Updated: Jul 26, 2019
Gautam “G2” Rana was born into a life of immense privilege. The grandson of the last hereditary prime minister of Nepal, G2 purported to have been raised inside Singha Durbar before the former royal palace complex was nationalized and became the seat of Nepal’s central government. In 2012, however, not much of G2’s family’s vast land holdings were left. Instead of residing in a palace, G2, his Indian-born wife, Bhavna, and their two sons, occupied a small house next to the former palace guard’s stables, called Baber Mahal. With the help and advice of New York architect Erich Theophile, G2 had turned the dilapidated stables into a stately shopping and dining complex, which he named Baber Mahal Revisited. Brass tiles with "G2" embossed on them adorned every corner of the expansive complex. "G2 is Kathmandu's most colorful character," his cousin told me shortly I arrived in Nepal on my second trip to the Himalayan country in 2009.
“Before this silly thing these buffoons call democracy, we were in power here and things actually worked. I used to beat the shit out of my staff if they mouthed off to me, and now these silly idiots are in charge of our beautiful country. What is this, this democracy? What has it done for the people? Please! Don’t start me on all this bloody nonsense. Look at what they have done, these fools. They have turned Nepal into a disgrace. Dust and pollution everywhere, and so many cars. It’s just a nightmare. I don’t even dare step outside this little piece of heaven anymore, unless I absolutely bloody have to,” G2 said, gesticulating elaborately. “You see, my grandfather was ruler of this country and he ruled with an iron fist. By God, if he knew what Nepal has turned into since democracy, he would be turning in his bloody grave.” Attentive waiters clad in black trousers, white button-down shirts and red V-neck sweaters quietly hurried around our table. Each time one of their number passed by, with G2’s back to him, a bright smile and rolling eyes indicated that every waiter had heard this rant on previous occasions.
G2 Rana is famous among Kathmanduites for the impeccable job he did during the extensive renovations of his stable compound. But sitting in his New York City office, Erich Theophile, the architect behind the project, told me the back story of the former palace guard stables. “G2 milked UNESCO for every penny he could get and then cut corners constantly during the construction phase,” Erich said. Eventually, as G2’s sinister side became increasingly exposed, Erich explained, their relationship soured and the two men cut ties. G2 went on to take full credit for his architectural creation in a book titled Kathmandu Style, barely giving Erich a mention.
Kobold Nepal rented two properties inside this complex, first a free-standing single-floor shop and later an attached property with an exhibition space downstairs and a large room upstairs. Over time, the short-cuts G2 had taken during the reconstruction phase became visible. Each year during the monsoon season, the walls were so damp that the paint peeled off. One year, a small waterfall formed on the upstairs wall, because all of the water from one side of the roof collected in one area and then leaked into the room. Astonished, I filmed this scene and asked Kobold’s staff to show this to the landlord. “You can fix this yourself,” G2’s manager informed the staff. When I called one of G2’s sons and forwarded the video, the attentive young man apologized profusely and immediately dispatched someone to repair the damage. Far more alarming, however, was G2’s reaction to the substantial damage the complex sustained during the earthquake.
“Your shop is the most severely hit, Michael, there are cracks everywhere. Horizontal, vertical, diagonal. Diagonal are the worst, the most dangerous. You must leave your premises. It’s not safe for your staff there anymore,” Caroline Sengupta, a French restauranteur told me by telephone. “G2 and Bhavna are in complete denial. They think Baber Mahal is safe and that the tenants should just paint over the cracks. I had an independent engineer come out and I can tell you there is a lot of damage all over the place. We have to unite against G2 and Bhavna. We, the tenants, we are all getting together. You’ll receive an email about all this shortly,” Caroline said.
When I asked Namgel Sherpa to confirm this information, he said “yes, our place have many cracks everywhere. While we were gone, G2’s wife sent someone to paint over the cracks. Now engineer can’t see them.” Surprised, I telephone Bhavna Rana and asked why she had Kobold Nepal’s office walls painted over. “Michael, your Sherpas are making a mountain out of a molehill, you know how they are. They’re simple boys who don’t know anything. Your office is completely safe, I assure you,” Bhavna said. Asked why she needed to paint the walls over so soon after the earthquake and before the structural engineer could assess the building’s integrity, Bhavna said “never mind Michael, what’s done is done. Let’s move on and rebuild. We’ve also waived one month’s rent to your boys and to all other tenants to help overcome the effects of the earthquake.” This, I would soon discover, was a ploy to keep tenants from departing the premises, parts of which an independent structural engineer later deemed unsafe.
After the tenants organized themselves and wrote a mild-toned, almost submissive email to G2 and Bhavna, in which the tenants asked that an independent engineer inspect the complex, G2’s infamous yet highly entertaining temper flared up.
From: Gautam “G2” Rana
To: All Tenants
Date: June 7, 2015
Tenants of Baber Mahal Revisited (BMR).
Your nonsensical email was forwarded to me.
Let me make it clear: the LANDLORD, soul owners of BMR is Gautam SJB Rana (ME) & Bhavna Rana (my wife). Virat & Varun SJB Rana hold authority & input as my heirs apparent. They are owner's cum MD's of Baber Mahal Vilas (BMV) the upcoming botique rooms adjoining BMR. The rest of the names you have mentioned are of no relevance to BMR or it's ownership.
BMR needs money, not outside interference to deal with post-quake situation.Let me remind you that a highly generous offer of waving your 1 month's rent due to the deadly earthquake, was made by my wife & sons & was given my acceptance reluctantly. It would be appropriate if this generosity from us be reversed & a 15% raise on rent is levied as earthquake damage rent on some tenant's in direct calculation to earnings they make!
Do not take this act of generosity as weakness. BMR will be managed & run as I see fit. Keeping in mind its the first & till now, the only PRIVATE commercial enterprise of such architectural beauty & elegance. You all are free to consult any engineer at your own expense & time as long as my rents are being paid on time. I have no intension of attending meetings with tenants & their engineers. Perish the idea of merging the bridge between the landlord & a tenant.
If you are not satisfied by my decision. ... you are welcome to pack your business & move into any of the earthquake-hit parts of devastated Kathmandu. I loathe & will not entertain interference of any kind from outsiders.
Knowing fully well that tenants will come & go but BMR will always remain....a private architectural/historical monument of Nepal.
BMR & BMV are together in making the two projects the most beautiful property in this haphazardly built valley. Tenants should concentrate on the greatest success of art attracting more clients. If u interfere with the owner I might think it appropriate to consider taking a share in the sales of my tenant's.
What upset G2 most was the fact that the tenants had included his brother, Gaurav, and his wife, Dolly, in the email's list of recipients. A long-lasting feud between the two family branches meant that G2 didn’t tolerate anyone even uttering the name of his brother, the former chief of the Nepalese Army, in his presence. To include both brothers and their wives in an email that technically should have been addressed to G2 and Bhanva was tantamount to high treason in G2's imaginary kingdom.
A few days later, the far gentler, Indian-born Bhavna Rana responded to the tenants in her typical, mild-manner way:
From: Bhavna Rana
To: All Tenants
Date: June 12, 2015
…“I would like to reaffirm that baber Mahal revisited is built earthquake proof and I can guarante that no major dissater will occur...no roofs or walls will collapse...so please have faith in me. Even the best building of kathmandu valley have not been spared the minor cracks...that have occurred in Baber Mahal...so I repeat we are much better off than many. It is rather sad and distressing to me that some tenants have used the earthquake as an excuse to pack up their businesses with us...in spite of me waving one month’s rent as a help to re-establish and repair you particular premises.
Bhavna was well-liked among the tenants and many felt bad for her unenviable position as G2’s wife. “Such a waste of a beautiful woman,” a close relative of the Ranas told me. “Bhavna is really lovely, but she suffers immensely under G2’s mad, whimsical ways.” In her email, Bhavna Rana was clearly trying to stop the fallout from her husband’s earlier outburst. However, the damage had been done as tenants began to depart rather rapidly:
From: Hazel Birchall
To: Michael Kobold
Date: June 14, 2015
This week we made the very difficult decision to not return to Baber Mahal. This was not a decision that we took lightly, as this is where Javana opened it's first shop exactly 6 and a half years ago and so we have strong emotional ties with the place. However after Gautums's outburst the other week we felt the situation to be unworkable and so consequently informed them we would be leaving and have since vacated the premises. Besides the breakdown of relationship between tenants and landlord and safety concerns regarding the building, I also have serious doubts about the future of Baber Mahal. In order for it to be a success it will need a very active and creative management team which unfortunately is lacking.
The relatively minor “Rana palace intrigue” makes for insightful foreboding for a much more interesting scandal that would have far bigger consequences.
When the earthquake occurred, G2 and Bhavna Rana’s enterprising and extremely level-headed sons, nick-named Monty and Tinu, were in the middle of constructing a beautiful boutique hotel between their parents’ home and the now-damaged shopping and dining complex. Built on land owned by their father, the Rana boys were in a quagmire. On the one hand, they had to respect their powerful and mentally unstable patriarch, while on the other they felt the strong urge to create a legacy of their own. In order to finance the construction of the elaborately styled hotel, the Rana family had taken out loans with banks owned by their close relatives.
Yet the earthquake and the subsequent Indian blockade caused both a standstill in construction activities, as well as a sharp rise in the cost of construction materials. As the delays grew longer, G2 Rana’s patience got shorter. “Their father is acting increasingly irrational,” another Rana family member told me. “G2’s losing it,” a prominent European-origin Kathmanduite said. “He isn’t supposed to drink with the meds he’s on, but that’s what he’s been doing. You can see it in his face.” Before long, the Ranas needed fresh capital in order to bridge the long delays. Defaulting on a loan is not a pleasant circumstance for anyone, but it was an intensely private matter involving much face-saving for the Ranas and their extended family of bankers.
During this time, G2 and Bhavna became increasingly hostile towards Kobold Nepal’s staff. After Kobold USA paid the first three months’ rent plus security deposit for the premises occupied by Namgel and Thundu Sherpa’s new company, the small shop was consistently late on its rent payments. This is important to mention, because despite this circumstance, G2 and Bhavna were always happy to renew the lease agreement at the end of each term. It took me some time to discover why they didn’t just ask Kobold Nepal to vacate the premises when the rent was always paid late. Years earlier, in their inexperience, Namgel and Thundu had signed a lease agreement which stipulated a 10% yearly increase in rent payments.
“They really pulled a fast one on the Sherpas with that agreement,” one of the Ranas’ close relatives told me years later. “It’s customary to have a 10% increase every two years, not annually. Bhavna once thanked me so much for introducing you to her,” this lady said. “She told me how happy G2 and she were about how much rent they’re getting from the Kobold shop.”
Strapped for cash, G2 began acting even more irrationally than under normal circumstances. For years, rumors circulated that G2 was inflating his own importance by falsely claiming he was part of the royal family of Nepal. "He tells everyone in India he's a prince," his cousin laughed as she told me one of the many stories about G2's questionable dealings. "The Indians are all enthralled with G2 and his antics," she added.
To get confused about the royals of Nepal is understandable. After Prithivi Narayan Shah united Nepal and became the country's first king, the Shah dynasty ruled for some time before the Rana family installed their own dynasty of hereditary prime ministers and locked successive Shah kings up in their palace. Before Prithivi Narayan Shah, the Kathmandu Valley consisted of three independent kingdoms, one of which the Malla Dynasty ruled for more than 600 years. Finally, members of the aristocratic Pande family either directly ruled Nepal as the king's prime minister or maintained a strong influence over the country. All four clans have intermarried sufficiently over the last century to blur the lines between aristocracy and royalty. Yet a cousin of the last king of Nepal told me "G2 and his family are not royal. They're A-list Ranas but not royals."
Still, in his desperation to generate publicity and revenue for the newly-constructed and highly-leveraged boutique hotel inside the Rana's converted palace stables, G2 used his royal marketing ploy to attract a team of journalists and photographers from Harper's Bazaar India. The team flew to Kathmandu and caused much excitement in G2's microcosm. "They are doing a big issue on the royal families of the Indian subcontinent," G2 gushed. I asked G2 if I would be permitted to take pictures of my own on during the photo session and the royal Rana agreed. "Of course, Michael, you can take all the pictures you want." The next day, G2 and his family posed for several hundred photographs for Harper's Bazaar, plus several hundred more in front of my FujiFilm X-Pro2.
One day, Rajni Nakarmi, the new head of Kobold Nepal following the ousting of Namgel and Thundu Sherpa, called me to say that G2 had visited the shop. According to Rajni, G2 took a liking to a pink stingray wallet that Rajni and her sisters had custom-made for a female client. “Oooh, this looks soooo nice,” G2 told the stunned sisters, before walking out of the shop with the expensive wallet in hand.
Months earlier, G2 emailed me a logo which he asked me to have turned into a metal stamp. G2 wanted Kobold Nepal to emboss a large order of wallets that he wished to give away at the wedding ceremony of a close friend's son. “They will buy a lot more from you once they see their regal crest on your products,” G2 told me. After a first logo stamp failed to meet G2’s and my expectations, a second stamp was produced. G2 liked how this stamp turned out and asked for several samples to be embossed with his friend’s family crest. “The girls have to charge you for these samples,” I told G2. “Yes, of course, go ahead and ask the girls to make the samples, Michael, I want to see them in real life before I decide on the type of leather we’ll use for the production of the gifts.” After the samples were made and Rajni delivered the bill, G2 asked me to see him. “Whoooo do you think you aaare,” G2 asked loudly, waving the invoice in front of my nose “Louiiiis Vuitton?”
When I reminded G2 that the logo stamp charge and the cost of the samples, plus the heavily discounted cost of the pink stingray wallet would have to be borne by him as agreed, G2 refused and ripped up the bill. “I will not give you anything. Besides, your girls are always late with rent payments.” I reminded G2 that the late fees were always added at the end of the quarterly payment Bhavna or his property manager had received from Kobold Nepal. “I don’t care about anything you have to say, now you get lost. And never be late on your rent payment again. You should be ashamed of yourself, a foreigner who behaves like this. I should just shoot you right here on the spot. In fact, wait, guard!” G2 yelled. “Guard, bring me my shotgun. I will shoot this foreigner right here and now, go on, fetch me my gun.” I found it hard not to smile at G2’s outburst and pressed my lips together. Far more comical than G2’s gesticulations and heavily accented voice was the stunned look on the face of the security guard, who clearly was overwhelmed by his boss’s demand. “Go now, leave me alone before I really shoot you. You know I can do whatever I damn like, this is my property.”
With bankers walking in and out of the Rana complex, I soon learned that G2’s financial difficulties also had effects on some of his other relationships. “Our father is really acting very strange these days,” one of the Rana boys told me when I mentioned the amusing shotgun episode to him. “We have been apologizing for his behavior to so many people, Michael. Please don’t take it personally, we’re in the same boat as you and everyone else. The pressure is getting to him.”
Some months later, at the end of an evening event at the German ambassador’s residence in observance of German National Day, G2 Rana put on public display an even more embarrassing character flaw. Clearly intoxicated, G2 yelled across the lawn when he saw me. I ignored the remark and continued on walking. After G2 yelled another remark, Bhavna tried to calm her husband down by saying “G2, please don’t, not here.” Incensed at his wife’s plea, G2 turned and slammed his forearm into Bhavna’s stomach. With onlookers gasping out loud, G2 said “you shut up, woman,” and turned around. My co-producer of the documentary film on Narendra Modi grabbed me by the elbow and said: “Oh my god, let’s get out of here.”
The steady decline of G2 Rana’s financial prowess and his increasingly eccentric behavior turned out to be important pieces of circumstantial evidence to prove the assertion that G2 was instrumentalized by the Indian ambassador in Kathmandu to act as a go-between against me and the fire truck expedition. After a Rana complex employee called me to say that the ambassador had asked G2 and Bhavna about me, and that G2 had not said anything good about me, I was not immediately alarmed. Bhavna’s Indian origins and her elevated social standing in both Delhi and Kathmandu potentially made her a prime asset of the Indian intelligence service, RAW. Yet shortly after a second meeting with the Indian ambassador, G2 abruptly changed the manner in which he dealt with Kobold Nepal and with me, personally. Aside from refusing to pay the Kobold Nepal bill for custom leather goods he had ordered more than a year earlier, G2 called up a number of people in Kathmandu to dig up dirt on me. I ignored the warnings and simply attributed them to G2’s steady mental decline.
Almost two months before the first article about me appeared on the front page of the Kathmandu Post, Caroline Sengupta, the French restaurateur, called me to say that G2 had contacted a newspaper to do a negative story on me. “I told them that it’s a bad idea,” Caroline said, “but they wouldn’t listen to me.”
After the first few articles appeared, a source inside Kantipur relayed a message to me that G2 had recruited a powerful relative and her daughter to convince the Kathmandu Post’s editor-in-chief to run the smear campaign against me. “They had some kind of a previous relationship, the girl and Anup,” my source told me, “I’m not sure what went on, but they definitely knew each other more than just socially. And the guy who wrote the article is a relative of G2. He’s also a Rana.” Interestingly, even six months after the first Kathmandu Post article appeared in late December, 2018, none of the other newspapers in Kathmandu followed up with stories of their own about me or the long-delayed fire truck expedition.
Why would the Indian embassy in Kathmandu ask G2 to be the go-between in an effort to launch a smear campaign against me a few days before Christmas, I wondered. Was it a simple pay-back for my efforts on behalf of Nepal during the blockade? Or was there a deeper reason for the timing? A quick search on the Internet produced a possible explanation: India’s national elections were set to begin less than six months later.
Another search yielded some other interesting facts: Prime Minister Narendra Modi had surprisingly fallen behind in the polls. Many commentators had begun openly questioning Modi’s reelection. At the same time, I was working diligently on The Nepal Connection, a documentary film containing insider information detailing Modi’s direct involvement in crimes against humanity, both during his time as chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, and in his capacity as prime minister of India.
In 2002, Modi instructed his police chief to allow Hindus to conduct a pogrom against the Muslim population of Gujarat, resulting in over 2,000 deaths and 50,000 injured people. Shortly after becoming prime minister of India in 2014, Modi, who is a self-proclaimed Hindu nationalist, set his sights on Nepal, formerly the only Hindu kingdom in the world.
When Nepal’s politicians refused to follow Modi’s orders, delivered via an abruptly-mannered envoy, Modi ordered the 2015-16 economic blockade against Nepal. All of this was carefully documented in The Nepal Connection using extensive eyewitness testimony from insiders, including an MI-6 intelligence officer stationed in Delhi, and the second-highest-ranking general in the Indian Army. Why, however, would Kantipur Media Group comply with a request from the Indian embassy, delivered via G2 Rana? I decided to investigate this matter further.
Another prominent Kathmanduite with acute financial problems similar to those of G2 Rana also became involved in the Kathmandu Post’s smear campaign. In his ambition to supply as much damaging information about me to the Kathmandu Post as possible, G2 convinced Anuradha Koirala, to join his efforts. Anuradha is the beloved founder of Maiti Nepal, an orphanage and anti-human trafficking organization, and the recipient of the 2012 CNN Hero of the Year Award. By Anuradha’s own estimation, Maiti Nepal rescued over 50,000 women and girls from unscrupulous sex traffickers.
The Soarway Foundation acts as a clearinghouse for U.S.-based donors for Maiti Nepal, and in this capacity Soarway Foundation hosted Anuradha and Maiti Nepal’s executive director, Bishwo Khadka, during their 2016 tour of the U.S. I enjoyed an excellent rapport with Anuradha and Bishwo, whom I chauffeured from New York City to my family’s farm in Amish Country, Pennsylvania, and from there on to Pittsburgh, where Anuradha gave a speech at Carnegie Mellon University.
Maiti Nepal had recently lost its major donor, a German businessman whose daughter was killed in Nepal, and so Bishwo and Anuradha where in search of lucrative ways to financially prop up Maiti Nepal’s costly operations. “They’re really hurting,” a business advisor for Maiti Nepal told my co-producer and me over dinner, “they’re looking at all sorts of ways to generate donations.”
Separate from Soarway Foundation’s efforts to support Maiti Nepal, I proposed to Anuradha and Bishwo for Kobold Nepal’s team to train two of Maiti Nepal’s young women in the production of leather accessories for a month or two. The young women would be paid during this time - unusual in Nepal, where the prevailing custom is for trainees to pay in order to receive vocational training. Anuradha promised to second two of Maiti Nepal’s best young women to Kobold Nepal. After the successful training, the young women were supposed to return to Maiti Nepal and impart their lessons to other young women housed by the rescue organization. The leather products produced by the women of Maiti Nepal –keychains and other small, inexpensive but easy-to-produce accessories- would be embossed with the Maiti Nepal logo and offered to the charity’s extensive database of donors. The idea was to make the young women self-sufficient in order to lower or eliminate costs associated with their housing, while at the same time generating a profit - and thus open a new revenue stream for Maiti Nepal.
A few months later, three instead of the agreed-upon two young women arrived at Kobold Nepal's workshop and boutique. The skilled workers at Kobold Nepal soon complained to me about the young women’s inability to comprehend and follow the most basic instructions. “They have a very bad attitude towards us, especially Susmita and Anita,” Rajni Nakarmi told me. “Susmita is very disrespectful to us. The only one who is okay is Sumitra.” I encouraged Rajni to treat the Maiti Nepal women with kit gloves. “Even if they are terrible, it’s good publicity to have women from Maiti Nepal learn how to make leather products,” I advised Rajni. “You have to think about a few years from now, when 50-60 of them will produce leather goods. Then you can hire the best ones for Kobold.”
Yet despite training and paying these three women for longer than the agreed period of two months –necessary due to their continued inability to master the lessons taught by Rajni and her colleagues– Anuradha Koirala refused to honor our agreement for the women to rejoin Maiti Nepal and train some of the other women there. Repeated attempts over several months to reach Anuradha Koirala and Bishwo Khadka by telephone, SMS messages and even personal messenger failed. Meanwhile, the tension at Kobold Nepal had increased to a level that made me uncomfortable.
Previously, Rajni Nakarmi, the most skilled of the workers there, had shown signs of mental illness. I had continued to support Rajni, despite a year-long period during which she was unable to do any work. Now that Rajni was back to her usual self, the two troublesome young women at Maiti Nepal were causing her significant anxiety. “They won’t listen to me, Mike,” Rajni said. Cognizant of the fact that these women might be traumatized by whatever experiences they and their families might have experienced as a result of human trafficking activities, I resolved to be extremely careful in handling the matter.
“Rajni tells me you’re being rude and disrespectful to her, and that you’re not following her instructions,” I said to Susmita, “is this true?” Susmita looked down and nodded. “Yes, it’s true, Mike. I cannot lie to you. I have been misbehaving. I am sorry,” Susmita said. “Please, do me a favor, when Rajni tells you something, you must listen to her. She is the boss. If you don’t listen, I will eventually have to speak with Anuradha and Bishwo about this,” I said, gently. Without warning, the young woman began trembling and crying.
Among the few things I find distressing in dealing with human beings, women crying ranks at the very top. I cannot stand it, especially when I feel as though I caused this emotional response, and I will thus do virtually anything to stop a woman from crying in my presence. It’s truly the quickest way to make me feel bad. “OK, I don’t know what prompted this, I spoke really nicely with you and I am so sorry if you feel upset because of what I said, please stop crying now,” I said to Sumitra, panicking at the unforeseen situation. “What can I do, tell me? Please, stop crying now, it’s not necessary, really.” Susmita looked down at her feet and said “if you tell Anuradha-didi, she will scold me, Mike. You don’t understand. She will scold me very severely. I am so nervous now that you said that you will speak with Anuradha. I promise I will not misbehave again. But please don’t speak with Anuradha-didi about me. She will destroy my life if she kicks me out.”
Shocked by Susmita’s outpouring of emotions and the underlying fear that caused this reaction to my gentle chiding, I began to see another side to Anuradha Koirala, who had been universally praised for her humanitarian work. “She’s very, very strict with the girls,” a friend told me. “There are allegations that she’s ruthless, too. She certainly isn’t the person she pretends to be in public.” An airline executive based in Kathmandu, who has known Anuradha for many years, told me “when she needs an upgrade, she is always so pleasant to us and even remembers our names. But when someone, a sponsor or whoever, pays for her to travel in business class, she doesn’t even recognize us. She’s very two-faced.” A prominent business person, whose family has supported Maiti Nepal, agreed with this assessment: “This is true. She is not the altruistic person she is made out to be,” the person wrote via SMS. Certainly, I was beginning to see first-hand that something was amiss at Maiti Nepal. Still unable to make contact with Anuradha and Bishwo months later, I welcomed Malcolm McDowell to Nepal in late March 2018.
By chance, Malcolm, my co-producer, a camera person and I encountered Anuradha just in the moment as she was leaving Le Mirch, one of Kathmandu’s best Indian restaurants. Eager to introduce Malcolm and Anuradha, I approached the small woman and explained that Malcolm had just arrived in Kathmandu. “I’m sorry but I’m too busy now, I’m the governor of Province 3. I don’t have time.” Surprised, I suggested for the two to pose for a quick picture. “Sorry, no pictures. I have to go now.” Over dinner, I explained some of the problems to Malcolm and apologized for Anuradha’s rude behavior. “Ah, don’t worry about it, Mike, this is what happens with people. I’ve seen it too many times before. The fame gets to them,” Malcolm said. My colleagues and I were amazed to hear one of Hollywood’s most famous celebrities say these words about a person relatively unknown beyond little Nepal. “Big fish in a little sea,” I said.
Soon, the same sentence would fittingly describe the manifestations of the ego of another one of Kathmandu’s prominent individuals: Kailash Sirohiya, the chairman of Kantipur Media Group.
After Malcolm’s two-week-long visit, I departed Nepal for several months to edit the documentary we filmed together - The Adventures of Maiko McDonald. When I followed up with my colleagues in Nepal over a month later if they had heard anything from Anuradha Koirala, I was surprised to learn that they still weren’t able to make contact with her. Frustrated, I sent Anuradha and Bishwo Khadka several text messages and placed several calls in order to arrange a time to meet. Neither Anuradha nor Bishwo responded.
Finally, in mid-May, I received a message from Bishwo asking if I was in Nepal. When he learned that I was out of the country, Bishwo indicated that he urgently wanted to speak about a personal matter. When we finally spoke by phone, Bishwo told me of Anuradha’s cancer diagnosis, something the aging humanitarian had mentioned to people in Kathmandu before, including to a group I was standing with at a party held at the Hyatt. “Do you think Soarway or you can sponsor her trip to America, or is there anyone? Also, do you have any doctor friends who would donate their time to treat Anuradha,” Bishwo asked. I told Bishwo that I would ask a few friends and report back to him if anyone showed interest.
Concerned about Anuradha’s health, I had to remind myself to ask Bishwo about the three young women from Maiti Nepal, who were still being trained by Kobold Nepal at the company’s expense. With the exception of Sumitra, they continued to underperform and were costing the company money. When the new manager of Kobold Nepal asked me if he should fire the women, I advised him not to do so as this could have negative repercussions. “But they’re costing us money and we don’t have enough sales to support their salaries,” the young man advised me. “Always pay the Maiti Nepal girls first. If you, personally, need money, I’ll send it to you and your other colleague by bank transfers,” I told the manager. “But Mike, they are really not listening to me,” the manager complained. I was reminded of this while listening to Bishwo explain his plans to help Anuardha fight cancer. To my great surprise, when I brought up the matter to Bishwo after we finished talking about Anuradha, he said he was too busy and would meet me to discuss the matter when we were both back in Nepal.
My role at Kobold Nepal had always been limited to opening doors for the company to receive lucrative orders for corporate gifts produced in bulk. Previously, Kobold Nepal received an order for 3,000 custom-made luxury pens and leather pen holders from one of the country’s biggest banks, by far the biggest order in the company’s history. The pen holder was very simple, basically two identical pieces of leather stitched together with the bank’s logo embossed on one piece. In terms of steps involved, this was the simplest product except key chains.
When I asked the Kobold Nepal leather workers to do a test run of 50 pen holders to determine how much time it would take to produce 3,000 units, I was astonished to hear that it'd require the continuous efforts of the full team of eight workers over a course of at least seven weeks. “That’s if we stay late each day, don’t take any holidays and come in on seven days of the week,” I was told. One of the recurring problems of doing business in Nepal is that the endless string of holidays, family celebrations, puja ceremonies and other occasions give workers ample opportunity to take leaves of absence. This is all in addition to a curious, monthly “women’s problems leave” for the female staff. To expect all eight members of the small Kobold Nepal team to show up each day for more than eight hours (most worked for only 6-7 hours or less) and work efficiently without the usual chatter about pujas, family celebrations, religious festivals and assortment of other topics, was too optimistic even for me, “the eternal optimist,” as Malcolm McDowell liked to introduce me.
The next day I flew to Bangkok, where Kobold Nepal’s leather was produced, and walked into the largest leather factory in town. “I need 10 sides of calfskin in this custom red tone,” I said to the factory owner. “Then, please give the calfskin sides to my friend’s fabrication shop so that she can stamp out the elements we need to make the pen holders,” I continued. The factory owner smiled at me. “This is a big order, business is booming in Nepal," he said, “your order will be ready tomorrow, I know you’re always in a hurry.” The next day, on my way to a street stall for lunch, with several pieces of stamped out pen holder elements in my pocket, I passed by a small shop where a young woman sat at a sewing machine and labored over some leather products. Using sign language, I asked the Thai woman whether she could stitch two of the identical elements together in order to make a prototype of the pen holder. Less than 30 seconds later, she held the prototype in her hands and asked about its use. “Pen holder,” I said, and stuck a pen inside. Half an hour later, I convinced the lady to stop her other leather work and produce pen holders instead. She wrote a note in Thai, which I assumed was some kind of a receipt for the bags of leather I left at her tiny shop. A Thai colleague later translated the note, “it says come back in two weeks.”
To my considerable surprise and delight, two weeks later, all 3,000 pen holders were ready, perfectly crafted. When my Thai colleague, whose family has worked in the country’s leather industry for four generations, asked the young woman how many people worked on the order, her answer astonished me. “She says she did it all herself,” my friend translated. The most remarkable part was that the cost of producing the entire lot was only $150. “How can this be possible,” I asked my friend, “I was expecting it to cost at least $2,500.” The leather industry veteran looked at me and said “you’re not working with the right people in Nepal” before helping me carry the bags of pen holders out of the shop.
In late November of 2018, Bishwo Khadka, Anuradha’s son, one of Maiti Nepal’s business associates, and one of Bishwo’s friends met me in a Himalayan Java coffee shop near Dwarika’s hotel. It was evening and so instead of the usual cup of delectable coffee we only drank water. The three Maiti Nepal women had complained to me repeatedly about not being paid on time for the last few months and I had admonished Kobold Nepal’s two managers about this circumstance. According to the managers, the company had zero sales for the last 7 months, basically since Malcolm McDowell had left Nepal. I knew that this couldn’t be the case, but as I wasn’t the company’s owner I had little recourse to correct the problem. “You know that in all of these years we’ve never had a single tourist season where sales were zero, now you’re telling me the company has zero sales for two seasons in a row, that just sounds fishy,” I said to the two young men. By this time, however, I had resigned myself from associating with the company as I was frustrated by the lack of dedication, not just by the three Maiti Nepal women, but also the rest of the workers.
My last interaction with Kobold Nepal was to ensure the delivery of a $2,500 order for business card holders to the Hyatt in Kathmandu. Yet despite the company’s purported zero sales, none of the workers –not even Sumitra, the sole Maiti Nepal woman who previously did relatively good work- were able to complete this small order in a satisfactory manner. “You want to deliver this junk to Hyatt,” I asked the manager, whose responsibility included quality control. “You realize that you will never get another order from anyone in town if you deliver this, you also probably won’t get paid by Hyatt, that’s how shitty these card holders look,” I said. The manager seemed indifferent. My only remaining concern now was to get the Maiti Nepal girls into a better working environment in case Anuradha Koirala was not prepared to take them back.
During our meeting at Himalayan Java, Bishwo listened to my explanation. “I never knew of any of these things, Mike,” he said, “why didn’t you tell us this was happening?” I explained to Bishwo that I had tried in vein for well over a year to make contact with him and Anuradha to discuss the problems with two of the women. “I just don’t have time for this stuff anymore,” I told Bishwo, “I am working day and night on this fire truck project and on filming my documentaries on Nepal, so I can’t deal with a kindergarten. If they want to have a job, they have to perform. I’m willing to employ them, I’ve meanwhile started a new company that is registered in my name, but that means they have to do good work, not this bullshit that they’ve produced.” Bishwo told me we should meet with the three women and discuss the matter.
A week later, Bishwo Khadka and I met with the three women at Maiti Nepal’s headquarters. “You told me you would destroy my life,” one of the women, Anita, told me and began to cry. “Yes, but that is because you and Susmita told me that if I tell Anuradha how poorly you’ve been behaving to your managers at Kobold, she’d destroy your life,” I countered, “how could I possibly destroy your life? I’m the guy who made sure you didn’t end up on the streets when Maiti Nepal didn’t take you back. You took off for over a month without telling anyone and then, when I asked you to call Roshan and tell him when you'd be back, you lied to me again. That's why I said what I said to you.” Bishwo sat quietly as this exchange happened.
“You three have taken advantage from Day One,” I continued, “who pays people in Nepal to learn a new skill? You didn’t just get paid, you got paid double the amount anyone else at Kobold made, despite those people having actual work experience. You have been training for much longer than a year, yet even the simplest orders you messed up. You don’t listen to your managers and even talk back to them. And now you complain to me that I used something that you told me about Anuradha in order to make it look like I would personally destroy your life?” I was not happy and began to scold all three women.
“OK, let’s not dwell on the past, what has happened is in the past, what do we do now,” Bishwo quickly interjected. I was reminded of the Wheel of Life and the Nepali approach to life - live in the present, don’t worry about yesterday, don’t worry about tomorrow. I offered the three women jobs in the new leather business. “We will never work for you again, Michael,” Sumitra said sternly. I reminded the women that I had sent several wire transfers from my personal account in the United States, and that despite this their salaries were not paid on time. “Why don’t you look to Roshan, your boss, for someone to blame,” I asked. The girls thought about this for a moment. “We know that Roshan stole from the company, we know he did that, because every time someone came into the shop to buy something, he and Ashmin made us go upstairs. We heard them make sales, but we weren’t allowed to see.” Stunned, I looked at Bishwo. I knew all along that something was amiss when Roshan Ghimire and Ashmin Vaidya, Kobold Nepal’s managers, repeatedly informed me that the company had zero sales.
“Why didn’t you tell me this before,” I asked the women. “It’s not your company, Mike. And you told us if we have money problems to speak with Roshan not you.” This was true, I did tell the women to go to the company’s registered owner if they had money problems. What I didn’t realize was that this gentleman didn’t just lie to me about the company having zero sales, but that he and his colleague also embezzled money I sent to ensure that Maiti Nepal’s women were paid.
After the three young women left the meeting, Bishwo and I consulted about next steps. “They clearly don’t want to work with you, so what should we do now,” Bishwo asked. “I think first you and Anuradha have to give them work inside Maiti Nepal, this was our original agreement. They are now trained sufficiently to make key chains. You can sell them to your supporters and generate a profit, just like we discussed originally, two years ago. They can train other women at Maiti Nepal, too. I am willing to support you in this, I’ll make my contacts in the leather industry available to you. It’s a fail-safe business, you just have to make sure that they do what they’re supposed to do.” Bishwo agreed to consult with Anuradha about the matter.
“Can we speak with Anuradha together,” I asked Bishwo. “No, she isn’t here today, she’s down in Province 3 headquarters in Hetauda,” he said. I knew this was a lie because I had passed Anuradha’s SUV in the parking lot and saw her uniformed Nepalese Army personal security officer sitting outside her office, next door to the conference room. “Sounds good, Bishwo, give her my regards.”
A few weeks later, the Kathmandu Post quoted Bishwo Khadka and the Maiti Nepal women in one of its front-page articles about me. “Anuradha and G2 Rana are in cahoots,” one of G2’s relatives informed me by telephone. As I later learned, after no one in the United States or Europe could be found to cover the costs for Anuradha’s cancer treatment costs, the 70-year old woman repeatedly flew to India for medical treatment. I was reminded of what a member of Nepal’s political leadership told me during the blockade: “The Indians maintain their influence in Nepal by sending our children to university for free and by giving our parents and grandparents free first-class medical treatment.”
Click below for Part 6 - The Rotarian - Kiran Lal Shrestha's Folly