The year 1971 was marked with several ‘big victories’ – in politics, cricket and in war – all of which had long term implications for India. The national mood was buoyant, even if the country continued to struggle with endemic problems.
Fifty years later, we look back at those times and evoke some of that mood. In a series of articles, leading writers recall and analyse key events and processes that left their mark on a young, struggling but hopeful nation.
Some stories, like rolling stones, gather side stories along the way. This is one of them. It involves making a new friend, her chance meeting with an idolised Indian film director, actor and writer, and a cult movie that gained a place in the hearts of Indian film buffs. It put Kathmandu on the map for many and ultimately is responsible for my life in Canada.
Back in October 1969, I returned to Kathmandu after six months in London, where my baby daughter Anna was born. After that long absence, I was made aware that Kathmandu had reached the pinnacle of the hippie invasion, with young people from the west descending on the valley in droves.
I had originally travelled overland from London to Kathmandu in a bus in 1966. After four months, over a lack of finances, I had to leave but did find work in Bangkok. As soon as I could, I returned to the Nepal I loved and, in less than a year, found work with the British Council. At that time I met my husband, who had been invited by Prince Basundhara to open a Japanese restaurant. After a whirlwind romance, we decided to get married.
My life certainly wasn’t all domestic bliss, as Minoru, my Japanese husband was a workaholic and we rarely spent time together. In the early morning in our garden, he taught Aikido, the Japanese martial art, to local young men. Then shopped for his restaurant, Fujikin at the Soaltee Hotel, he worked lunchtimes and then opened again in the evening, working until late into the night seven days a week. There was little time for me.
After seeing some of my photos, it had been suggested to me by Richard Neville, the editor of Oz, an underground magazine in London, that I send them some hippie related material. I knew that at the most important shrine of Hinduism at Pashupatinath, where each year at Shivaratri, sadhus from all over India would arrive to sit all night and smoke charas, hashish. Now, it had become a prime place for hippies to sit down and smoke with the sadhus. The sadhu’s regard cannabis as divine. The sadhus wore earrings, had decorated shoulder bags and long matted hair. Later hippies started growing dreadlocks and also carried decorated bags. Both seemed to be renouncing the material world; the hippies, however, did need some money.
With my new motherhood, I did not get too involved with the hippie scene. All young people who arrived with little funds, who stayed in local homes or small guesthouses were believed to be hippies by the authorities. More and more were travelling overland to trek or to learn about the culture rather than drop out – the hippie scene was not as big as it was made out to be. But maybe they just stood out more, with their behaviour and colourful clothes.
My love for Kathmandu was so strong I couldn’t think of living elsewhere. I took walks with my little daughter Anna, who would communicate with all beings, human or furry. She loved the Brahma bull that wandered the bazaar, and we watched in wonder when locals collected his urine and blessed themselves by touching their foreheads with it. We could mix and mingle easily and locals and visitors were interested in each other. I contented myself with just living in this enchanted city.
One good quality Minoru had was his habit of bringing home people whom he thought I might help or befriend. Many travellers who came to Nepal were not regular tourists and wanted extended stays to truly experience Kathmandu life. Often, they wanted to work in Minoru’s restaurant. This is when Genise Gill stepped into my life. She was an attractive young woman with Indian roots, living with her family in British Columbia, Canada.
Genise, after months of travel in India with her brother, arrived in Kathmandu with dwindling funds, to wait for her mother, who was to visit from Vancouver, Canada. Genise was different from the mass of travellers descending on the Valley. She was smart, down to earth and determined to find work. She discovered Fujikin restaurant while visiting the Soaltee Hotel, and enquired whether Minoru could give her a job. He was used to foreigners asking about work, but his policy was to only employ local Tibetan men who looked more Japanese. He did, however, bring her home to see what I could do. We hit it off at our first meeting, and from then on Genise played an important role in my life. We quickly became friends and to start off I offered her some part-time babysitting for Anna.
I was having difficulty finding clothes in Kathmandu, as there were few modern shops for western clothes. Genise who was resourceful, had a good eye for fashion and tailored a couple of garments for me. Then she started to design clothes based on Nepali styles with good local fabrics. I suggested that she have a fashion show and I would contact all female embassy and aid workers and invite them to the event.
Among my friends was the larger-than-life Boris Lissanavitch, known for his friendship with former King Tribhuvan, and it was he who opened the doors for tourism in Kathmandu in 1951, around the time of King Mahendra’s coronation. Boris offered space in his rambling heritage Hotel Royal for the show. With the tailoring, and babysitting Genise was able to support herself until her mother arrived in the valley.
Genise’s babysitting also helped me to get back to social life. I had kept up my connection with the British Council, where I had worked before marriage. Sometimes I would get invited to dinner parties that were attended by members of the Royal Family and the upper echelon of Nepalese society. Then there were less grand gatherings, where there would be a mixture of travellers and both Nepalese and Western poets and writers. Here instead of alcohol, there would be bowls of charas hashish. Sometimes top models would fly from London for a long weekend. At these parties, beautifully made up and in their designer hippy clothes, they looked strangely out of place.
Minoru would tell me that Hollywood film directors and actors would come to the restaurant, but he rarely remembered their names. The German consul baked a hashish cake for my 30th birthday. At that point in time, cannabis was legal and could be bought from the government store in the main bazaar. Good alcohol was only found with foreign organizations until the black-market shop managed to acquire it from foreigners. It is not known how many foreigners living in Kathmandu indulged in cannabis in their homes. It was only because the hippies were more noticeable and lived like locals, that their drug habits were given so much attention.
The early seventies were really the last Hurrah for easy available legal charas and ganja, hashish and marijuana. The year after I left Kathmandu in 1971, I found out that Carole Laise, the American ambassador to Nepal, was very upset that US citizens were smoking and smuggling out the “evil weed.” She was on good terms with King Mahendra, and convinced him to stop the open sale of cannabis. All the signboards offering ganja and charas were taken down. After leaving Nepal, Laise gave an interview to an American publication where she was questioned about drugs in Kathmandu. She made the extraordinary statement that few Americans participated in drugs and it was mainly European hippies because they could travel cheaply overland to get to the source.
Below the temple, surrounded by fields and small traditional houses, a clever Nepali entrepreneur opened ‘The Bakery,’ which sold baked goods and tea to young travellers and locals, particularly those who liked to smoke charus and ganja and drop acid. In an open courtyard, customers lay around whiling away the time watching mists or swirling clouds above the temple. Each full moon crowds would congregate with musical instruments cushions and blankets for a night of partying. While many would indulge in their chosen drug and sing and dance, others would retreat inside themselves. Genise, who was not interested in drugs made a one time visit but did not think it a big deal.
During this period, Dev Anand, the director, writer and movie star came for a break to Kathmandu. He had been invited for the marriage of Prince Birendra to Aishwarya Rajya Lakshmi Devi. He was feeling quite down at that time, due to the bad reception his previous film Prem Pujari had received and he was searching for a good idea for his next film.
One evening in the bar of the Soaltee Hotel he came across Genise and was smitten by the charm of this Canadian woman. She, who was completely unaware of Dev Anand’s fame, did not have the awe that most young Indian or Nepalese women would have toward this idol, and they had an easy rapport. When Dev Anand asked her many questions about her life, she spoke freely about her family in Canada, her present time in Kathmandu and mentioned the scene around the Bakery. Out of curiosity, Dev Anand visited the Bakery.
It was a casual meeting for Genise, but for Dev Anand, the meeting sowed the seeds in him to write the script for what was to become the cult movie Hare Rama Hare Krishna. Dev Anand on a visit to King Mahendra mentioned that he would like to make a movie in Kathmandu. Not only was the king interested but he also suggested that Anand make a trip to Pokhara, in the mountains and stay at the Fish Tail Lodge, newly opened by his brother Prince Basundhara. During this time Dev Anand wrote the script, and all was arranged for shooting in Kathmandu.
But Genise was not the only source of enchantment for Dev Anand, it must have been the very soul of Kathmandu itself with the mythic temple on the hill with its all-seeing eyes of Lord Buddha and its venerable spire. The perennial hum of its vibrant spiritual life as the Tibetan monks chanted and clashed cymbals in the monastery. Down below in the village, the simple brick houses with elaborately carved wooden windows and the walk into town past fields of yellow mustard, would have proved irresistible to his sophisticated Bollywood sensibilities.
Less than a year later my comfortable Kathmandu life was hit by a personal tsunami. Minoru, who was doing very well with his restaurant with another one on the way, was asked to leave Nepal because of some jealousy and plotting among the elite of Kathmandu. Although King Mahendra and Prince Basundhara were friends who often ate at his restaurant, unfathomably others wanted him out. Being Japanese, he lost face and did leave. I joined him later in Calcutta, after I had sold off everything.
After a tumultuous year, where we had a difficult time settling, I separated from Minoru and visited North America. Then I had the idea to contact Blanche (Genise’s mother) to see if I could stay. I was welcomed and decided that I would try to emigrate to Canada, as it was a good place to bring up my daughter. Some months later I moved in with friends but I still missed terribly my Kathmandu life.
One day I saw in the newspaper that there was going to be a Canadian premiere of an Indian film, called Hare Rama, Hare Krishna at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver. I sensed it would perk me up and I found a babysitter for Anna and went along.
I was one of the few Westerners at this glittery affair, where the Indian women wore elegant saris and the men suits. Although in India, Dev Anand had a godlike status, at that time in Vancouver few Westerners had similar sentiments about Bollywood films.
Very quickly into the film, I realised that this was the movie filmed in Kathmandu. As soon as I saw the lead actress, who strongly resembled Genise, it was evident to me that Genise had been the muse the night she met Dev Anand in the bar of the Soaltee Hotel. Dev Anand in the movie called her Janice from her Indian name Jasbir. He cleverly changed many of the details to create a dysfunctional family in Montreal. He also portrayed her as a confused young woman who took up with hippies and used drugs and alcohol and who in the end takes her life. Much of the movie took place around the Bakery and I could recognise some of the supporting actors. A few of the hippie extras were respectable local young people who lived in Kathmandu with their families. I found out from one of those picked by Dev Anand for a small part, that the real hippies actually did smoke cannabis for the film, but she and a few teenage friends were given tobacco.
Watching the film was emotional for me, as after living in Nepal for almost five years and believing I would be there for the rest of my life, I had experienced a kind of reversed culture shock in Canada. After seeing the movie I told Genise about it, but she had no interest in seeing it.
In 1975 I returned to Kathmandu for King Birendra’s coronation and to do the Everest trek. Back in Kathmandu, as I walked the streets, I was surprised to have kids following me singing the main song Dum Maro Dum, ‘have another toke’. By then Hare Rama, Hare Krishna had been established as a cult movie and any Westerner who did not fit the regular tourist mould had to endure being sung to by the masses of street urchins.
Half a century is a long time and we are living in another time. Those young people have grown up and experienced the roller coaster of life and are probably parents and grandparents. Primarily, we were free-spirited young people, tired of too much consumerism and commercialism in the West, who deeply wanted change. We didn’t need luxuries, just a new way of living more simply. There was another way to live, and the medieval feel of Kathmandu, which gave us the simple life, without the crass capitalism of the west, was refreshing.
It is now the 50th anniversary of Hare Rama Hare Krishna. Was it synchronicity that in 1971 beloved Indian director and actor Dev Anand created a film where East and West intermingled, when a travelling band of western free spirits ended up in Kathmandu and changed the valley forever? There is a great nostalgia for that period now lost in the mists of time.
For Dev Anand that chance meeting in the Soaltee Hotel created a little piece of history hugely significant in the Bollywood film world, and Hare Rama, Hare Krishna remains part of this legendary filmmaker’s heritage. For me, the meeting with Genise Gill, changed my life, as after leaving Nepal and some tumult in my life, I stayed with the Gill family until I could officially emigrate to Canada. Genise and I both live in British Columbia, she in Vancouver and I on a little island. She still has little interest in her moment of fame as a muse. I harbour thoughts of one day sitting down with her to watch Hare Rama Hare Krishna.
The film Hare Rama Hare Krishna was released in 1971, when hippiedom was at its peak.
Kami Kanetsuka is a traveller and writer based in Vancouver, Canada. During the 1960s and ‘70s, she travelled all over South East Asia and lived in Nepal for many years.