In a fortunate turn of events, I was able to track down my mother’s best friend Cynthia. My mother, Marcello, Gareth and I spent time with Cynthia in 1968 when we stayed in Kathmandu, Nepal, prior to moving to Australia in 1969. Cynthia has since adopted the name Kami and resides on Bowen Island in British Columbia, Canada.
When did you and mum first meet?
I was working at the British Council there at that time and was living in this old palace called Thamel Lodge, in a little round house with a thatched roof. Your mum, you and Marcello, came to live in one of the little apartments. The house was quite primitive, for a London girl like me, with a mud floor. I had problems keeping it clean, although I had been roughing it for months on the road and had lived in a few rather bizarre places. Somehow, we swapped homes – your mum and you two kids lived in the little round house and I lived in the apartment. She knew how to look after and clean the mud floor.
What sort of person was she, with you?
We bonded straight away and we were great friends. She was very open and very knowledgeable and I immediately looked up to her as this rather special being. I had been working in Thailand, learning about other cultures, and started to have a fascination with India, although Nepal and India are very different. So she was like my teacher or mentor even though she was only two years older than me. Gita already had four children and I hadn’t even married or had a child. She seemed to be well-educated, she read a lot and knew a great deal about poetry and literature. I got her a bit of work at the British Council as she had worked for them as a secretary before, in India.
What was Kathmandu like at that time?
It was full of temples with very devout Hindus practicing there. People would go to the temples everyday and put flowers all over town on the deities. One was a Shiva lingam, you know what a lingam is, and they would worship it. Gita was there right at the influx of the hippy era, I was there at the beginning of that and it was extraordinary. There was nowhere at the time to buy western clothes so you had to wear traditional dress like the kurta and salwar kameez. We had all been travellers when we arrived in Kathmandu, so our clothes might have looked a bit worn. Many of the early hippies were just free-spirited people who were studying the Asian art, culture, religion and customs but later the term was associated with drugs.
What kinds of things do you remember doing together?
I was working every weekday so we would catch up on the weekends. I don’t think she had much money at the time so I would come over and have dinner with Gita and you kids quite a lot. There was a nice man from Calcutta, a Mr Bose who was working in Kathmandu and missed his family, so he ‘adopted’ us, your mum and I and you and Marcello, and then Gareth. We would all go out for picnics. One thing I remember was going to a jazz concert with American guitarist Charlie Byrd at the National Stadium in Kathmandu, and when the band (who were angry about their disastrous concert) were leaving in their hired limousine, I asked for a ride home for us as Gita was pregnant with Gareth at the time. There wasn’t a lot of mixing in those early east-meets-west days in Kathmandu and although Nepalese men showed interest in me, I actually only had one Tibetan boyfriend. It was quite difficult to have Nepalese women friends at that time unless you met them through their work. Your family and I discovered Kathmandu together.
I know you supported mum at Gareth’s birth, can you tell me about it?
Well, I was very excited as I had never been that close to anyone who was pregnant before and when I left home most of my friends weren’t married or having children. She went into labour in the night and we had to walk to the Bir Hospital because after dark there were no rickshaws or taxis. There were no telephones either so we couldn’t call anyone and anyway we didn’t know anyone with a car. Along the way, whenever she had a contraction, Gita sat down on the footpath. I was quite worried because I didn’t know how long it was going to take or whether I would have to help with the birth on the way. We finally got to the hospital and it was a bit of a shambles there.
Was it a difficult birth?
No, not really, we were met at the Bir Hospital by a nurse and I don’t think we were even signed in. She said to me, “Are you a nurse?” because I was going to go with Gita as support.
I said, “No.” I didn’t want to lie because I had never been at a birth before, didn’t know what to expect and I thought I might faint or something! The nurse told me that I could go and lie on a bench in the corridor. There were patients lying on the ground on mattresses because there weren’t enough wards. Of course I couldn’t sleep and I could hear the sound of rats scuttling around on the ground. I was thinking, Oh my God, these people are on the ground, at least I’m up on a bench, it was like a nightmare. I don’t know if Gareth wants to hear this… The nurse eventually came and got me, nothing had been cleaned up, I saw the afterbirth in a bucket, it was a pretty bloody place. I was so happy to see Gita with a healthy baby!
How long did she stay there and how did she get home?
She stayed in the hospital, in a bed, overnight. I brought flowers but there was nowhere to put them. They eventually found a tin can. I came to pick her up soon after and we got a rickshaw home.
Did you help mum with the baby and with looking after us?
Not really, because I was working all day but we did hire a woman to help with the housework. In those days it was expected that foreigners would provide employment for local workers. In those days you didn’t have throwaway diapers (we used to call them nappies in England) and so they had to be boiled and washed everyday.
Marcello asked if you remembered the time when I was electrocuted? He literally saved my life.
No, I think it might have happened when I was away because I left for Japan. You stayed on some months after I left and when I came back you were gone, to Australia.
How did you meet your husband Minoru at that time?
Gita wanted to learn Aikido, the Japanese martial art, from Minoru the Japanese instructor. Because he only taught men and boys, she wanted me to go with her. That is when he really started getting friendly with me. Then Gita decided she wanted to learn Shiatsu massage, which he was also offering mainly to the foreign community. So he came back to your little round house and used me to practice on. That’s when one thing lead to another and we ended up together.
Did we attend your wedding to Minoru in Kathmandu?
Yes, it was a very traditional Nepalese-Hindu wedding with a Brahmin priest and held in an old palace called Bagh Durbar. The wedding was all arranged by members of the Nepalese Royal Family as Minoru had been living with them at the time. They had tried to marry him off to a Nepalese woman but he was with me so they checked me out to see if I was suitable. They were happy that I had a good job at the British Council, so they deemed me suitable. I remember Gita saying, the Bagh Durbar palace, with its many rooms, was like something out of a Kafka story. Anyway, I had a red sari for my wedding dress. Recently I found out that there was a huge protest to save Bagh Durbar, so I wrote to say that this heritage building should be saved and also that I was married there. They found my picture on Facebook and posted it, with some of my words on top, on their Facebook page.
Where did you have your child Anna?
I was staying in Japan with my husband and he, and his family, wanted me to have the baby there, but it was very difficult for foreign women in Japan at the time. I remember reading an anthropology book which said that Japanese women are not permitted to cry out during childbirth! I thought, Oh my God that sounds primitive, so I went back to England to my family and had the baby. I realised also that I had made a terrible mistake and it was getting hard for me to cope with the expectations of me in my relationship with Minoru. I wanted to go back to my own country without all those restrictions. I did visit Kathmandu in March 1969 on the way back to England, but you had all gone.
Did mum stay in the one area the whole time?
As well as the little round house, Gita rented a room above a shop around the Buddhist Stupa of Boudhanath, where many of the Tibetans had settled. It’s a little out of town and I think it was mostly used at weekends. I remember staying there once or twice. It was very quiet, apart from the Tibetans walking around the stupa, turning their prayer wheels and reciting the prayer Om Mani Padme Hum. Now it’s overcrowded and not very nice.
Mum left India in difficult circumstances, leaving behind two children, did she ever talk about it?
Actually she didn’t talk much about it but she had told me that she had run away from your dad and that she was worried he would track her down as she had you and Marcello. She told me about Johnny and that she was going to move to Australia with him. Maybe she didn’t want to talk to me about leaving your brother and sister behind. There was so much happening at the time we were just dealing with what was happening then and there. Johnny would send letters to her through me.
Was there anything else you remember about mum?
When I was pregnant and leaving for Japan, Gita gave me a piece of fabric that came from an Art Colony in India and wanted me to make something special with it. So I had a maternity dress made – it was only just big enough. It was a bit short but it was ok to wear in England. I lent it to many people but insisted they give it back to me. Which they did. Now I use it for patches and my patched gardening shirt is on display in the Bowen Island Heritage Museum at the moment. I’ve also patched a pair of pants with it, so Gita lives on!
Can you tell me about how you came to change your name to Kami?
After I moved to Canada, I felt that Cynthia sounded too English a name – I didn’t feel like a Cynthia anymore. I had lived the better part of five years in Nepal and it had changed me. In Canada I was learning dance with an African and I mentioned I wanted to change my name. He suggested a very long name, Oledapo Kemi Funimolaya, and I adapted Kemi to Kami. I’m still Cynthia on all my official documents, so when I travel, I’m Cynthia, but everyone on Bowen Island knows me as Kami.
How did you feel when I contacted you, after all these years?
I was in a state of shock. I couldn’t believe it at first, that you had found me was miraculous in a way. When I looked at your photo in Facebook when you sent me the message, having only seen you as a little five year old girl with dark hair to now with grey hair, it took me a while to work out what it was about. I was in shock that day, and going to a reading a friend was doing for a book she had published. I was telling everybody, Oh my God something big happened. Then when you told me Gita had passed away I had what I could only be described as a delayed grieving – it was terribly sad. I had already grieved the fact that I was never going to reconnect with Gita after trying for years unsuccessfully to track her and your family down. I had lost her once already.
How did you and mum lose touch with each other?
If she was still alive and we had reconnected, I have a feeling we would have just carried on our friendship where we left off. She had such a different life to me. I lived alone for much of my life since Anna left home. I admired the fact that Gita had this big love. I had moved around quite a bit and tried for so many years to track her down. I searched and searched. I feel like there have been all these little messages since I lost touch with Gita. She gave me the Haiku book translated by R.H. Blyth when I got together with Minoru and then I found one at the Bowen Island annual book sale this year.
I believe you are writing memoir at the moment. Can you tell me about it?
Oh, it must be the slowest memoir in the world! I had been thinking about it for thirty years and I sometimes stall when I am working on it. It starts with me travelling overland from London to Kathmandu in August 1966, going through sixteen countries, how it was arriving in Kathmandu when there were very few foreigners living there and how extraordinary it was then. After that we were ‘thrown out’ after our four month visa expired which we had already extended for a month. Most of the travellers were asked to leave if they weren’t staying in the big hotels because we were renting in people’s homes. That was before the term “hippy” came up and they were still using the term “beatnik”. You couldn’t renew your visa unless you could produce a lot of money, were staying in one of the hotels or came with an organisation. There were a lot of NGOs there at that time.
Have you done any other writing lately?
I recently wrote a 750 word piece called The Tokyo Letters, for a flash non-fiction competition for a magazine in Mexico, about connecting with you. It came about when you sent me copies of the aerogrammes that I had sent to your mum, back when I was in Tokyo. I was reminded about what a horrible time if was for me and that Gita was the only person I could write to about it.
Notes and Links
- This special interview forms part of the My Mother’s Voice – Journal Series
- My mother’s early journal entries contain draft letters she wrote to Cynthia (Kami) and all photos here have been included by permission.
- I have continued to use my mother’s pen name Gita in this transcript.
- A photo gallery, for the early part of the Journal Series, has now been added to the home page here.