Nepal's friend from France

Features Issue 150 May, 2014

One clear day in November, with a range of mountains in the backdrop, Gérard Toffin recalls what brought him to Kathmandu for the first time and tells us why he keeps coming back.

When I first meet Gérard Toffin, he greets me with a namaste, which doesn’t surprise me because most foreigners pick up the basic greeting almost instantly. A minute, and Toffin’s frequent outburst of words and phrases in fluent Nepali and Nepal Bhasa later, I realize he is no stranger to Nepal.

Toffin arrived in Kathmandu in the 1970s when, as he puts it, this Valley was a paradise. “The Kathmandu Valley in the early 70’s was totally preserved,” recalls the man. “Religion played a big role in everyday life. Newari architecture was everywhere; Patan and Bhaktapur were still traditional settlements and it was difficult to find such places anywhere else in Asia.”

Toffin has fond memories of his early days in the country. He arrived here for an assignment with the French Embassy and even taught French at Durbar School in Jamal for a while. “I remember receiving Rs. 400 a month, and cows and mice attending my classes,” he says, smiling. Toffin spent his first 20 years at various places around the country, and still frequents Nepal for a few months each year.
Gérard Toffin defines himself as an academic with a personal contact with Nepal. He has researched and written about many aspects of Nepali culture and is currently interested in the changes that are slowly shaping the face of modern Nepal.

When Toffin first arrived in Nepal, the women of the Newar community were restricted from playing musical instruments such as the dhime. Twenty years later, this has changed. Back then, the Maharjans were largely farmers. Today, more and more people from the community are taking up white-collar jobs. Despite these changes, Toffin feels that religion and culture are still very important for the Nepalese. “There’s a stronghold of tradition,” he states.

“I keep coming back due to my interest in research. From linguistics to cultural diversity, there are many fields to explore here,” says Toffin. “I come here also because I have links and attachment with the people,” he adds.

Toffin knows secrets of places in the Valley that an average Nepali would be oblivious to. For instance, he is welcomed by the people of Pyangaun, of Chapagaun VDC in Lalitpur, a very close knit community that has always been hesitant in opening up to “outsiders,” even fellow Nepali people. Toffin was introduced to the village at a time when it was “more remote than a village in Mustang”, despite being barely 10 kms away from Lalitpur. In terms of social introversion, many things, including information about the gods and the language, were kept secret to outsiders. But Toffin spent a good amount of time in the village, studying the people and their way of life.“It was compulsory for me to be an insider,” explains Toffin, for he was determined to learn about the community. He would later become a part of the community itself, gathering enough information to write a thesis on various topics regarding life in Pyangaun.

An author of several books on Nepali society, culture, and politics, including the recent From Monarchy to Republic: Essays on changing Nepal, Toffin’s  passion for exploring and learning about the country is enviable. His intensive knowledge of Nepal, which he is willing to share, makes him an invaluable friend of the country.