Afterward the Gurkhas fought for the British on India’s North West and North East Frontiers, in China during the Boxer Rebellion, in Mesopotamia and elsewhere during World War I, and throughout the globe during World War II. The British army used Gurkhas in the Falklands and the Balkans, and has used them in Iraq. They have served as UN peacekeepers in many places. Gurkha enlistees in the British military tend to come not only from the same tribes but from the same clans and families. In the 1970s forty-six sets of brothers were serving at the same time in a single battalion—the 6th Queen Elizabeth’s Own Gurkha Rifles. Plying a profession at times unfairly sullied, the Gurkhas have been Great Britain’s most valued mercenaries, in both imperial and post-imperial British history. A. E. Housman wrote,
Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.
“The toughness of Gurkha skulls is legendary,” writes the historian Byron Farwell. In 1931, on the North West Frontier, when a mess mule kicked a Gurkha havildar in the head with his iron-shod hooves, “the havildar complained of a headache and that evening wore a piece of sticking plaster on his forehead,” according to Farwell. “The mule went lame.”
I found the old Gurkhas a haunting presence, because they were sharpened, refined, exaggerated forms of the Marines and soldiers I had been befriending and describing in previous travels. There was something indisputably antique about these gentlemen warriors, who told me their life stories under a black-and-white photograph of Queen Elizabeth II. To call them Kiplingesque would be to cheapen them; they were practically out of the Iliad.
Balbasdar Basnet, a retired corporal in his seventies, was the most memorable of them. He had joined the Gurkha Rifles of the British army when he was sixteen. His shriveled, nut-brown face was capped by a topi. He had teeth on the right side of his mouth only, and his raspy voice fought against time.
Balbasdar was from a village so impoverished that he’d never tasted tea before joining the army. After basic training he served for eight months on the North West Frontier, guarding the border against “Pathans” (he used the nineteenth-century British term for what today we call Pushtuns). From there he went to Bombay, and then by ship to northwest Malaya for three months of jungle training, just as World War II was gathering force. Finally he fought the Japanese in close combat.
“Were you scared?” I asked.
“No, I was thinking only to do and die.” He actually said that.
For fifteen days he and other Gurkhas marched in the jungle, retreating from a much larger force of Japanese. He was taken prisoner early in the war, and for four years subsisted on beatings and 200 grams of rice a day, moving around among labor camps in Malaya, Java, Sumatra, and New Guinea, wearing nothing more than a loincloth. Hiroshima liberated him from his sufferings, he told me. Suddenly he was being fed and clothed, and a few weeks later New Zealand troops arrived to formally liberate him. Proud to have served Her Majesty, he told me.