Barbara's House and the Life of an Exile

Features Issue 86 Jul, 2010
Text by Ujeena Rana / Photo: ECS Media

Either she is misunderstood or she   doesn’t give hoot to other peoples’ view. But the intelligentsia opines that Barbara Adams is a bit eccentric, for several reasons. Firstly, she has chosen to stay on in Nepal even when the country has twice exiled her. Secondly, she has devoted her life to a foreign country, a long way from ‘home’, and thirdly (and the most current reason) is her drive to preserve the old house that she had been living in, rent, for over 25 years. She may be exiled again; only this time it will be from the house she has long been taking care of. The feeling of ownership stems from the fact that Major Kirtey Rana, with whom she signed her first lease, assured her that the house was hers as long as she wished to rent it.

Barbara appears eccentric because she has loved and nurtured another person’s country, another person’s house. Undaunted by the rubble and filth, she embellished what was a virtual public toilet into a beautiful back garden. With the help of three workers in four months, and she turned rubble and filth into an organic field, a rose garden—in the English sense of flower beds into a meditation centre, and a common ground for meeting people, including political and social activists. Regular visitors to her house are diplomats, Maoist leaders, politicians and others from the politically-inclined crowd. “I regularly hold parties and picnics at my garden. At times, I unashamedly ask a few of my foreign guests to contribute,” says Barbara with a smile that brightens her entire facial contour.   

Eccentricity is synonymous with Barbara, since she has memories of every plant that she has planted in her garden. Some of the fruit saplings were gifted to her by Royal family members, some by her then ‘Maoist comrades’, some by friends and some she bought and brought from Kathmandu and its outskirts. Her garden is like a labyrinth; one is bound to get lost in it. One might wonder, if gardening is her passion. The grass is well mowed, every kind of tree finds home here and it feels as if the place bears history, eons old. The trees facing one another look like housewives engrossed in deep gossip and fearless intrigue. “I have interest in beauty, and nature to me is beautiful,” she says. “The simple joy of digging the earth elates me, since I feel closer to nature. The mud, the sand, is not dirt to me”. Barbara has useful hands; they can dig out weeds as well as play the piano, write thought-provoking political articles and applaud the arrival of Republicism in the country.

An earlier tenant of the house was Michael Oppitz, a German who directed the controversial prize-winning documentary titled Shamans of the Blind Country based in Rukum, Nepal. It was he who recommended Barbara’s name as the house’s next tenant after he dismissed his name from the role. He believed that Barbara might do something with the preservation of the house since the owners were of the disposition to demolish the old structure and turn it into a carpet factory.

One thing that astounds a first time visitor to her house is her use of tapestries, wall hangings, paintings, Persian carpets, and Bhutanese fabric (sometimes also used as upholstery on chairs) all over the walls. “Walls are for display and what better way then have the artifacts hung on them. The rest of the fabrics are used to hide the holes and the cracks,” explains Barbara.

Another thing is the availability of Vanity Fair in all the rooms. These magazines might have been her continual connection with the outside world all these years, in addition to eclectic, sometimes ballroom parties that she hosted in the grand hall when some distinguished guest visited Nepal. No wonder, glitz and glamour have hardly been estranged from her life. Even now, when most people her age opt for the cocooned life, she is as worldly-wise as ever.

The façade of the house looks unattractive, but reflects the emotions and sentiments of Barbara. Modernity is banished at Barbara’s house. In order to meet her considerable rent and maintenance expenses she sometimes shares the house. A UNMIN employee presently inhabits the upper floor, which has sukul covered mud floors, and mud walls, and gives a very traditional Nepalese home feel. In the three-storey building, she occupies the middle floor. She is not yet, and most probably never will be, ready to voluntarily give up the house that she fondly calls home, but there is no other way out. She does not own the house and the late Kirtey Rana’s widow wants her to pack her belongings and get out.

It’s not about obstinacy or materialism that she so imprudently considered someone else’s house to be hers. She was just a surrogate mother to the house, a nurse and a caretaker. Her fear,  aside from what will become of the house and its “peace garden”  , her belongings,  which were specifically purchased to fit her house – the hundreds of art pieces, the plants and the garden, the two large pianos, the textiles, the paintings and,  not least, all the memories.

Barbara was born in New York, but grew up in Washington, DC. She arrived in Nepal in March 1961. What had been a brief freelancing assignment (“I was ‘trying to write then”, she says) for an Italian Magazine, turned into a lifelong romance. She was assigned to cover the visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Nepal, but as luck would have it; she arrived after the Queen left for her country. But Barbara had found her home, her sanctuary.

Barbara is sturdy, vocal, ebullient, and her laughter can be infectious. She is an interesting character, since she befriends both the intelligentsia and commoners. When the country faced insurgency, she had friends both from the Government and the rebels. She is older than 80% of the present Nepalese population and she has seen more than what the half of the Nepalese population has seen including the Panchayat system, revisit of Democracy, the royal coup, shifts in the government, the royal massacre, government policies, traditions, and the maddening population increase in the country of millions. She can testify to that phase of Nepal when it had just two paved roads, when there were just three or four taxis in the whole of Kathmandu, and when there were only three hotels — the Paras Hotel, the Snowview, and the Royal.

 Love and life with the Royal Prince Basundhara (the younger brother of King Mahendra) earned her a combination of respect and a name and unbearable pain. The love story might have been interesting, a Nepali Prince and a foreigner, but that aspect of her life was not discussed during the interview. The much-awaited autobiography, slated to be in the major book stores around the country, might shed some light.

The only picture of Basundhara rests comfortably on the side table of Barbara’s bed. The picture was taken in Rome in 1963 when the two visited Italy during a three month sightseeing tour of Europe. When in Nepal she ran Third Eye Tours, Nepal’s first Travel Agency with Prince Basundhara and General Sharada Sumshere J.B. Rana, as co-directors she traveled much of the world promoting tourism to as yet unknown Nepal. After the loss of her travel agency, she worked with Nepali craft promotion and design, and became an expert on Bhutanese textiles, about which she wrote a book. When Basundhara died, she lost the freedom to live in the country she had come to call home. The travel agency closed. “I had to hide my much prized convertible in a barn to avoid Basundhara’s relatives taking my possessions away.”

She was twice exiled from Nepal, once by Queen Aishwarya and then later by Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala. Despite the hurdles, Barbara always gathered the courage for the arduous journey back home. “I am a very stubborn Taurus. I want to go when I am ready, not when I am told to,” says the adamant and assertive Barbara. The royal association caused a great deal of upheaval to her. Half of her acquaintances considered her a ‘Royalist’ and the other half thought of her as a ‘spy’.

 “The house was nothing,” Barbara remembers. “But the site was beautiful.” There was seepage and water leakage in every room of the house. She turned the ground floor room, the worst in the house, into a gallery where she displays Bhutanese and other regional arts and crafts. Bhutanese textiles and artifacts crowd the room she has so devotedly decorated. Over time and whenever she had a few extra rupees,  she perfected the interior of the room and now,  just when her gallery is finally to her demanding taste,  she has to leave it.

The top floor houses what seems a mini-museum, with artifacts from around the world that she collected during promotional tours to foreign locations while associated with Third Eye Tours. Barbara calls the room her “Primitive Art Room”, filled with objects from New Guinea, Jakarta, Bali, Africa, Bhutan, Nepal and Afghanistan. It’s a concoction of primitive artifacts collected from around the globe.

When the famous painters of today were starting out, Barbara bought paintings from them. “I was lucky in that respect,” she says with a suppressed smile. “I have two paintings of Laxman Shrestha, and of Lain Singh Bangdel, Sultan Ali, Catharine Cool, Kilim, Asha Khaiju, Bert Hemsteede and others. The painting from the Hippy Era was bought from a Canadian painter because the artist needed money and that was the time when things were done ‘just to help’. Then there was feeling  of brotherhood and comraderie among the few foreigners. Now that painting provides a good reminder of an era gone by.

Her bathroom has a painting by Samshad, the son of the famous Indian painter M.F. Husain. Apart from the corridors and every possible inch of the walls in the living areas, art has found its place in her restroom as well. That is also the reason why people take so much time while using it.

She has a giant Buddha in her garden, which she has named the ‘meditative area’. No phone calls are entertained when she is there. It is not just her garden, but her house, too, that bears witness to Barbara’s love for Buddhism. “I am more Buddhist than anything,” says the self-confirmed disciple of peace.

“Yes, it is Shangri-La—at least for me,” she has written in her book Barbara’s Nepal, a compilation of her newspaper columns. “I came to Kathmandu for two weeks, and never left. Preceding me were two major events: the replacement of the popularly elected Government with the Panchayat system, and the state visit of H.M. Queen Elizabeth II. I arrived in the still euphoric aftermath of the