Journalist Thomas Bell explores Kathmandu’s past and coming of age
For a long time, Himalayan kingdoms remained unaffected by the landmark events of world history. When countries like Nepal and Bhutan opened up to the outside world—the latter still only allows entry to a fixed number of foreigners and permitted television viewing by its people as recently as in 1999—foreigners entered lands that seemed stuck in a pre-modern era. In the case of Nepal, the story is less than romantic and more eventful. Thomas Bell’s Kathmandu is a chronicle of the largest city in the Himalayas.
Bell moved to Nepal as a journalist because, as he puts it, every other country was covered. Bell stitches together a narrative of Kathmandu’s legendary birth with its turbulent modern history.
His narrative eschews the usual romantic view of a city stuck in time. Perhaps this rendering of Kathmandu is inevitable in the violent times Bell covered as a journalist (from the late-1990s onwards).
Bell deals with subjects like the Maoist movement without a patronising view. His sensitivity to the context of Kathmandu’s story also brings about moments of irony. “By 2001, the rebels were hitting police stations regularly and slaughtering scores of policemen. Then, on the first of June that year, something extraordinary happened. King Birendra and eight other members of the royal family were shot and killed at a dinner party in the royal palace. Civil servants were ordered to shave their heads in mourning and eat no salt for three days,” he writes.
Keeping in mind that over the past 50 years, after Nepal opened up to the world, it had to go through a crash course in all that had happened in the outside world, which it had missed, Bell’s narrative jumps between time periods, but the effect is never jarring. Bell’s structure for the book may be inspired by the Sylvain Levi quote he refers to, “To be sure, Hindus are far too little concerned with chronology to be in a position to claim that they introduce plausibility or logic into it, even when they invent it.”
This rendering of Kathmandu’s story works well and gives a wide sampling of the multifarious narratives of the city. An entire section in the book, titled ‘Revolutions’, focuses on the split between Kathmandu’s elites and the rest of the country. This part of the book also exposes the hypocrisies prevalent in societies undergoing a churn. For example, the presence of flower power hippies who thrived on a life built around elitism.
The violence of the revolution and people’s movements played its part as a resolution for these contradictions that were beyond redemption by the late-1990s.
This part of the book talks about the shaping of a possible future for the city, the malls and apartment complexes, the foreigners and politics (national and international).
Among the most tongue-in-cheek chapters of the book is one that speaks of Kathmandu as a theatre for international espionage. The Mexican standoff between world powers in Kathmandu involves the Nepali National Investigation Department playing host to the MI6, CIA, Chinese intelligence, Tibetan rebels and refugees, India’s Research and Analysis Wing, Pakistan’s Inter Services intelligence and the destitute North Koreans, who have to run a restaurant and sell Viagra to raise money for their embassy.
The third part of the book is a long epilogue that sets the stage for the coming years in Kathmandu and Nepal. “… the old woman, Dhana Lakshmi, who’d been waiting for her turn to be served at the shop counter asked, ‘Why were you letting him touch everything?’ The previous customer had been a dalit. ‘There’s nothing you can do about it,’ the shopkeeper told her. ‘It’s democracy now’.” He works through the complicated intermingling of democratic movements, communist/Maoist revolutions, a dying autocracy and, finally, the aftermath and hope for the future. In telling the story of Kathmandu, it is as if all of Nepal’s narratives move towards the city and find resolution there.
The book ends with a rant from Dhana Lakshmi, someone who has seen Kathmandu through different times, a typical rage at modernisation, accompanied by a begrudging acceptance of its benefits. She complains about the price of potatoes but ends by saying, “… Before there would be smallpox and a hundred died. People don’t die any more (sic),” grudgingly accepting that Kathmandu has changed and maybe not all for the worse.