From Hardy Stock: Hem Lama

Features Issue 60 Jul, 2010
Text by Amar B. Shrestha / Photo: ECS Media

Hem Lama spent much of his childhood in Burma (now Myanmar) although his roots lie in Bhojpur. Returning to Nepal in 1965, he became the treasurer of the All Nepal Lawn Tennis Federation in 1969. He then went on to open his own institute, the popular Hem's Tennis Academy, and has trained countless young and aspiring tennis players over the decades.

His day begins at 5:30 am when he prepares his own breakfast. “I am a teetotaler and I don’t smoke,” he says. He also refrains from eating meat, fish or even eggs. “I think my religious background is responsible for my aversion to meat,” he explains. He is 77, yet it looks like he’s in the prime of his life. He does not stoop; his muscles are still sinewy and there is no hint of fat, nor that most accursed baggage of most Nepali elders – a paunch. As for his stamina, he is engaged in one of the most strenuous of sports throughout the day, teaching tennis to more than a score of young enthusiasts.

So, how does he maintain his youthfulness? Perhaps it is his diet. Two slices of bread with butter or honey, one mug of creamy milk, one boiled potato or carrot, one banana, a piece of cheese, sometimes oats or cornflakes, and yes, fruit juice first and foremost. This then is Hem Lama’s power breakfast and it is his principal meal of the day. At exactly noon, he partakes of a frugal lunch of a little rice and dal. His day is mostly spent playing tennis, his first love, and so work is but a pleasure. However, he does like to watch comedies on television and says, “I like Haribansha and Madan Krishna’s comedies as well as ‘Tito Satya’ hosted by Dipak Raj Giri, who has a terrific sense of humor. His political satires are really good.” A man who likes to read regularly, Hem Lama mentions Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Ground beneath our Feet’ and Shiv Khera’s ‘You Can win’ as current favorites. Supper is taken at five in the evening and that too is a small affair. By eight, he is off to bed.

“I want people to know more about my tennis academy than about me,” declares Hem Bahadur Lama, founder/director of Hem’s Tennis Academy (HTA), perhaps the only such academy in the country. Such an institute wouldn’t have been possible without the single minded commitment of the man who is essentially, its sole driving force. Hem’s Tennis Academy is located at 270 Tukucha Marg of Gairidhara - in fact on the premises of his own home. The house itself is spartanly furnished and humble in its outlook, truly an apt reflection of the owner, who is among the few to actually follow a life based on the principle of ‘simple living, high thinking.’ Established some 7-8 years ago, the academy has a substantial number of students and a significant number of successes too. The academy’s objective as stated is ‘to impart standard courses and training methodically and systematically to young children ranging in age from 5 to 13 years (admission age to the academy), and to produce tennis champions for Nepal.’

HTA has given ample proof that it is capable of producing champions, as in the year 2002 alone its students bagged 24 trophies and medals in the sub junior and junior categories. Some outstanding players that the academy has produced have represented the country in ITF under-14 events in India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Thailand and Vietnam. Utsab Rijal is one such champion and he is currently ranked, nationally, among the top five in the men’s division and has recently won a tennis scholarship to attend college in Iowa, USA. Ramesh Karki, another HTA product, is the number one in the juniors (under-18) category and ranked 29th in Asia. Priti Rijal is number one in the under-18 women’s category. In addition, Priti is also among the top three in the senior women’s rankings. There are yet others, both boys and girls, who are shining bright on the tennis horizon of Nepal. These include Gagan Maharjan, Anjana Khadka, Kencho Palden, Shaluni Lama, Shreeja Karki, Sunita Gurung, Meena Gurung, Anushlea Joshi and Rinchen.

Hem Lama was treasurer of All Nepal Lawn Tennis Association (ANLTA) from 1969 to 1980 and president from 1990 to 1993. In between, he was responsible for introducing red-shale clay courts at the HIT center in Koteshwor. So, one could say that Hem Lama is a doyen of the sport in the country. As can be expected of a stern taskmaster like him, entry into his academy is very selective and, ‘based on talent and potential’ alone. Owing to its size, the academy is not able to handle a larger number of students.

His ancestral roots lie in Bhojpur, but he lived much of his young life in Myanmar where his grandfather, the late KPMCH Rai Bahadur Kul Bahadur Lama, OBI, was among the first four Gurkhas to be promoted to Subedar Major. Hem Lama’s father, Subedar Dil Bahadur Lama, was a Pioneer Engineer with the Burma Military Police. Hem earned the degree of Registered Accountancy RA and also completed his Banking Qualified Exams. For the next 15 years, he worked at the State Commercial Bank and along with his wife and family, returned to Nepal in 1965. “My wife, Ganga, died in 1997 of cancer and breathed her last in Florida,” he says. “She was a tennis player herself and we had a solid marriage that lasted 44 years.”

Hem has three grown up sons and a daughter. Raj, the eldest, is currently director of GCC Tennis Club of Gainsville, Florida, while Poonam, the eldest daughter, is the only woman member of the Nepal Olympic Committee. Besides this, Poonam has had an outstanding career as a national table tennis player and has represented the country several times in international events. She has a Masters in English and is the Principal of Nabha Deepti Primary School which, again, is within the premises of Hem Lama’s home. “The school is a non-profit venture and has about 65 students out of which, almost 50 are orphans whom we educate free of cost,” says Pooja. Pilot, and well-known actor, Captain Vijay Lama is the third child while Sujay, the youngest, graduated from Iowa and was head coach of the Women’s Tennis Team at the University of Illinois for eight years. “Recently, he has been appointed head coach at the University of Texas,” says the father proudly.

Talking about his own achievements, Hem Lama thinks that winning the triple crown in the Mahendra Golden Jubilee Celebration Tennis Championship has been the high point in his tennis career in Nepal. He says he was inspired by his uncle, KPMCH Rai Bahadur Subedar Major N.S.Lama and began to play tennis at the age of sixteen. He also plays the harmonium, likes to compose music, and says, “I have enough knowledge to be able to distinguish notes.” Besides, he has also written a few articles and has written, directed and produced a movie, ‘Adarsha Nari’ featuring his son, Vijay as the hero and daughter Poonam playing a negative role. “The film cost me only about 15 lakhs to produce,” he reveals. “And I must also mention that I have undertaken the Association of Cinematography Course.” He has studied screenplay writing, film editing, cinematography and direction. While he enjoyed making the film, the post-production scenario was not so pleasant. “There were too many hassles from distributors and movie hall owners. I was disillusioned with film making.” However, it seems that with time, he has gotten over his disenchantment for he is planning to make another film, tentatively titled ‘Dalit and Lalit’about untouchability.

Hem Lama has lived a full life and it is worth noting that he also worked as an Administration Assistant at the USEF as well as at the Ford Foundation for some years. Then for twenty-five years, he ran a highly lucrative courier business, ‘Universal Packers and Movers’ which had its offices in Durbar Marg. “Because of my contact with expatriates through tennis, my business did very well.” Obviously, those 25 years were golden years for Hem Lama as far as the business of making money was concerned. It is also obvious that throughout this time, Hem Lama continued to play and coach tennis. “Yes, that’s right. I continued to coach and have even given lessons to royalty as well as to others, including expatriate children.” In between, he established a school, ‘Lotus Eyes High School’, which he and his wife ran and later sold after she passed away.

Such has been the life of a man who by all accounts, continues to defy age and break new barriers. At an age when most would call it quits, he continues to drive youngsters to reach their full potential by setting an example of what can be achieved. Lama has made it a personal mission to create tennis champions for the country by establishing and running successfully, an academy that has no parallel in Nepal. What is the secret behind such an exemplary life? What is the source of his boundless enthusiasm and his relentless zeal? The answer may be found in his extraordinary discipline. Perhaps the answer lies in his ardent love of the game of tennis. Or is it in his genes? For an answer, one has only to look closely at the stern and long whiskered countenance of KPMCH Rai Bahadur Subedar Major Kul Bahadur Lama, OBI, in a framed photograph in his house, to know that Hem Bahadur Lama comes from hardy stock.

Hem’s Tennis Academy: Ph. 4411009
Mobile: 9803028977