A boy from Sikles
By MANJUSHREE THAPA
The last rainy days of monsoon claimed Nepal's best: a generation of pioneers in the environmental field, among them Dr Chandra P Gurung.
Many in his professional field will attest to Dr Gurung's expertise in conservation. He worked with Mingma Sherpa as a team, from early on, to give the Nepali people ownership over their natural resources, and to integrate conservation concerns into development projects. Their advocacy and implementation of 'sustainable development' directly benefited millions of Nepalis, and indirectly improved all of our lives.
Yet it may be for his immense leadership that people will most remember Dr Gurung. He was a man of exceptional charisma, an unerring optimist who thought everything possible and who often went on to prove so. From the day he was lost to the hills of Ghunsa, hundreds of thousands of people across the world have felt an extremely sharp personal loss.
I am one of these. Dr Gurung was my boss at one time, but more than that, he was my mentor.
I first met Dr Sah'b - as I came to call him - when he was heading the Annapurna Conservation Area Project, in 1990. Because he was, at heart, a boy from Sikles, he flouted the norm by basing ACAP's headquarters in Ghandruk village rather than in the capital, or in Pokhara (as the organization's administrators wished he would).
At the time Ghandruk was a two-day walk from the road-head near Pokhara. For me - an America-returned, Kathmandu-centered consultant - the trek there felt like a journey to the middle of nowhere.
Yet Dr Gurung made Ghandruk feel like the center of the universe. He spoke Tamu, Nepali and English with great poetry and flair; he knew of the prickliest local dynamics of village life as well as of international goings-on. Brimming constantly with ideas and overflowing with energy, he inspired his staff (and consultants) to work with passion. There was nothing he did not want them to do: solar electricity, forest-management schemes, mothers' groups, community plantations, adult education, income-generating activities, tourism management, heritage conservationâ€¦. Dr Gurung's can-do spirit made ACAP one of the country's most brilliant organizations at the time.
So infectious was this spirit, I went on to work for ACAP in northern Mustang. And over time I saw that everyone who passed through Dr Gurung's hands benefited. The people of the project area gained much, of course. But so did an impressive number of foresters who went for higher education under him, to make no mention of rangers and other wildlife experts. Dr Gurung groomed an entire generation of conservationists.
And at least one writer. My life was irrevocably changed by my work for Dr Gurung. It was because of him I decided to live in Nepal. A PhD from the United States, he was thoroughly 'glocal,' perfectly at ease in the village. He made me want to be like him. It was from him I learned how to move from the village to the metropolises and back. It was from him I learned how to listen and observe in humility. From him I learned I had nothing to teach villagers; but what I could do was link with them in ways that benefited them. From him I learned to view Kathmandu with healthy skepticism. From him I learned how to negotiate local politics, how to battle contractors and petty politicians in the district headquarters, how to make far-off decision-makers in the capital pay attention and care.
If I know, today, how to make myself of some use to Nepal, it is because of Dr. Gurung. If I know that everyone has something to teach me, it is because of him. I defer to local wisdom because of him. I try to live large in Nepal because he showed me it was possible to do so. My day-in, day-out association with him lasted three years; but I am still carrying his spirit with me. And some of his style. Dr Gurung always ended his sentences with a hilly "Auuw:" Because of him I do so too, and speak Nepali with a Gurung inflection. So stamped have I been by the blueprint that Dr Gurung set that long after I left ACAP and settled into a writing life - though I had not met him for years - I have always felt extremely lucky to have ever known him.
In this I know I am one of many.
Most people will remember Dr Gurung as someone who lived fully, and well. He was not concerned with amassing wealth or with putting up any false fronts in his personal life. What he did is work hard, and play hard: he left behind a professional legacy and a personal following far greater than one person might ever hope to amass. His loss is irreparable. He was a gem of Nepal and an international star. He was a hero for our times. He was a boy from Sikles.