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 and 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