GURKHA – Better to Die than Live a Coward: My Life with the Gurkhas
25573573″” alt=””25573573″” />The Gurkhas of Nepal have always been held in awe for their bravery. It is the dream of virtually every young person of this martial race to join the British Army. Colour Sergeant Kailash Limbu’s ambition was no different egged on as he was by his father and grandfather. For the first time in its two-hundred-year history, a soldier of the Brigade of Gurkhas has been given permission to tell his story. Written in a simple, straightforward manner, Kailash, named after the holy mountain in Tibet recalls his childhood in the remote village of Khebang.
When he was just a few days old his maternal grandfather measured baby Kailash with his hand and said he was going to be tall and strong as a mountain. His last name Limbu is his caste. The other castes and tribes include Chetris, Gurungs, Mahars, Rais, Sunwars and Thakurs plus a few other smaller groups. Broadly they are divided into highlanders and lowlanders. The Limbus are highlanders and it is from the hill dwelling castes that the Gurkhas have been recruited.
It is an absorbing story of an ordinary hill boy serving in the British Army. He is quick to point out that he has won no major gallantry awards nor is he one of those heroes who fought with Kukri in hand, after all their ammunition had run out. He has never been the last man standing given the legion of awards won by the Gurkhas for their acts of valour against tremendous odds. He feels privileged for having been chosen as the first serving Gurkha soldier to write his memoirs. He was lucky to serve with the allied forces during the recent war in Afghanistan and survived as many did not. He vividly recalls action about which not much has been written about — the siege of Now Zad in Helmand province.
He has given a first had account of what it is like being a soldier in the situation that confronted them. He was told to prepare for a 48-hour operation. In the end he and his men were under siege for 31 days, one of the longest in the whole Afghan campaign. During that period they killed an estimated 100 Taliban fighters.
Kailash recalls what they went through was something like an old fashioned siege that brought the British Army and the Nepal’s Gurkhas face to face for the first time. On their part, the Gurkhas drove off the British and their attempted invasion of Nepal failed. The story has it that a small band of Gurkhas captured a British officer who had been deserted by the Indian soldiers he was leading. But their commander Lieutenant Frederick Young stood his ground.
When the Gurkhas took him prisoner, they were astonished with the reply he gave when they asked him why he had not fled: “”I did not come this far just to run away.”” The Gurkhas said in return “”we could serve under an officer like you!”” And that according to legend is how the Gurkhas and British came together.
It was real baptism by fire for Limbu in Afghanistan when they were already under attack. “”I saw something that really frightened me. In a split second I registered a smoke trail and a loud pshhhhhhhhhhh as it approached. What was it? It was death hurtling towards me at a hundred and twenty metres per second.”” It was an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade). That was indeed close when he flung himself back and watched the fireball flash over the top of the sangar or small fortified positions.
The Limbus originally came to Nepal from Tibet. Besides the Eastern part of Nepal, Limbus are also in Sikkim and the Darjeeling area of West Bengal as well as Bhutan. Collectively this is known as Limbuwan and there are three quarters of a million. The Limbus are quite a large group but not as numerous as the Gurungs. The special Khukri to which everyone used to pray on special occasions, was only taken down from the wall once a year for the purpose of sacrificing an animal, usually a goat. “”Once the blade was drawn, we believed it could not be returned to its scabbard until it has tasted blood. The practice of worshipping the Khukri among the Limbus is very strong. It is considered very unlucky if the person doing the sacrifice cannot do so with a single stroke.
Kailash had a happy childhood and lived the typical life of a hill boy. It was little different from his ancestors for hundreds of years. “”When we face hardship, we do not face it just as one person, but as a member of a group — a section, a platoon, a company, a battalion and finally a whole brigade. You are never alone. To be a Gurkha is to be a member of one very big family of which your section is the closest part.””
Finally the time came for Kailash’s Platoon to be airlifted by helicopter to battle station Now Zad. He had to be sure that his bhais (brothers) and gurujis (mentors) were fully focused and not thinking about the possibility of going back in a box. On the helicopter were a great bunch, a great team. The younger ones would need some looking after, but, as one officer once said the Gurkha “”is a pack animal. We work together, fight together as a team. Everyone helps everyone else; that’s how we operate. No Gurkha is ever without his khukri.””
He provides a peep into the horrors of modern warfare and relives the stark bravery required to stave off the Taliban. Most importantly he brings to the fore what it means to be a Gurkha. He describes the rigorous three stage selection process.
He was elated having been selected for the British Army. There was a final parade when their gurujis announced which unit they would join. “”I desperately wanted to be an infantryman even as there were Gurkha Engineers, Signallers and Logistics people too. I did not want any of these things and prayed they would make me an ordinary rifleman.”” At last the announcement came: ‘21170101, Rifleman Kailash Limbu, Second Battalion.’ He felt relieved he had made it.
Kailash and his Gurkha colleagues scrupulously followed the brief handed down to them to install confidence in the people of Now Zad even though the Taliban tried every trick to eliminate them. The Gurkhas stuck to their task manly and Kailash’s Officer Commanding informed him that he had been mentioned in despatches. What pleased him was that he received a letter warmly congratulating him signed by the Colonel in Chief of the regiment Prince Charles himself. Looking back, a humble Kailash recalls “”there are moments when I am amazed we survived — let alone that we took no sigfinicant losses. He particularly remembers the sahibs, the gurujis and the bhais who fought the Taliban insurgency alongside. Each of them was a hero and a warrior in the true Gurkha tradition.””
|Book||:||GURKHA – Better to Die than Live a Coward: My Life with the Gurkhas|
|Author||:||Colour Sergeant Kailash Limbu|
(T R Ramachandran is a senior journalist and commentator.)