In May 1979, I was travelling around Nepal. I decided it was now time to leave Nepal and re-enter India. I caught the bus from Kathmandu to Darjeeling.
The road runs on a raised dyke west to east in the south of the country, much of it across a relatively flat landscape. I had an aisle seat towards the back of the bus. I was the only foreigner on board. I was travelling very lightly, surviving for 9 months out of an ex-army knapsack (but managing to include two cameras).
We left Kathmandu in the early morning and we’d been travelling for a few hours when we found our road blocked by a lorry whose load of huge logs lay across our path. Young men with handkerchiefs drawn up over their faces approached from several sides and explained to the driver that we weren’t going anywhere, as a protest against the Old-Etonian King Birendra: King Birendra was subsequently assassinated along with many other members of the royal family (on my 50th birthday). Just to dissuade us from turning back, they explained that they had just set fire to the bridge behind us.
Travelling as I had been (mainly walking in the Himalayas) I had been unaware that a government minister had been held incommunicado for 10 hours only a few days earlier. He had been freed when the police turned up firing live rounds. In our situation, the police also turned up firing their guns, but a better organised force of student demonstrators had circled behind the police and set fire to their headquarters. My neighbour on the bus explained that the smoke we could see was what was left of the police station.
The police realised apparently that they’d been out manoeuvered and withdrew. Meanwhile I was itching to get out and take some photographs but I thought I should keep a low profile. My neighbour explained that the students were likely to hold us until their conscripted brethren in the army were sent to fee us at which point the students would withdraw, and we’d be free to go on our way. I thought it an unlikely scenario.
In fact the army never appeared, but as night fell the driver realised that our captors had all disappeared so he could resume the journey. We crept around the fallen logs, and continued to the border check-point with India at Simana Basti. It was midnight when we arrived, so the customs post was closed. I stretched out on the concrete slab (where the customs officers opened bags) and fell asleep. In the early hours I was gently prodded awake by a customs officer who wanted me off his work bench, but at least I was first in line to have my small bag checked. So I entered India. A year later the students’ demands were met with a referendum to decide if a multi-party system should be introduced (though the majority vote was actually for the old system). As we now know, the Nepalese monarchy would be destroyed from within (royal massacre of 2001) as well as from without. In 2008 the last king, Gyanendra was deposed, and the monarchy abolished.