Home away from home

Tales of valour and a serendipitous family bond of a British Army colonel who made Nepal his home


Mention “Cross Sa’b” and anyone on the path along a forested ridge above this scenic central Nepal town will point out his house amidst terrace fields of maize. 

In Dhampu Niwas resides Colonel (Retired) John Philip Cross, self-proclaimed Nepali who has found solace, love, and an unconventional family in these mountains. “JP” was also known as “Brain prince” for his audacious exploits in Sarawak during the war against insurgents. 

At 98, the Colonel is still a lean and sprightly man, looking like a fair-skinned Brahmin in his Dhaka topi as he took Luka, his faithful canine companion, for a walk through the monsoon mist. Cross spends his days embracing life's simple joys: playing, writing, reading, spending time with great-grandchildren, and sipping his favourite milk tea.

Young JP joined the British Army at age 17, and was immediately transported to the European theatre of World War II. After the war ended there, he was sent off to India where the allies were still fighting the Japanese. 

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John Philip Cross NT

It was there in the Gurkha training camps in Dehradun that his association with Nepal began. He learnt Nepali from his fellow soldiers and developed a deep admiration for Nepali culture.

Soon, he got caught up in the turmoil of Partition, as the departing British hastily drew a line on the map separating India and Pakistan. Millions died. Cross recalls: “Some days, I would go to sleep in India and wake up in Pakistan.” 

Even after Indian independence in 1947, there were still wars to be fought: in the jungles of Malaya and in Borneo. He was captured by insurgents and was about to have his head chopped off by a notorious commander, but quick thinking and language skills helped him escape.

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John Philip Cross NT

After 40 years in the military, Cross retired as a decorated Lt Colonel, and then immersed himself in his real passion: languages. Besides his mother tongue, he is fluent in Nepali, Roman, Urdu, Cantonese, Malayalam, Iban, French, Hindi, Thai, Vietnamese, and Tamang, Gurung and Magar languages of Nepal.

“I was interested in languages and history. I studied, but the government made me a soldier,” Cross says with a chuckle. Cross even got a degree from Tribhuvan University and worked as a researcher at the Center for Nepal and Asian Studies (CNAS). 

Cross first visited Nepal in 1946, and remembers walking up to Kathmandu via Chitlang and being warmly received by Prime Minister Padma Shumsher Rana. He returned in 1976 to head the British Army recruitment camp in Paklihawa.

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John Philip Cross NT

Fate brought Cross face-to-face with Budhiman Dura Tamu “Dhamphu” in 1975, a young man from Lamjung who was not selected for the British Army because he was half an inch shorter than the required height. Budhiman worked for Cross in Pakhlihawa, helping him with chores. Budhiman had no family, and having left England so long ago, Cross did not either. So he adopted him. 

“It's been 47 years. He is like a son to me. I am his father. This is my family,” says Cross, remembering that an astrologer once told him and Budhiman that they were born from the same mother 400 years ago in England. 

After many years in Nepal, King Birendra issued an edict allowing him to buy land and a house. But with the end of the monarchy, he had to apply for citizenship, which was not an easy process.

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John Philip Cross NT

“After 32 years, 6 months, and 2 days of struggle, I finally obtained Nepali citizenship," says Cross, proudly displaying his citizenship card.

Nearing his 100th birthday, Cross is hale and hearty, and only has problems with his eye sight and hearing. Before Covid, he used to hike 20km a day and even now does a fair bit of walking. “Exercise is the best formula for staying young,” he says.

Cross has written 21 books including titles like Gurkhas at War, The Fame of the Name, Jungle Warfare, and It Happens with Gurkhas. He is getting ready to publish his 22nd book.

"I'm fluent Nepali of the central mountains, Cross says, “I've been to more than 40 countries, but my heart, mind, and body are in Nepal. I will take my last breath here in Nepal.”

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Translated by Aayusha Pokharel from the Nepali original published on himalkhabar.com