Memoirs of a Gurkha Wife – Life in the Far East (1950s – 60s) by Mrs Dhana Dewan

Mrs Dhana Dewan, wife of late Capt(QGO) Puran Kumar Dewan, MID, 1/10 GR is now 92 years old but vibrant as ever, she can still fluently speak English, Hindi, Malay and of course Nepali. She currently lives happily with her eldest son Shiva Dewan, daughter Punnya Sitoula and grandchildren in Kathmandu, Nepal. Her second son Major (Retd) Sudan Dewan BEM 2 GR is settled in Glasgow with his wife Sarita, son Asesh and daughter Shaila.

Mrs Dhana Dewan (nee Rai) was in the initial batch of civilian teachers and midwives to be employed by the Brigade of Gurkhas in the early 1950s all of them from Darjeeling. She worked as a teacher at the Gurkha Children School in 1/7 GR, Seremban Malaya for almost four years when she met her husband and got married. She then went to Majidee Barracks in Johore Bahru where she continued teaching in the Services Gurkha Children’s School in 1/10 GR for several years before her husband’s retirement in 1967. Her life as a teacher then a Gurkha wife which resounds the lives of most Gurkha wives commencing from the early days of the Brigade in the Far East is best described in her own words.

“It was normal then to have a large family, ours was no exception and I was the eldest in a family with twelve children. Even so I was fortunate to attend one of the best public high schools in Darjeeling. After completing my IA (intermediate in Arts from Darjeeling Government College, I got my first teaching job at the local Sardeswari Girls’ High School. Not long after I began my new job, one of my students Laxmi Rai (her father was a serving Gurkha officer in the British Army then) one day, told me, “Guruma (teacher) I heard from my father that the British army are recruiting teachers for the Gurkha Children’s Schools in Malaya. If you are interested, I will let my father know.” I was, of course, interested to find out more and following day after school, she took me home to meet her parents. That was when I learnt that her father was from 1/7 Gurkha Rifles and was member of the recruiting team based at Jalapahar Military Cantonment in Darjeeling. He briefed me through the recruitment and interview process. My application was accepted and I was called for an interview, where I still recall the British Officer who was in charge of the recruitment. He was referred to as Whitehead, 7 GR ko Sahib!! It was obvious that there was a huge demand for qualified teachers for the Gurkha schools in Malaya and a good number of applicants had turned up. I was successful and got selected, this was followed by a few trips to the Kutchery (local magistrate’s court) to sort out my personal documents, passport and visa.

In the last week of December 1951, I with my two colleagues boarded the train at Darjeeling station bound for Siliguri. It felt very strange to be going over the Kala Pani (overseas) and we were nervously excited. From Siliguri we travelled to Calcutta (now Kolkata) by overnight train. Early the next morning, we arrived at Sealdah railway station where we were met by a camp representative then taken to the Transit Camp at Barrackpore. We stayed there for three days before sailing on a ship named ‘Santhia’ to Malaya, which was bound sailing from Calcutta, through Rangoon, Penang and Singapore. I cannot remember how long the voyage took but it did dock in Singapore where we spent the night at Ulu Pandan Camp. In those days, Singapore had yet not separated from Malaysia. The following day we travelled by train to Seremban. I am not sure but it probably took us all day and a night to get there.

After we got off the train at Seremban station, we climbed into an army vehicle that was waiting for us to take us to the camp. It was raining lightly. When we arrived at the camp, Mama [Uncle]* Gurkha Captain Ramsingh Lama, who had travelled through with us as our military escort, said to me: “Well Bhanji [Niece]*, you’re now going to stay in the Family Barracks. Because I am a muglish (single man), I am not allowed there. All living arrangements will have been made for you within the line barracks.” Then one of his soldiers came to help pick up my luggage and took me to a Nurse Dorothy Lepcha’s living quarters. It was still raining lightly. Nurse Didi opened the door and called me inside. I had known Dorothy Didi when she used to work at Victoria Hospital in Darjeeling before coming to Malaya. She was about to go on her first home leave in a week’s time. [*In Nepali (Gurkha) culture Daju (elder brother) and Didi (elder sister), Mama (maternal uncle) and Maiju (maternal auntie) is used when addressing your seniors according to their age. It is disrespect to call someone senior by their first name.]

Newly-arrived teachers and midwives.  Dorothy Lepcha is second from left.

After Didi left for India, I was allocated a quarter just in front of her house. The sight of the far away Jelebu hills from the camp reminded me of the Sikkim hills we saw from our village back home and made me melancholy homesick. With the passage of time, I was now settling in well and happy with my new roles as a teacher in Malaya. I soon became more familiar with the place, feeling happy and confident.

A few memories still remain fresh in my mind of those early days as a primary school teacher at 1/7 Gurkha Rifles’ Gurkha Children’ school in Seremban and here I share a few.

(1952). One day when we were in the classroom running Nepali class with the WRVS Memshib (Women’s Royal Voluntary Service. There was one on every unit family line who looked after the welfare of the Gurkha families) when suddenly we heard humming sound of an aeroplane. Trying to keep everybody calm, WRVS said, “Now we don’t know exactly where the next bomb blast will be …..?”. No sooner had she uttered these words than there was a loud bang of an explosion which seemed too close. Fortunately, it was nowhere near our camp though strong enough to shake the grounds and rattle the buildings. This was the first time in my life that I had experienced a bomb blast, I was naturally shaking with fear. I thought to myself, “Oh Lord! Why did I ever come here?”. The WRVS remained calm and tried to comfort us by assuring ‘not to be afraid, we’ll be all right’. We later found out that it was a British plane dropping bombs on the communist rebels operating from the jungles. Although the World War 2 had ended, the British Army were now fighting the communist terrorists who were trying to take over Malaya.

Next morning, the Gurkha Major Jaibahadur Limbu Sahib, while making his routine rounds of the camps, visited our school when I pleaded that I was not interested in my job anymore and I would like to go home. The Gurkha Major said, “Guruma, since you have already signed a contract for three years you are committed to the contract. Alternatively, you have to pay all the money back to the British Sarkar (govt) that you have been paid from day one.” After hearing this I was left with no choice but compelled to keep calm and carry on!

Each morning, the school started at 10 o’clock. It had only four classes. I had to teach the students in Class 3 and 4 while Class 1 and 2 were run by qualified Gurkha wives. All these classes were coeducation. Starting my very first day in the class, I recall a student sitting in the front bench shouting out to me, “Oi Masterni! Alikati sahro bhanna, maile ta kehi sunina ho.” [literal translation: “Hey Miss! Can you speak a bit louder, I didn’t hear anything”] I was so surprised to hear this having come from that part of the world where teachers are addressed by the higher form of Nepali language ‘Tapai’ and here ‘Ta’ (a terminology only used when addressing small kids or your close friends) which is very rude and disrespectful to say the least. Anyway, for the next few months, my time was well spent improving the students’ manners, behaviour and importantly proper use of language when communicating with your elders.

 

Gurkha Children’s School 1/10GR Football Team

Some students were influenced by the smoking habits of their parents. I remember there being one student who used to leave the classroom without my permission almost every day. When he returned to the classroom, he smelled of cigarettes. Finally, one day, I asked him, “Do you smoke?”. “Yes, I do,” was his nonchalant reply. I was shocked to find a nine-year old child smoking cigarette, without realising its affect. However, I did eventually succeed in persuading him to give up his bad smoking habit.

With some of the early Gurkha families on their arrival in Malaya

Although British Malaya was still in a state of emergency, students were occasionally permitted excursions out of camp organised by the school. The visits were often to the nearby rubber plantation, factories and iron mines, all educational trips.

Soldiers from 1/7 GR had a pet goat called Singare (the Horned One). I had heard it was an amazing animal who liked drinking beer and smoking cigarettes! Maybe because it was kept in the Muglish Lines (single soldier barracks) I never had the opportunity to ever meet Singare. 1/7 GR had also caught a tiger cub in the jungle and brought it back to the camp. The tiger cub was called Nepti (flat nosed). I later heard that Nepti was sent to live at London Zoo where she gave birth to two tiger cubs.

Took this picture with Nepti when she was fast asleep!

I then got married on 23 December 1954 and came to live with my husband in his regiment 1/10 Gurkha Rifles at Majidee Barracks, Johore Bahru. There we were given a grand welcome at the railway station by his regimental colleagues, cheering us all the way up to our married quarters!

A grand welcome and wedding reception at Majidee Barracks 1/10GR

I continued with my teaching profession at the Gurkha Children’s School 1/10 GR for almost fourteen years and nearly half of those years I spent in Hong Kong. When we first came to Hong Kong, we stayed at the Norwegian Farm Camp which was then part family lines (later the name changed to Cassino Lines). In 1965, when we came back to Hong Kong for the second time, we lived in Tam Mei camp. From there my husband reached the end of his service and we returned home to India in 1968. On retirement my husband got the job of a Chief Agricultural Instructor at the Resettlement Wing, Dharan Camp that initially drove the move from our home in India to Nepal.

Since my husband passed away in August 2001, I have been living with my children in Kathmandu. I am now 92 years old and receive a Gurkha officer’s widow pension. I look back on my life with great delight, it was such privilege teaching young Gurkha children and guiding them in preparation for their life ahead. I am equally proud and honoured to have had the opportunity to serve in the Brigade of Gurkhas as schoolteacher and a wife of a Gurkha Officer. May God Pashupatinath bless us all.”

Mrs Dewan relaxing at home in Kathmandu (December 2021)

 

Students and teachers, Gurkha Children’s School 1/10GR Tam Mei Camp, 1965

Gurkha children enjoying Christmas Party Cassino Lines Hong Kong 1965

Farewell to WRVS memsaheb

 

Field Marshal Slim’s visit to school in Malaya (Lieutenant Colonel ‘Bunny’ Burnett, later
Major General Brigade of Gurkhas, in attendance).

 

(Two photos above): Gurkha wives enjoying some recreational ‘fun’ shooting
at a Families Day event at Sungei Udang Camp Malacca 1962-3

Families Dashera Party (Bara Khana) at company level

Morning prayers at the Gurkha Family Welfare Centre

Farewell to OC saheb’s memsaheb

Girls playing musical chairs at mela (funfair)

Welcome speech for meeting

Photo 9a Photo 11 Photo 1b Photo 1a Photo 16 Photo 14 Photo 13 Photo 12 Photo 10 Photo 10 Photo 9 Photo 7 Photo 6 Photo 5 Photo 3 Photo 2 Photo 1

5 Comments on Memoirs of a Gurkha Wife – Life in the Far East (1950s – 60s) by Mrs Dhana Dewan

  1. These are a unique and fascinating illustrated account of life in Malaya. Many thanks for sharing it with us all . Am sure both 7GRA and 10GRA would be interested to read the account.

  2. What a wonderful trip back in time to those by gone days in ‘Malaya’….I was honored to meet Mrs Dhana Dewan Ama and learn that my mother was one of her friends and they travelled from Darjeeling, to Calcutta and onwards to Malaya together. My mother joined 2/6 GR as ‘mid wife’ and later married my father in the unit just like her. I was absolutely amazed to see her totally recalling of those days over 70 years ago by dates, names of places and even the ship they embarked on to get to Malay. What a wonderful lady…wishing you good health Ama…

  3. Facinating story of a Gurkha wife and a mother of my numerie Maj. Sudan Dewan then clerk 1975 intake 1/2nd GR.

  4. Thank you for sharing this unique story. It certainly reminds our time of those days who got chance to serve in Malaya, Singapore, Brunei, Hong Kong et al.

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