sent to India, and from there to Iraq. Then he went on to Egypt, where he fought in the Western Desert. I asked him whether he had been under the command of Montgomery, and he said no, it was Mr Churchill who was in charge. Then he was taken to Italy, with the invasion, and he fought at the Battle of Monte Cassino. He said: “I lost many friends. Many of us did not come back.”

Our next visit was in the hills, where we went to see a veteran of a mere ninety-two. His house had been destroyed by the earthquake that devastated Nepal a few years ago, but had been rebuilt for him from scratch by the Trust. It was strong, I was told, and would withstand the next quake, which everybody says is bound to come.

At the end of our conversation, this elderly Gurkha stood up and saluted. He stood firm and dignified, for a moment a symbol of what these men stand for, which is loyalty. Once they give their word, then they mean it, and they have meant it for generations. That, I thought, is what makes our obligation to them so significant.

We went away in silence, each moved, in our different ways, by what we had seen. We looked up at the Himalayas, just a few miles away, at Annapurna IV, and the cloud that made a white line below it.

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The Department of Sensitive Crimes

A Detective Varg Novel

In the Swedish criminal justice system, certain cases are considered especially strange and difficult, in Malmö, the dedicated detectives who investigate these crimes are members of an elite squad known as the Sensitive Crimes Division.

These are their stories.

The first case: the small matter of a man stabbed in the back of the knee. Who would perpetrate such a crime and why? Next: a young woman’s imaginary boyfriend goes missing. But how on earth do you search for someone who doesn’t exist? And in the final investigation: eerie secrets that are revealed under a full moon may not seem so supernatural in the light of day. No case is too unusual, too complicated, or too, well insignificant for this squad to solve.

The team: Ulf “the Wolf” Varg, the top dog, thoughtful and diligent; Anna Bengsdotter, who’s in love with Varg’s car (and possibly Varg too); Carl Holgersson, who likes nothing more than filling out paperwork; and Erik Nykvist, who is deeply committed to fly fishing.

With the help of a rather verbose local police officer, this crack team gets to the bottom of cases other detectives can’t or won’t bother to handle. Equal parts hilarious and heartening, The Department of Sensitive Crimes is a tour de farce from a true master.

About the Author

Alexander McCall Smith is one of the world’s most prolific and best-loved authors. For many years he was a professor of Medical Law and worked in universities in the UK and abroad before turning his hand to writing fiction. He has written and contributed to more than 100 books including specialist academic titles, short story collections, and a number of immensely popular children’s books. But it wasn’t until the publication of the highly successful The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series that Alexander became a household name. That series has now sold over twenty million copies in the English language alone, and since the books took off, he has devoted his time to writing.

His various series of books have been translated into forty-six languages and become bestsellers throughout the world.

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