A journey into ThamelThere has been a growing interest in Thamel, its past and its mystery
On the first two days of this year, a rare seminar on the Nepali theatre of the twenty-first century organised under the auspices of two young people with their meagre resources—an academic and teacher of performance studies at the
English department in Kirtipur, Dr Shiva Rijal, and artistic director of Shilpee theatre, Ghimire Yubaraj— opened up multiple issues related to theatre, politics and culture. To people whose very cognitive faculty is shaped by hardships, unresolved post-political questions, corruption and a sense of reaching nowhere, these youths’ clarion call to look at history that has performed and failed, while keeping up the relentless effort to forge ahead, was a very significant event. I recall the
zero moment that had marked the end of the last century and the beginning of this century, at a youth festival in Nagarkot where they had decoded shapes of the days to come with the millennial sunrise.
In the seminar, I was asked to give an assessment of this century as a playwright. As writers, researchers, and media people honing in on the forms and particularities of the hippie generation and their modus vivendi often ask me about my experience of Thamel, I chose the selfsame locus for my talk. Nepali and foreign young academics and writers have been working in earnest to decode what I consider the layers of mystery that surround this newly emerged space in Kathmandu, which also makes it the metaphor of Nepal’s modernity operating with a global-savvy consciousness. When recently a Nepali writer in English Rabi Thapa and an American PhD student Benjamin Linder came to talk to me about
my experiences with and writings about Thamel, I was struck by a
sudden sense of time and the resurgence of interest in spaces in the metropolis, this time not by the users but by scholars and writers.
I wrote a play entitled ‘A Journey into Thamel’ (2003) when the country had reached the last phase of the People’s War, which is the politically correct term for the Maoist insurgency in Nepal. I am recalling this play at this moment particularly because now the natives and the visitors want to find metaphors for the heartbeat of modern Nepal that comprise regular, revolutionary and bizarre dreams of the people of this land. The narrative of Thamel is not very old. A document retrieved by Devi Lal Shrestha, a bank official during the last days of the Panchayat era, titled Mahangi niwaran or fighting inflation, written by an ordinary citizen criticising the Rana family in their heydays for feeding too much anna or rice to their horses and causing food scarcity, warns people not to go to Thamel as it is far from the town. Even when I came to Kathmandu as a college student, Thamel was isolated, with traits of a village or my small town. As a student in the 60s, I became so attached to this area that I rented a room not far from here.
When Jhochen, also called freak street in the sixties, began to expand and get closer to this area, I saw Thamel change so fast that I began to lose my own sense of direction and proportion as its fugitive denizen until the time when I too became part of this new surge of change. I joined the Western youths’ bandwagon without knowing its source or destination. I moved serendipitously, as it were, in the native quarters of the ancient town that I loved so much. I saw my own self confronting me in dialogue; I saw people merging dreams with reality. Almost every Western man or woman who came here achieved tremendous melange of restlessness and unprovoked calm. That was when I realised that a combination of restlessness and calm gives you a sense of unique anxiety, even pain, the remedy of which lies in more quest. Later when I read that the Western visitors had turned to this area, especially to Thamel looking for a surrogate Shangri-La, I could see a certain sense of haste to reach somewhere in their faces. I made friends with groups of informally dressed and
sadhu-looking youths from the West and worked in tandem with them assessing arts and writing for journals that published their dreams and poetry, including translated Nepali poetry. I saw a new civilisation grow here, a civilisation that was different from anything I knew.
Shifting modes of history
The purpose of recalling this entire sojourn is that there has been a growing interest in Thamel, its past and its mystery of a unique order. Thamel, if looked closely, is the metaphor of a new kind of Nepali compromise with a touristic culture that reifies even freakishness, dreams of expansion, politics of confusions, culture and use of body, and also some sense of retreating into not quite constructed ‘contact zones’, where what Donald Lopez, Jr. calls, ‘the prisoners of Shangri-La’ come in some forms of futile quests for fulfilment. I realised that the times had changed. I had made a compromise with Thamel by means of the above play first written in Nepali and translated into English by a brilliant woman colleague at Kirtipur English department who has since moved to America. In retrospect, I see that in this play staged and directed by Pushkar Gurung, I have dramatised the shifting modes of Nepali history—the Maoist insurgency, the government leaders who seek to reach a compromise with them in vain, young men who sell the antiques of their palatial buildings to the tourists and lose them in agitators’ arson, the troubadours or gaines singing of the battles lost and won by the rulers.
I believe our theatre in this century is time-sensitive and experimental without a fixed shape like the post-political times that govern the overall existence of people in this land who hold great promises.