A Thamel state of mindIn many ways, Thamel has come a full-circle at the 1,000-year-old Bhagwan Bahal (Bikramashila Mahabihar).
In many ways, Thamel has come a full-circle at the 1,000-year-old Bhagwan Bahal (Bikramashila Mahabihar). Today, the monastic complex is constantly enveloped bythe clangouring of construction at the 14-storied, 76,000 square foot monstrosity that is the Chhaya Devi complex, being hoisted next door on land once held by the monastery. Here, Thabahi—once an outlying “gram” to Kathmandu’s urban core—and the hedonistic, modern, touristy district of Thamel stare down each other from across the street. And it is here that Rabi Thapa’s second book, Thamel: Dark Star of Kathmandu, that seeks to navigate the millennia that separate these two unlikely neighbours, begins.
In Thamel, Thapa undertakes the difficult task of maintaining the sharp eye of an investigative journalist, the natural curiosity of a historian and the Proustian reverie of an era that has come and gone, all strung together by prose that is lucid and replete with quotably memorable one-liners. Spread over 13 chapters, the book criss-crosses between solidly-researched historical narrative, incisive social commentary, personal memories and first-person recanting of six fascinating characters—an ageing cop, a self-made tourism entrepreneur, an elitist hair dresser, a nostalgic metal vocalist, a junkie, and a go-go girl. What emerges is a brutally honest cartography of a place where “Ganesh Man Singh hosted revolutionaries and summiteers, where a glue-sniffing, retarded street kid sleeps curled against a mongrel’s spine, where every Tom, Dick and Hari comes to see the world at play, hit-or-missing the centripetal centre of modern Nepal in all its gory glory, a thousand signs clamouring for your attention, bad at the best of times, sublime when you don’t expect it, the village all grown up and demanding a pair of Levi’s.”
Writing such a book must have been no small undertaking. You can sense that the seeds for Thamel were already sown in Thapa’s last book, Nothing to Declare, from which several characters—like Bimal the police officer, Binaya the metal head and the tranny from Afterparty—have been recast to great effect; and you can find snatches of Thamel’s prose in Thapa’s other writings, most noticeably in the swansong for Newa De Cafe and Pilgrims Book House. But Thamel’s spine is provided by the wellspring of authors, scholars, historians and musicians that Thapa draws from to paint a vivid, if shifting, picture of Thamel’s true soul (The list of references that bring up the rear of the book is a complete ‘Essential List’ of readings for anyone seeking to peek beneath Kathmandu’s crumbling, chaotic facade). The crowning gem of this long list of notable references, however, is the Yugoslavian travel writer, Steven Pesic’s ode to the “Great Hashish Brotherhood,” that brings to the readers a never-before-seen snapshot of the 70s Freak Street: “There are also a few hippie restaurants…The Yin and Yang is run by three Nepali brothers. More than food, they serve the best Jumla hashish here. The statues of Hindu Gods sit, lie down or stand alongside the guests. Waiters drift through hashish smoke as if through Himalayan fog, and they have to keep their eyes wide open not to place a teacup in front of a statue instead of a guest.”
No doubt Thamel has its limitations. It will naturally be most appealing to the 80s kids who saw the last whiffs of both the hippie and the Panchayat eras dissipate into the confused and chaotic 90s. A little less for the young-uns—the Cappuccino Generation—that came after. Lesser still for those who have never known Kathmandu, or, worse yet, for those who have only known it through “group tourist packages.”
In truth Thamel, like the place itself, is a lot of things. Its chapters named after themes ranging from Sepultura lyrics to Ram Dass’s magnum opus are more Lego pieces than they are an immovable whole—you could take them apart and rearrange in the order befitting the shade of your own tinted glasses. The history buff might see it as a no-nonsense commentary that doesn’t mince words for the Shahs, Ranas, Democrats or the Communists alike. Those with a tourism bend will see it as a fascinating study of the Nepali tourism industry’s evolution from the hidden Shangri-la, to the hippie Mecca, to an odd choice for a Stag Weekend destination, where by Nepal Tourism Board’s admittance “beautiful Nepali belles will dance circles around your pals.” The NGO-types might read in between the lines and interpret the book as one that lays bare the underbelly of the sensuous and unforgiving streets of Kathmandu’s tourism district. The literati, too, undoubtedly, will have their bits to swoon about.
But written in the “traditions of flanerie” without one character or theme to anchor down the many tangents, and with the narrative pinballing through centuries, Thamel, at times can be confusing, if rarely tedious. And in many ways, because of that, it perfectly encapsulates both Thamel the physical space and the state of mind. But Thamel is also remarkable because it is an absorbing biography of a place that is free from both the mires of overbearing scholarly work and the foggy haze of debilitating nostalgia. And if it inspires a new generation of Nepali writers to dare to research and write more than just run-off-the-mill short stories, it will have done much more than it sought out to do.
Photo courtesy: Richard Tulloch