Barbara Adams, gestures while discussing politics at her home
From royal consort to peace campaigner
Barbara Adams has been witness to huge change.
Today's Kathmandu with its filthy, crowded alleys, stinking rivers
and gridlocked roads is a far cry from the fictional Shangri La
depicted in the 1930s novel that gave rise to the myth of a mysterious
land hidden deep in the Himalayas.
But when Barbara Adams arrived in the early 1960s,
the depiction was not far off the mark. "The landscape was
dominated by pagoda roofs so what you saw in almost every direction
was golden pagodas, then the green rice paddies, and then the white
snow mountains," said Adams, who arrived here as a reporter
to cover the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 1961.
Logistical problems meant Adams arrived just after
the queen had left, but she ended up meeting and falling in love
with a prince from the ruling Shah dynasty, and has called Kathmandu
home ever since.
After graduating in the United States, Barbara sold off her belongings
and moved to Europe, eventually ending up as a tutor to the children
of a Venuzuelan senator in Rome.
India beckoned, partly because of a desire to
travel and also because her mother read a lot of Kipling to her
as a child. From there, she travelled to Nepal for the queen's visit.
"I knew I couldnt go to India unless I earned money while doing
it, but luckily there was an Italian paper, Mundo Nuovo, that said
'send us your stuff, and we will buy anything you send'," said
She met Prince Bhasundhara in the Yak and Yeti
Bar in the Royal Hotel, which in 1961 was Kathmandu's swankiest
watering hole run by the legendary Russian emigre, Nepali tourism
pioneer and renowned tiger hunter Boris Lissanevitch. Adams said
the massive changes that came from becoming "semi-royal"
were not particularly difficult to deal with.
"It was the easiest thing in the world to
turn my back on my old life, because I never really cared for it,"
she said. Closed to foreigners until 1951, and home to eight of
the world's 14 tallest peaks including Everest, Nepal in the early
1960s was a spectacular and desperately poor place ruled along strict
feudal and caste lines.
-- The journalist and the politically-aware prince
The prince who fell in love with Adams, Basundhara, was the younger
brother of King Mahendra who ruled between 1955 and 1972. The prince
already had a wife and children but Adams says she was viewed by
the Nepalese as one of his wives.
"Seven years before I met him he had had
a complete separation, so I never had any relations with the wife.
His kids would come by the house and play in the pool. I still have
good relations with them," said Adams.
She would accompany the prince to all official
functions "except those in the royal palace," where the
more conservative members of the Hindu monarchy viewed her with
suspicion. "He was a very modern prince and he looked for an
excuse to get away from all that (palace formality) and I guess
I was a good excuse," she said.
He was also, Adams said, "politically conscious,"
realising even that long ago "that Nepal would have to change".
"I remember in 1965 he told me he was amazed that the communists
had not yet come to Nepal. He said we might end up hoeing the fields,"
Forty-five years after she arrived, Nepal's rebel
Maoists, who have waged a bloody communist insurgency for a decade,
are poised to enter the government and King Gyanendra's future looks
uncertain as the rebels push for a republic.
The king seized absolute power in 2005 in what
he said was a move to crush the Maoists. But massive street protests
forced him in April to restore parliament which has since stripped
him of his political powers as well as control over the army.
In the early 1960s, however, there was no sign
that the Shah court would have to relinquish its tight grip on the
country. Adams fondly remembers Gyanendra, who ascended the throne
in 2001 after the alcohol-and-drug fuelled massacre of most of the
royal family by the crown prince who later killed himself.
"Gyanendra was a very normal friendly young
man. But when you get shoved into this protective ambiance with
everybody bowing down to you, it's bound to change you. I could
feel this even in the position I was in," she said.
Although being a royal consort in a feudal Himalayan
kingdom sounds incredibly exotic, life in court was difficult for
the American, who was born in New York and brought up in a political
family in Washington. Her father was a policymaker for US Democratic
president Franklin D. Roosevelt. "I was very shy so it was
a kind of trial for me" to talk with members of the court such
as the queen, said Adams, a fluent Nepali speaker.
In addition, living in a palace was not as luxurious
as is sounds. "Where we lived was cold and draughty and had
innumerable rooms that I could barely find my way through,"
she said. Adams, who wears her long thick grey hair loose about
her shoulders, lost touch with her family in the United States until
a cousin working for the US State Department in Pakistan was dispatched
to find her.
"I was in the Terai (plains on Nepal's border
with India) and there were no roads there at the time. Basundhara
and I were on elephants and suddenly a jeep came along, the first
vehicle we had seen in three days, and it was my cousin Wesley Adams.
"It was a real 'Dr Livingstone I presume' moment," she
said, chuckling at the memory.
-- Out of the royal fold and into a life of political
Adams's contact with the court ended in 1978, with the alcohol-related
death of Basundhara, and after 17 years as a royal consort, Adams
found herself out on her own. She says the royal family had never
been comfortable with her foreign origins.
"It was interesting because I could see who
my real friends were," said Adams who wears saris adorned with
heavy silver jewelry. The travel agency she ran with the prince
was taken over by the royal family, so she turned to craft exports
for a living.
Describing herself as an "unbusinesslike
bohemian type," she had to sell most of the jewellery the prince
had given her to make ends meet. In 1990 when her partner's elder
brother, King Birendra, was forced to allow multi-party democracy
after a major people's movement, Adams's interest in writing was
"In the old days very few people would admit
to being a communist. After this people's movement, all these really
interesting and intelligent people emerged who had been underground
for so many years," she said.
Nepal's fragile democracy was put under further
strain with the declaration of the Maoist "people's war"
in 1996. By this time, Adams was writing a weekly newspaper column,
and her opinions on government policy in dealing with the rebels
provoked the ire of the prime minister.
"I have been kicked out of here twice. Once
by the royal family and once by the democratically elected government,
which makes me feel as if my writing must have been fairly impartial,"
she said during the interview in her large airy home, tastefully
decorated with contemporary paintings, Himalayan antiques and stunning
textiles from Nepal and Bhutan.
-- "Don't cry. Let's just do something."
In 2001 when the Maoist insurgency became more bloody with the entrance
of the then Royal Nepal Army, Adams decided to do something she
hoped would hasten the end of the conflict that killed at least
"One morning I just woke up and said 'Why
am I lamenting, let's just do something about this. Don't just cry'.
I called a friend and called him over and said that we should start
a campaign for peace," she said.
Adams took her peace campaigners to schools throughout
the Kathmandu valley and the rest of the country, eventually earning
herself the nickname "Shanti Didi" or "Older Sister
of Peace". Today she continues to push for peace in her adopted
home, and is hopeful that the current ceasefire -- consolidated
on Wednesday with a peace deal between Nepal's ruling parties and
Maoist insurgents that will see the rebels joining an interim government
to be formed by December 1 and locking up their weapons under UN
supervision -- will hold.
Unlike many other diplomats and foreigners in
Nepal, Adams is keen to see the rebels granted their wish to enter
government, and sees positive aspects in their movement. "The
Maoists have been instrumental in bringing about a lot of things.
Some may not like the change," she said.
"The Maoists started bringing the dalits
(the lowest caste of 'untouchables') into politics, and women. The
Maoists are 30 per cent women. The women, instead of being sent
to brothels in Bombay, would rather take up a gun for a cause,"
Adams, who refuses to give her age but says that
she was in her early 20s when she arrived in 1961, has no plans
to return to the United States, which she describes as a "peculiar
uptight country". "I am definitely planning on staying
here for the rest of my life. I can't imagine leaving," she
said. Despite the environmental degradation of the beautiful but
backward city she arrived in all those years ago, Adams says the
biggest transformation she has seen is in the people.
"When I arrived people took their permanent
poverty for granted. They didn't have any hopes that their lives
could actually change," she said. "Now there is tremendous
hope, almost too much hope. Expectations have risen so high so fast
that it may be a problem to fulfill them," she said.-AP