An endless questKathmandu is an enigmatic Shangri-La that holds different meanings for different people
I was struck by the title ‘My kind of Kathmandu’ when writer Shekhar Kharel, the organiser of dialogues on matters of literary and other interests of the reading public, asked me if I would like to participate in a panel discussion with writer Peter J Karthak and Tom Bell moderated either by the editor of The Kathmandu Post Akhilesh Upadhyay or professor Arun Gupto for a big book exhibition at Bhrikuti Mandap.
Bell and Upadhyay had to leave the country. So this panel discussion moderated by Arun Gupto happened between Peter and me on June 2. This first panel discussion of the book exhibition together with the inquisitions of the learned audience did raise questions related to the historicity and the literary texture of the metropolis called Kathmandu. Considering its ignored significance, I have realised, this is the subject of a long academic paper. But in this short discourse, I want to present some gist of the subject, and what this topic means to me personally.
The term ‘my kind of Kathmandu’ occurred for the first time in an ‘oversize’ art book with cultural memories written by a British journalist cum artist Desmond Doig published from Delhi in 1994, 11 years after his death, by his friends and writers. The title is eloquent because, as I said at the discussion, Kathmandu is a complex metropolis with layers of cultural, political and literary meanings. It never remained a static space because the waves of visitors in different historical times kept triggering its memories.
Answering Arun Gupto’s learned analysis, Peter Karthak put his own memories of Kathmandu when he came here as an outsider four decades ago. As a Nepali from Darjeeling, and saw the layers of this place in its most challenging period of transition starting by working in the biggest casino, and teaching at the English department and working as a journalist for The Kathmandu Post. During this period, Peter realised, nothing short of creating this Kathmandu in literary writings would capture the heart of this place. His latest novel, his second one, Kathmandruids (2018) published by Book Hill in Kathmandu, this ‘Everything’ novel in ‘Double Helix’ precisely does that.
Breaking into time, space and canon barriers, Peter’s novel creates what Arun Gupto said there, a sensa, used in the review of paintings — a composition unified yet disjunctive. Peter creates a flow of observation and consciousness carrying history, presentism and forward direction put with great energy. Thomas Bell’s Kathmandu (2014) too does quite something like that. He describes overlapping life histories of Kathmandu from the time of Manadeva to the present. Similarly, in Sanjeev Uprety’s Nepali novel Ghanchakkar (2009, 2012), the protagonist’s journey of Kathmandu is an epitome of a quest of one’s type of Kathmandu. The character through all his mythic, mythological, modernist, postmodernist, surrealistic, revolutionary and empirical searches, if you like, dramatises the power of reaching nowhere. That, to me, is a search of the metaphorical ‘my kind of Kathmandu’. Similarly, Arun Gupto’s book Goddesses of Kathmandu Valley: Grace, Rage, Knowledge (2015, 2018) sees the multiple visual layers of culture and links that too knowledge with grace and rage. Seekers have always attempted to trace the confluence of these elements. Different scholars, native and foreign, have done that.
Of madness and sanity
I have a whole list of books read on this subject. In later times, Mark Liechty’s Far Out (2017) published by The University Chicago Press, has struck me. This book blends the history of Nepal with the rise of tourism especially in Kathmandu and discusses ‘hippiekopala’ or the turn of the hippies of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is a blend that happens in his kind of Kathmandu. History converges with the present and future aspirations in this book. Hippies saw Kathmandu as theirs. A strong hippie poet Ira Cohen was so much attached to his kind of Kathmandu that he was heart-broken when the Nepali government put an embargo on the free use of the cannabis called ganja. Cohen thought that the fire that burnt Singha Durbar was sent by Lord Shiva, irate by the government’s decision to ban this grass. He wrote, it was “Shiva’s justice rendered one week/ before the revoking of all hashish/licenses in Nepal (July 16, 1973)”.
‘My kind of Kathmandu’ has remained a mantra of madness and sanity, anger and joy, love and crisis, uncanny and grace, knowledge and visuals. My kind of Kathmandu is a centripetal force. Even the big guerrilla Maoist warriors in the end chose their kind of Kathmandu and said, “Our movement from now on will be capital-based,” which means Kathmandu-based. All political forces chose their kind of Kathmandu. All came here with confusing plans, and chaotic historical interpretations and have made this great metropolis a big unfinished disaster that still nurses dreams on vulgar capitalist nostalgia.
In the end, I answered Gupto’s question about my kind of Kathmandu in a short simple personal narrative. I said, to me, Kathmandu is a complex layer out of which I choose my kind of Kathmandu. Everybody chooses one’s own kind of Kathmandu. I did that because to me, Kathmandu or Nepal as it was called in Tehrathum, was some wonderland, an enigmatic Shangri-La. The first wonder of my kind of Kathmandu came in Sabala village, when I was young, in the poetry of my cousin brother Pahalman Subedi composed 80 years ago when he first visited Kathmandu. The first shape of my kind of Kathmandu was in this poetry, and I translate:
“It is difficult to describe this Nepal land/ There are big cities Bhadgaon, Patan, Indrachowk/ I lost my sense and I lost my wisdom/ When I reached the centre of the town/ I felt in a big black sea I had drowned/ In some places I saw deities/ And in others I saw like tigers/ At this moment I found/ I was running like a crow caught in a fog…”
My kind of Kathmandu has always been an endless quest, a sense of loss and resistance against adverse forces. I have sought to recreate my kind of Kathmandu in a number of my plays and poetry, and in creative visions of Nepali and other writers.