10-16 October 2014 #727

The Kathmandu mandala

Like the city itself, the texture of Thomas Bell’s book is deceptively fluid and anarchic
David Seddon

After the launch of Thomas Bell’s Kathmandu last month, I was at a Newari restaurant in Patan with three friends, talking about the erosion of the language as Nepali takes over and the growing recognition of the distinctive Newari cuisine as a major cultural phenomenon. We also talked about the risk of a major earthquake in Kathmandu.

Bell shares this concern in his book: ‘Often, in fact obsessively, when I’m walking in a narrow gully I look up and wonder where I’ll be when the earthquake comes and the walls open up like curtains of bricks. I look at the people who are walking around me and I think, which of us is going to make it?’ (p 399).

Thomas Bell came to Kathmandu in 2002, became a journalist, married Subina Shrestha and apart from a brief period in Bangkok) has lived in Nepal for over a decade. His vision and experience of Kathmandu are the result of his willingness to explore the nooks and crannies of the city and to embark on numerous encounters with its diverse inhabitants. Some of them, like old Dhana Lakshmi Shrestha (pic, above, his ‘informant on the traditions of the city’) see and comprehend it very differently.

Like the city itself, the book’s texture and format is deceptively fluid and anarchic, its deep structure enduring yet surprisingly resilient. Episodic and shifting constantly in perspective and tone, as well as in time and place, the first part of Kathmandu comprises up to a dozen often only barely related topics, which like a kaleidoscope obliges readers to make their own way through the text.

This part of the book explores the city as mandala or microcosm, in part through the attempts of successive (mainly Western) scholars to ‘unpeel’ the history and pre-history of the ancient Malla kingdoms, and in part through visits by the author himself to parts of the city where the past still permeates the present as in the structure and layout of the buildings, the narrow lanes and choks, the temples and the monasteries. The ancient trade routes are still visible in the street plans of Kathmandu and Patan. ‘The mandala is more than a map of the city. It is a social and political ideology, a description of the order of the universe, which is repeated in a well-ordered city here on earth’ (p. 54).

Bell’s Kathmandu is part of the wider Nepali political economy, and while his central pre-occupation is with the city itself, he does not confine himself to it. Nor is he only concerned with buildings and structures, as a journalist his main source of information is conversations. He talks with all and sundry: with Maoists in the field, with politicians, with members of the army and the police, with expatriates. He listens to the ordinary and extraordinary citizens of Kathmandu, who speak often with great authority and insight.

The second section deals with the many invasions, wars and revolutions that have transformed the ancient city over two and a half centuries, from the conquest of the Kathmandu Valley towards the end of the 18th century by a king who sought to ‘unify’ Nepal as a Hindu monarchy, to the People’s War, launched towards the end of the 20th by Maoists who sought to ‘re-structure’ Nepal as a federal socialist republic. This section has a historical momentum, and ends with the overthrow of the king in 2006.

Kathmandu By Thomas Bell

Random House India 2014

464 pages

After an interval in Bangkok the author returns to the city in the ‘post-insurgency’ period, after the rise of ‘identity politics’, the Madhes movement, the elections for a Constituent Assembly, the departure of the king, and the decline in the power and influence of the Maoists. He gets married. He has a rant at the corruption and ineffectiveness of the foreign ‘aid industry’ and develops his walnut theory: ‘the international community and the state are bound together as tightly as two halves of the same walnut’.

This is followed by the ‘revelation’ that the British, like the Americans, supported the king and his authoritarian regime to the hilt throughout ‘the conflict’, only abandoning this after it became clear that the people of Nepal, and equally importantly the Indian establishment, were not prepared to accept a ‘conservative and limited democracy with a constitutional monarch’. British complicity in war crimes is more than implied.

This final section is not encouraging: the rise and unresolved issue of identity politics, the reaction from the dominant groups, which now seem to include the Maoist leadership, and the ‘rule of three’ which allows for a continuing ‘sub-optimal equilibrium’.

“There must be some things that have got better,” suggests the author to old Dhana Lakshmi. “People know how to eat,” she replies, “but now women have started showing their ass, and that I don’t like at all.”

I warmly recommend the book to all those who find the city as familiar and as strange, as deeply and endlessly appealing, as does the author and as do I.

David Seddon first came to Nepal in 1974, his first son was born in Patan and he has been coming to Nepal ever since. He is co-author, among other books, of Nepal in Crisis (Oxford University Press), Pokhara: the biography of a town (Mandala Press) and, most recently, In Hope and In Fear: living through the Maoist Insurgency (Adroit Press).

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