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Growing up Thamel: How Kathmandu lost a literary culture to a pale fire

[Book extract] Flung to the future, blast from the past, blowing through as you watch another wasted sunset fade into the mauve light of night.

 |  15-minute read |   27-12-2016
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  • The moon’s an arrant thief
  • And her pale fire she snatches from the sun
  • — William Shakespeare, Timon of Athens, 1605/6
  • "We are," they said, even as their pages
  • Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
  • Licked away their letters. So much more durable
  • Than we are, whose frail warmth
  • Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
  • — Czeslaw Milosz, 'And yet the books', 1986

J was out of the country, and I’d been out enjoying that Kathmandu staple — an event serving wine and an excuse to get together so you can go get wasted elsewhere. It had been a chilly ride home from the Sanepa bar, thrilling to the moon rising above the peaks and troughs of Lalitpur’s temples, swerving to dodge strays nipping at my wheels and ending with an exaggerated salaam to the dozy guard at the gate of our Balkumari high-rise.

I was pleasurably doped, and headed for the fridge to take the edge off the munchies. After a desultory trawl through the recesses of the internet, I shuffled off to bed, and began to dream.

I stirred with a rasp in my throat and reached blindly for the water on my bedside table. The lights were on, and a curious texture thickened the air. I blinked, smelling, now seeing smoke, and stumbled to the door. It opened onto a great roiling blackness, which resolved itself with a flick of the switch into an impenetrable fug of whiteness with a furious fist of flames deep in its bowels, roaring like a kerosene stove. The heater, the fucking gas heater!

I plunged coughing to the kitchen and lifted a bucketful of water to fling onto the burning armchair, turned the gas off, ran for more water, doused the flames and threw the windows open to let the smoke pour out in clouds and clouds.

My mind reeled at the sight before me. The armchair was gutted, the bookshelf and sofas singed, a huge Rorschach had melted on the wall and funnelled up and out to the ceiling and into the rooms. Everything was as black as it had been shiny-white the day my mother-in-law left us in charge of her new apartment.

It was 4.30 in the morning by the time I cleared every nub of charred wood and melted plastic and ferried the husk of the chair down to the rubbish lot, not oblivious to how I might look on closed-circuit TV. But no one came to check on me. In the midst of mid-winter loadshedding, the cubic miles of smoke simply slid over and away from the closed windows of our twelve-storey tower.

oaoe_122616110749.jpg Pilgrims Book House after the fire, 2013 (Shashank Shrestha) 

The next day, wondering how to tell my family, I leafed through the destroyed copy of The Hindus that I’d been so happy to pick up in Delhi before it was banned in India. It would take three weeks and a chunk of change to get the place back to what it was, but I was still knocking about, courtesy of a closed door, never mind the crud I coughed up in the morning.

As I brushed a fine layer of soot off my collection of graphic novels, all intact within the seared, wall-sized case next to the rogue heater, I consoled myself: "You still have your books, your memory, you." And I remembered that terrible night in Thamel, gone two years, when the country’s greatest bookshop burned down. How could I not?

That fire began surreptitiously, with a spark from a diesel generator. Flames flickered out of sight, but soon crept into the kitchen and caught the cheap ply bounding Faces Lounge, the bar on the second floor. Then it licked at the piled gas cylinders.

Onlookers began to point, and staff ran in, but it was too late: the explosions that followed unleashed a conflagration of such ferocity that the store next door was engulfed before anyone could act. It was no ordinary establishment. Pilgrims Book House was the largest, most-loved purveyor of books in Nepal.

The owner summoned the fire brigade and appealed to his neighbours to employ their buckets; it took twelve hours to tame the fire. There was relief that no lives were lost, that the inferno hadn’t spread through the tourist quarter of Thamel.

But for book lovers across the Kathmandu Valley — and anyone who had visited Nepal — this was a tragedy of Alexandrian proportions: tens of thousands of tomes on every subject in the cosmos lay scattered in a smouldering heap outside the eviscerated husk of Pilgrims Book House.

Pilgrims was much more than a bookstore. To borrow a line from a play lamenting yet another fire, a case of arson at the Tribhuvan University library, "It felt like something had burned up inside of us" (Subedi 2004). What was Thamel now? The intellectual soul of the place had been reduced to ashes, leaving the Philistines to track their mud in the sodden hereafter.

In the beginning, there was the word. In this neck of the woods, the Brahmins settled on "Om", the rounded ornateness of the Sanskrit glyph a precursor to the ritual-heavy civilisation that was to follow, and a cloak for the Aryan warrior-kings who preceded the priests into the Indian subcontinent. Unlike the angles of the swastika, appropriated by rather more uncompromising Aryans, the Om has a resonant perfection that deserves the first hearing. The hyper-literate Brahmins turned sound to text, naturally, and the rest is history.

In the many pre-literate cultures they overran, the word remained opaque, but reigned supreme. Thus through the ruins of the ages we have inscriptions to lead and mislead us as to what once was.

thamel_spread_websit_122616110236.jpg Thamel; Speaking Tiger; Rs 399.

In Thamel, we begin with the giant letters introducing the Pragyaparamita, variously attributed to either legendary or historical Manjushrees or even the King of Poets, Pratap Malla. The last was known for his affinity for words, even when they didn’t amount to more than a list (as attested by the fragment "avtome winter lhivert" from his fifteen language inscription in Kathmandu Durbar Square).

But the point holds all the more. The respect accorded to the word did not mean one was obliged to understand it. The ritual readings of the Pragyaparamita, in Sanskrit, are incomprehensible to most of the Buddhist laity, even if they pay for the merit accrued through such a reading.

Rote learning has had its consequences in Nepal. Even in a modernising education system, the instinct has been to memorise and regurgitate. Education is a ritual that ends once a certificate is obtained, and employment is attained only through the manoeuvring of connections. It’s no wonder generations of Nepalis are ill prepared for the rapidly evolving skill-sets demanded by its economy. Ours is not a reflective culture; reading for leisure is an indulgence.

Thus the history of a bookstore in Kathmandu is not a history of the country it is located in, nor do its contents reflect the actual interests of its citizens. Libraries are virtually non-existent in the public eye, and the collection of 70,000 that grew out of Kaiser Shumsher Rana’s private collection, which was, until the earthquake, located in his old palace on Tridevi Marg, entertained barely 150 visitors a day.

More popular was the British Council’s old library on Kantipath, but there must have been pressing economic and intellectual justifications to trade it for a Learning Centre.

Bookshops in Kathmandu still make a living off textbooks. An emergent publishing culture lists towards homegrown and global celebrity bios. This is aspirational literature; people want to better themselves, and how better than by reading about despots, saints and rich bastards?

Bookshops in Thamel have always bucked this trend. They cater first and foremost to tourists of all stripes, for equally commercial reasons. Thus it was that Pilgrims Book House, which set up shop in Kathmandu in 1984, amassed a collection big on esoteric spirituality that none but the most dedicated of locals would dip into, but which a tourist or expat might enter (and exit) on a whim.

But it was the lodestone for Kathmandu’s limited literary culture, and when it went up in flames on the night of May 16, 2013, the pain of its patrons was palpable.

In the three decades since he founded Pilgrims, Nandaram Tiwari of Benares had built up a library specialising in the spiritual, cultural and material existence of the Himalayan region. Over the years, I’d purchased books on Indian philosophy, Newar architecture, alpine flowers, Hatha Yoga, spirit possession as well as old copies of the Paris Review, and I frequented the store long enough to see my own collection of short stories appear in the section for Nepali authors.

In the days that followed the inferno, the sage-like Tiwari spoke to journalists of the impermanence of existence.

Yet if Pilgrims was a beacon for seekers of book learning, the fakir-like countenance of the owner Nandaram Tiwari masked a certain fakery, an amoral commercial acumen that he shared with, or imparted to, his local rivals: I’ve been told Pilgrims was a pioneer in more ways than one. Bidur Dangol of Vajra Books notes that "Tiwari taught us to 'value' books, that is, price them as high as the market could stand."

It’s easy to imagine that purveyors of books are wise men themselves, and thus not overly concerned with the material benefits of selling them. Quite often they are both wise and cunning. Like every other peddler in Thamel, it has been standard practice on the part of local booksellers to deny the existence of copyright.

Those with printing presses in India are careful to ship consignments that are small enough not to rouse the suspicions of customs inspectors, and for the most part readers cannot tell whether the books they buy are pirated or not.

It’s a different matter when it comes to the authors, particularly copyright-conscious foreigners not wholly dependent on the goodwill of Nepali booksellers to make a living. I have been told of several instances where noted authors revisited their bookseller-publishers in Kathmandu to collar them for piracy, sometimes accompanied by the law.

On at least one occasion the offending bookseller acknowledged his guilt, pleading that he was only doing "dalbhat maa achaar misaaune kaam" — adding a bit of spice to his daily bread. Others think it more likely that booksellers are merely remiss in paying back authors what they have invested in publishing their books, in the manner of businessmen across Nepal.

Ultimately, one cannot ignore the conditions under which virtually all booksellers operate in Nepal. According to writer Nilanjana Roy, Indian book pirates cost the global industry US$36 million a year (Roy 2014).

Certainly, it would be difficult to provide Western textbooks to Nepali students without some degree of piracy, though cheaper editions are increasingly available.

An imaginative mind might suggest, too, that the free dissemination of knowledge is a favour to all of us, if not to their authors. But too often bookshops in Nepal consider that they are doing writers a favour simply by stocking their books in the first place.

Where Pilgrims once stood, a blind siding of corrugated iron now advertises a multiplex that will undoubtedly make many more rupees for the owner of this prime plot of land (not Tiwari: I’m told the landlord didn’t even bother to show up at the site until the next day).

Many impressive bookshops still ply their trade across Thamel, including Vajra Books (whose owner Bidur Dangol started with a tiny outlet next to Kathmandu Guest House that predated Pilgrims); the recently renamed Summit Bookshop ("No, it’s not because Barnes & Noble complained," smiles the owner); Nagendra Singh’s second-hand treasurehouse, Vision Books; as well as the propagandist China’s Tibet Book Store and the defiantly authentic Tibet Book Store.

Yet even with the reopening of a sizeable Pilgrims one feels the spiritual heart of Thamel has been dislodged, if not entirely excised. The dance bars have been supplanted by massage parlours, and the transvestites along Tridevi Marg turn tricks elsewhere, but one is tempted to see in the crowds of camera-toting Chinese tourists, concentrated in a rapidly developing Chinatown in Jyatha, a shift towards packaged, mass tourism that is not Nepal’s forte.

Yet Nepalis have shown themselves to be adept, if not in tending their own garden, at least in attending to those who project their desires onto Nepal, even the Chinese tourists who come to Nepal with no idea of what to expect. Mohan Nepal’s cousin Balram Adhikari is a young spark who, after a stint in Newa de Café and a gruelling three-year course of Chinese language study, is set to qualify as a professional tour guide.

Coming into the market at a time when a Ni hao? was the extent to which Nepalis could communicate with their new clients, Balram has secured a niche that most people in the tourist industry can only dream of. "There’s no real offseason," he smiles.

"There are some guides who make 1,00,000 rupees a week." Margins will shrink as the competition heats up, but for now, with Chinese arrivals up from 7,562 in 2003 to 123,805 in 2014 (Kathmandu Post, 2015). Balram doesn’t mind their relative insularity and bad manners. The latter may bother the likes of Café Mitra’s Kunal Lama ("Can you imagine," he sighs, "spitting bones onto the floor?"), and Rajan Sakya claims he doesn’t want their business, but all Nepalis would do well to take note. The Chinese are coming, and they have their wallets open.

Come natural calamity, political crisis, or economic blockade — all of which Nepal experienced in 2015 — the tourist quarter shows no sign of slowing down in the long term.

Three major hotel complexes are in the works, and given everything else that Thamel offers beyond infrastructure, one can hardly blame investors. And yet, and yet. It messes with my mind to walk to Bikramashila Mahabihar and view the monstrosity that is the Chhaya Devi Center rising grey and monolithic where once a lotus pond supplied the ritual water to honour the man who first returned victorious along the trade route with Tibet; but perhaps it is as it should be.

The Pradhans don’t care, or not enough; the Maharjans think they’re on the take; the Ranas who disposed of what was once guthi land, well, easy come, easy go, as they say, it was just a swamp anyway. Business is business. Thamel will move on.

Thamel will move on, and it will keep changing, but it is not on the way to someplace else. It is a place. It is what it has become, past, present and future. It is not a meeting of East and West, it is not a "decompression chamber", nor a portal to the real Nepal, the "strange" Nepal of bureaucrats sweating under rice tika. Thamel is a many-splendoured thing, an ugly Hydra — it is Thabahi, Jyatha, Thahiti, Chhetrapati, Satghumti and Paknajol — it is real, and if you tamp down one part, another flourishes.

It’s a bar, a parlour, a trek store, a whore, a bore, the core of the week, end of a line, flung to the future, blast from the past, blowing through as you watch another wasted sunset fade into the mauve light of night.

It’s where Ganesh Man Singh hosted revolutionaries and summiteers, where a glue-sniffing, retarded street kid sleeps curled against a mongrel’s spine, where every Tom, Dick and Hari comes to see the world at play, hit-or-missing the centripetal centre of modern Nepal in all its gory glory, a thousand signs clamouring for your attention, bad at the best of times, sublime when you don’t expect it, the village all grown up and demanding a pair of Levi’s.

dda_122616110816.jpg The Chhaya Center looming over the Bikramashila Mahabihar, 2016 (Rabi Thapa)

For a time, it must have seemed that Thamel was on its last legs, its business crocked by the sleazy underbelly of the post-revolutionary era. Suckling on an unholy trinity of dance bars, brothels and massage parlours, Thamel was a Frankenstein’s monster, the bastard its creators no longer wanted to acknowledge.

As tourist arrivals waned, the neighbourhood was colonised by young Nepalis who’d discovered the transgressive joy of eating and drinking and hanging out with people who were not family, a handshake, a hug and an air kiss over a supplicant namaste, any day.

Many of us were weary of even this; we’d seen the world and there was nothing new here, no kick in the high. But as it goes, so it goes. If we owe nothing to past flaneurs, Thamel owes nothing to us. It takes all comers.

All places and persons have their dreams. Nepal has had more than its fair share. Until the mid-20th century, its Rana rulers succeeded in suppressing the dreams of Nepalis while giving full rein to their grotesque fantasies.

Adorning themselves with jewels looted from the nawabs of India, they employed the machinery of the state to build dozens of massive neoclassical palaces across the Kathmandu Valley.

A more incongruent segue from the very public squares and elegant brick-and-wood pagoda temples of the Newars — the local genius that even the rough Shah conquerors imitated — could not have been conceived.

The Ranas replaced the Shahs, the democrats upended the Ranas, the Shahs cheated the people, and even as foreign expeditions stood on Everest, the dreams of commoners — of prosperity, of justice, of democracy — were only gradually attended to.

Till then, Nepal was a repository for the dreams of its elites and a revolving cast of foreigners: the international jet set, mountaineers, the hippies, backpackers, and the development set.

And when Nepalis began to dream again, triggering the chaos of economic liberalisation and the Maoist conflict, images of the Other continued to flicker and distort. Nepalis and foreigners are not what they used to be in each other’s minds. Thamel is a playground for both. Thamel is a state of mind.

(Excerpted with permission from Speaking Tiger Publishing Pvt Ltd.)

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Rabi Thapa Rabi Thapa @rabithapa

Rabi Thapa was the Editor of the weekly paper Nepali Times from 2010 to 2011, and is currently the Editor of La.Lit, the bilingual literary magazine from Nepal.

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