22 April 2016

Inside Kathmandu, a Himalayan mystery


You drop down through pewter clouds, down into a valley of green and brown with rivers like veins of mercury. Kathmandu! Even the name is powerfully magnetic, drawing in dreamers and crooks from every corner of the earth. Up until the 1950s the Kingdom of Nepal remained closed, a Himalayan mystery; today fifty dollars cash will buy anyone a visa at the airport, and you are off, down into the city that is a prodigy of every kind of pollution and intrigue and incense-wreathed enchantment.

Kathmandu is one of those few places where a freelance journalist can simply turn up and start to make a foreign reporting career. Enough happens to make it pay, but not so much that would attract a lot of big hitters and spoil the gig. Nepal is on the edge of the news horizon, peripheral to the big Asian stories of India and China but wedged between them and therefore bound to generate stories. The things that do happen tend to be colourful, which is good for business.

When Thomas Bell showed up in Kathmandu about fifteen years ago, there was a civil war underway and the Crown Prince had just machine-gunned most of his immediate family in a shoot-out in one of the royal palaces. For years before and after this particular massacre the ‘Maoist’ insurgency (Maoist in the sense that the rebels followed Mao Tse-tung’s principles of guerilla warfare, but were pretty vague about everything else) provided the backdrop to the story, until the Maoists won the argument and joined the government. But the rebels were no more successful than any other outsiders in grasping the underlying dynamics of power in Kathmandu, which depends on ancient networks of kin and caste and patronage, and where the primary qualification for success is to master the technique of playing off foreign powers and the ever-ramifying aid and development sector. Kings come and go, parties rise and decay, but Nepal’s embedded system of payoffs, privileges and organized theft remains intact.

Covering the story was only one part of Thomas Bell’s mission: in his book Kathmandu he pursues a much more ambitious plan, which was “to reveal the city’s texture … to simulate the connections that run through all its parts, and to reproduce the cycles of repetition and reinvention that are the structure of its life.”

That’s a tall order. Nepal is the ultimate layered society, and Kathmandu is Nepal in concentrated form. Even physically, it suggests an astonishing complexity of parts. Nepal was once divided into three principal ‘kingdoms’ – Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur. First Kathmandu and Patan, and eventually Bhaktapur itself, have now combined in a single city that has grown and coalesced in the last twenty years. What once were isolated villages and small towns now press up against each other, and similarly the families of former and current and no doubt future power networks are all crammed into the same political space, competing and trading off in the endless struggle to extract resources from the state and the population at large.

The best bits in Kathmandu are the hour-by-hour accounts of reporting brick-throwing demonstrations, or trudging mountain tracks for days in search of Maoist insurgents to interview (often not realizing that all the time they surround you). Events take place that are dramatic, violent, confused, and not wholly explicable. Conversations with Nepalis follow weird twists in time – something that took place a few centuries ago might be referred to as if it had just happened – and then tail off, inconclusively. Ghosts of the past are everywhere, as are present day spirits who must be placated, even in a modern concrete apartment (“for modern trendy living in the most sophisticated manner” says the advert). It is all slightly and deliciously bonkers, and very readable.

Of course Kathmandu has long been renowned as a place for the slightly loopy to go and get more so. The old ‘Freak Street’ hippy world has long gone, now replaced by the less likeable backpacker culture of Kathmandu’s Thamel district (unlike the hippies today’s wealthy gap-year travellers like to stick closely together, conspiring to see as little of the world around them as possible). At least the hippies left their mark on society: Nepalis may have been amazed and appalled by the stoned antics of the counter-culture but they were attracted too, and there was a loosening up of stifling behavioural norms. You can gauge the attraction in the words of a superficially outraged Nepali newspaper editorial which described how “the transistor-carrying, picnic-minded, twist-obsessed, Hollywood-sinister gangs of Kathmandu youth eat a crazy salad in expensive restaurants …”. You can also gauge the conservatism of a society where being ‘picnic-minded’ rated as subversive.

Nepal is thoroughly corrupt, which explains why this fundamentally rich country is so poor. But Bell reserves his strongest words not for the rapacious Nepali elite but for the donor and development industry. Foreign aid accounts for a quarter of the government’s budget, but almost all the money is wasted. That is partly due to the silliness of much of what passes for development work, but also due to a peculiar form of corruption endemic in the donor and NGO world. The wastage of aid money continues unchecked because it is never reported internally, let alone externally. If the development gurus either accounted for their failures, or even if they achieved their targets, then the money might dry up and that means no more tax-free salaries and air-conditioned 4X4s. There has been a considerable improvement in the Nepali standard of living over the last ten or so years, but it has been almost entirely due to the growth of remittances from Nepalis working abroad. As Bell says, it is almost certain that simply giving poor people money would be much more effective than doling out half-baked community-empowerment projects dreamed up by short-term consultants on very attractive remuneration packages.

Anyone who has seen Nepal’s NGO merry-go-round with its ghastly combination of do-goodery and pocket-lining can be forgiven for getting a bit riled up, but there is also a corrosive element to it that is sometimes missed. One of the reasons why the Nepali state is partly failed is that donors have supplanted the government. They act in areas like infrastructure, healthcare and education where the government should be leading. As a result capacity and accountability are never developed, because if you want accountability then NGOs are the wrong place to look.

Kathmandu ends with a brief epilogue on the earthquake that struck Nepal in April last year, creating at a stroke a new class of dispossessed people. But for many, including Bell, it is not the earthquake that is the worst disaster of the time, but the political re-alignments that followed, leading to a new constitution which many believe contains elements that are discriminatory, chauvinist, and repressive. “It is one of the most dismal times I have known,” writes Bell.

This is a dark endnote in a very enjoyable book. Above all you breathe the atmosphere of Nepal, with its blend of permissiveness and constriction. Nepal is rigid yet oddly adaptive, and resilient. For me it brought back mental pictures of time spent in Patan, what is now the south-of-the-river quarter of Kathmandu. It happened that the North Korean embassy was close by, and as you walked home on the brick-strewn and potholed road the North Koreans would sometimes come past. They always moved in groups, glaring fiercely at anyone within range, and barely holding on to the snarling Alsatian dogs which they obviously kept hungry. Nepali women in saris, men pushing bicycles, and family groups with children, all parted silently to let the furious North Koreans pass by, and then reassembled. It was as if nothing had happened to disturb the evening calm.

Kathmandu by Thomas Bell is published by Haus Publishing on 25 April. 

Richard Walker is a journalist and communications advisor to financial companies.