So there I was, working hard on a presentation all through Saturday afternoon, wondering what to do at night to let off some steam. Should I call up friends and go see Mani Ratnam's Yuva at Jai Nepal Cinema with dinner at Thamel afterwards? Or chill out with them at an airport sekuwa ghar with beer? Or I could make some thick soup and curl up with Ha Jin's The Bridegroom. Then again, listening to some humid jazz in one of Kathmandu's smoke-filled bars sounded good too.
Then the phone rang. My buddy SMS was inviting me to the finale of 2004 Saboon Beauty Star Contest. "For free, yaar," SMS went on. "I've got you a pass. There's dinner afterward. Be at the Hyatt at seven. I'll meet you at the lobby. And, uh, wear something nice."
The Hyatt was packed to the rafters with Kathmandu's who's who. Not the literary, poetic types. Nor the rabble-rousing political brigade. There were corporate types with wives in various stages of undress. The multinational crowd was there in force and the media typhoons. Elderly women, sporting salt-and-pepper hair, were resplendent in their saris. The men were all dressed like Wall Street bankers. Everyone seemed to know each other and in the pre-event cocktail chatted with effortless rib-poking banter.
The show begins. Eighteen girls make an appearance, wearing skimpily outrageous costumes that no woman would wear on the streets of Kathmandu. They were scrawny-some looked positively malnourished. "Don't they feed these girls?" I ask SMS. "Only lettuce," he answers.
The ethnography of the contestants is fascinating, and some of the visibly non-bahuni lasses have bahun surnames. What is going on here? "When we bahuns sleep around, we contribute to the melting pot of this great nation," whispers SMS. The guy in front gives us a dirty look, we are ruining his concentration.
Looks like the fair ones have an advantage here. And sure enough, the dusky ethnic types don't stand a chance, the winner iss as gori as they come. The Kathmandu elite in attendance is composed of old-line aristocrats, largely irrelevant and in need of money, and the yummies (young, upwardly-mobile mummies) who have amassed new money but are in the process of acquiring class so they are taken seriously. And what could be better than for both types to cross-pollinate each other, to see and be seen together at events such as these?
And over in the far corner are the 60-something men, who can't seem to get enough of the 18-year-olds sashaying down the ramp. Next to us is a nattily dressed Alfa Male who displays an enthusiasm for chatting up other people's wives while neglecting his own. The corporate alsowannabes are clicking away with their Olympus digitals just so they can ogle at the pictures with co-workers on Monday morning.
Given the state of the country, I guess it is a form of escapism to spend a Saturday evening watching people watching beautiful young women. And I could still get back to Ha Jin.