Kathmandu promenadeThe city was never daunting and had no magnanimity as such, but it emerged from walking
I am struck by a unique subject related to a promenade in the old city of Kathmandu. When I came to Kathmandu as a student in 1962, my mind had a picture of this city, which was alien yet warm. The coexistence of the new and the old structures in the city had surprised me to the core. New Road was like London’s Oxford Street, Tokyo’s Ginza Street, and the main streets of other cities that I saw in other lands. Surprisingly, in all these streets I was seeking comparison to my archetypical New Road of Kathmandu. Such is the map of the first view of a city that is drawn in your mind.
The New Road that I saw when I first came from a village in Terathum had struck me deeply. Streets in other towns that I saw and lived in like Dharan, Biratnagar and Dhankuta were no match to New Road. An adjacent street to New Road was called Jhoche, which later became known as Freak Street after the visitors who came lyang-fyang (very casually) and roamed around smoking dope. They walked in slippers in what then used to be Kathmandu’s biting cold. The term ‘acid’ was their mantra. They stayed in cold and dingy rooms of Freak Street. On the walls of their rooms, they painted imperfect mandalas and wrote names of food on the menu they wanted to eat with acid.
The hippie days
The paintings were there until 2001 when writer Shekhar Kharel was making a documentary based on my memories of those times. In one such house where I used to visit, the landlord gave permission to take photos for half an hour after which all those shapes were to be removed. A small army of labourers was waiting for us to finish the shoot. Upstairs from the old den that was familiar to me, I was awed to see wall paintings made by the second or third waves of visitors to the selfsame place. They were meta-paintings of sorts, or paintings about the experience of the erstwhile visitors known as hippies. Among the graffiti were words like ‘how to become a hippie’ with a list of conditions to be a good one. They had listed qualities that were half mockery.
I was dismayed by those scribbles. But I could notice an important form of ambivalence in these paintings and graffiti executed quite nicely and colourfully. The people from the West who came to this place were first generation visitors, the budget tourists, the poor lyang-fyang visitors, some of whom got by with two rupees a day. But the second generation ‘clean’ visitors had carried the myths of the hippies and were themselves enamoured with their modus vivendi and modus operandi. Yet they continued to mock their styles. I think this generation of the so-called ‘semi-civilised’ tourists had first started looking for Thamel.
One other thing struck me when I was recounting my own experience of the times to a brilliant American student named Benjamin Lindenr who is completing his PhD on Thamel, over coffee at the Himalayan Java Coffee House the other day. The hippies came to Thamel for a meal and marijuana at a tiny Tibetan restaurant named Utse. I accompanied some of my close friends in this smoky and crowded restaurant and outside to a promenade leading to Swayambhu. We passed through a field with marijuana plants down a hill before reaching the Bishnumati River. Some among the solemn walkers broke ranks and stepped into the ganja field plucking and smelling the heady flowers of the gardens of Shiva, the great god of the Sadhus. The next and the final destination was the Swayambhu hill that was filled with visitors agog with excitement. Behind the chaitya lived some artists and poets, including an amazing hippie named Angus McLise, the erstwhile drummer of the Velvet Band.
Poetic and rhetorical process
I recall reading and teaching the space theory of a French philosopher named Michel de Certeau, mainly his 1974 essay ‘Walking in the City’. In this essay, he presents walks in a metropolis as a ‘poetic and rhetorical’ process. He employs a persona that is his own avatar; when he looks out from the 110th floor of the World Trade Centre in Manhattan, he sees “a wave of verticals.” Walking through the city, he creates ‘wordless stories’, ‘cellars’ and local legends. He sees in walking a challenge to the daunting magnanimity of a city.
Kathmandu was never a daunting city and had no such magnanimity, but it emerged from walking. Anyone who has read about upaku, the ritual walk that created the first city, can easily understand the spirit behind such walks. It dawned on me how the cultural map of Jhoche, Thamel and Swayambhu was silently written by these unique visitors to Kathmandu. I did not have any meta-language to explain all these and wrote the following lines much later in my poem “Kathmandu Odyssey” in Chasing Dreams (1996): “Images of the ‘acid music’/ Western flower children’s dreams/are detonated/ by the wealthy visitors of the West’./ I watch the times of the earth/ jostle in Swoyambhu hill/ below Buddha’s unblinking eyes/ in the moon/ rising above the smoke pall/…The city rests eerily/ with my dreams/ a city/ created by the farmers/ still pulsates…”
Looking back at Jhoche, Thamel and Swayambhu and recalling memories of the place growing as Certeau said ‘walking through the city’, I have come to believe that memories of some spaces within the city in terms of their growth by using such dynamic forms as tourism open layers with two levels. One goes back in cultural past, and the other appears like palimpsests in the living memories. But for someone like me who lives with one’s memories and feels their impact on one’s creative experience, the narratives have a poetic and creative strength irrespective of what happens to the once-shaped texture of the space. Such is the magic of Kathmandu promenade for me.