Monday, 5 October 2015
Pabin Rai : The First Gurkha Girl in British Army
When Pabin Rai called her parents in Dharan with the news that she had been drafted into the British Army, her parents refused to believe her. Her sister even gave her a bit of a telling-off for lying. "I had to cross my heart and promise I wasn't making it up," she says. "They only believed me when I sent them the certificate saying I had joined." Now a Lance Corporal in the First Battalion Grenadier Guards, Pabin Rai had sent her application to join the army in 2004 without the knowledge of her family; at the time, she was the only Nepali girl to have applied. When they found that she had been recruited into the 2 PARA Regiment of the British Army, her father felt proud and sent her his congratulations. Disbelief is the common reaction she receives. When friends and neighbour hear her say, "I am in the British Armed Forces" they automatically assume she is an army spouse. This is because women are not allowed in the British Gurkha Regiment – for which selection is done here in Nepal.
The UK's Ministry of Defence had at one point floated a proposal to recruit female soldiers, but later abandoned the idea saying it was impractical. So Pabin, daughter of an ex-British Gurkha soldier, used her British Overseas National Passport privileges to sign up to the British Armed Forces, which recruits British nationals. "When I saw my father in the army uniform, I wanted to be like him," she says. But when she found out she wouldn't be able to sign up as a Gurkha like he did, she thought she would be a police superintendent instead. "I thought it would be cool." "I just thought I wasn't any different than the boys," Pabin says. Growing up in Dharan, she was known in her school as the kick-ass karate and football player. Her energy and determination to set herself apart from her peers led her to the army. When in the UK to pursue further studies, she found out that she could apply to the army like anyone else. Of course, she didn't hesitate. The first pang of regret came when she broke her left leg during the initial army training. The injury made her bed-ridden for a month and she felt foolish for having made the decision to join. However, before long she began to see it as a challenge and became even more determined to do well.
In fact, the training proved to be only a gentle preview for the experiences that lay ahead when she was posted to Afghanistan. As part of the unit that is widely regarded as the toughest unit in the British armed forces, because of its strict selection criteria and rigorous training process, she conducted two tours of duty in the country in 2008 and 2010. During her first tour of duty, she lost three friends on the frontline. At one point, she had been manning a sentry when a bomb exploded just 200 metres away from her. On her second tour of duty, she lost two more friends when they were attacked by the Taliban in the operating base of Keenan. "You never know what will happen in the life of a soldier," she said recently while on holiday in Hong Kong.
Despite the risks, a career in the British army is a coveted one, as is evident by the number of queries she receives from Nepali girls wanting to join. A few more young Nepali females have been recruited since Pabin: Chitra Shrestha (Gurung) and Rajani Gurung are two of them. "I think we are trying to prove that we are as capable as the men," she says. "I am proud to be working alongside men here." Though they train and work together, the female soldiers have separate residential quarters. In fact, in many ways the women have more benefits than the male Gurkha soldiers she had envied so much. At £2,500 salary per month, she earns more than Gurkha soldiers, a matter that has become the subject of court battles and political hearings.
Pabin's parents, Indra Bahadur and Pramila, had never imagined that their daughter would join the army. They had wanted their son Diwash to follow in his father's footsteps, and to please his father, he tried twice to enlist in the Gurkha battalion, but was unsuccessful. His sister's recruitment when she was in the UK surprised everyone. Pramila had never heard of female soldiers and found it hard to believe that her daughter was now one of them. "She's had this habit of being playful and joking around since she was a child, so I didn't imagine she was being serious," she tells us. At which point Pabin jumps in: "If your son had made it this far, you probably would have been delirious with joy. But you refused to believe me." After the eventual euphoria, parental instincts took over. In his 16-year-long career in the army, Indra Bahadur was never called to the frontline. He was on stand-by reserve during the Falklands war, but was spared from frontline war experience.
He went to Afghanistan for a visit, but not during the war. When they found out that Pabin was going to be sent to Afghanistan, Indra Bahadur and Pramila became sick with worry. Her mother, who had never paid much attention to the news, suddenly found herself transfixed to the television. "There was news of Afghanistan all the time, bombs going off, and attacks. My eyes were glued on the screen all the time, and my heart was heavy with concern for my daughter," she shares. Since joining the army, Pabin has been back to visit her parents only a couple of times. During Dashain and other festivals, her parents wish she was in Dharan with them.
As with all their children, Indra Bahadur and Pramila hope Pabin will spend life after retirement in Nepal. It so happens that there are no differences of opinion on this. "I am a Nepali no matter where I am and what I do," says Pabin. "I will definitely come back to Nepal."