In High Places

The book meanders through the past and recent history of Nepal and the layer upon layer of myth and legend which anoint every nook and corner of its capital city.

Updated: December 13, 2014 1:18 am
In Nepal, Maoism was just political shorthand for massive inequality. In Nepal, Maoism was just political shorthand for massive inequality.

Review by Shyam Saran

Book: Kathmandu

Author: Thomas Bell

Publication: Random House

Pages: 496

Price: Rs 599

Thomas Bell has captured the bewildering complexity and perplexing allure of Kathmandu in his book of the same title. His portrait of the ancient capital of Nepal is absorbing precisely because it is drawn with unabashed affection. The book meanders through the past and recent history of Nepal and the layer upon layer of myth and legend which anoint every nook and corner of its capital city. We wander with him through the narrow lanes of the inter-connected neighbourhoods, with narrow doorways opening out to family courtyards, each with its own temple or some family icon, whose origins are now obscure. There are Nepalis, young and old, who share their country’s past and its troubled future with this young adventurer and seeker and help him explore the psyche of a people shaped by the mountains around them and the rich blend of Hindu, Buddhist and more ancient creeds which pervades the Kathmandu valley. Having lived in Kathmandu for almost three years while serving as India’s ambassador, I found the book traversing some familiar terrain, but also places I did not know of. Bell is a good and knowledgeable guide whose sympathetic disposition opened many doors to him, both physically and metaphorically. What I did not appreciate was his constant switching from the past to the present, mostly without warning, which can be confusing and, at times, frustrating. Maybe this is a genre which works with some subjects, not with this one.

Bell covers a period when the Maoist insurgency was still raging in the country. He undertakes risky journeys to the remote camps of the Maoists and speaks to their cadres. It is clear from his narrative how little, beyond the labels, these guerilla fighters knew about Maoism or Marxism. The rebellion was rooted in deep-seated political, ethnic and social inequities and debilitating poverty. Nepal is a multi-ethnic country and encompasses very diverse and multiple social categories, though, over the years, this had been masked by a deliberately crafted and singular Nepali identity imposed by the monarchy. These diversities began to reassert themselves once multi-party democracy, however flawed, was established in the early 1990s. However, the narrow, high caste political elite in Kathmandu took virtually no cognizance of the momentous changes that were beginning to stir in their country. The Maoist insurgency was only a more acute manifestation of this dangerous disconnect between the rulers and the people. Bell draws attention to the plight of ordinary Nepalis caught in the cross-fire between the insurgents and the Royal Nepal Army, victimised and brutalised by both. He is also right about the entrenched mood of denial in Kathmandu itself, whose pampered elite continued to party and indulge themselves in their sumptuous houses behind high walls.

I recall how Kathmandu felt like a bubble in those days, somehow untethered from the grim reality outside the city’s environs. Bell introduces us to several members of this elite and it is obvious how little they have in common with the ordinary citizens of the city among whom Bell spends most of his time.

Bell draws attention to another disturbing aspect of Nepal. This is a country which has more non-governmental organisations per square kilometre than any country in the world. As Bell observes: “It is well recognized in Kathmandu that it is the agents of development not the targets, who benefit. If you have the power and opportunity, the best thing is to get a job in a donor agency, or develop a good line in consultancies, or found an NGO, or work for one, and use donor funds to teach people how to improve their lives.”

And again: “Staff live in lovely villas, with gardeners and maids. They pass weeks, possibly entire postings, scarcely meeting anyone who does not derive their income from development. Many consultants are on $500 to $1,500 a day.”

There is a powerful nexus among bureaucrats, politicians, NGOs and development agencies to keep the development assistance business alive and healthy with little scrutiny or accountability. Despite the $1 billion or more which flows into Nepal from donor agencies each year, there is little visible outcome to show for it.

Bell has written about the assistance given by the British government to the Nepali security forces in the latter’s anti-insurgency war. This took the form of both training of personnel as well as sophisticated equipment. Bell is outraged that the British government may have been complicit in the many instances of human rights abuses which the Nepali state has obviously been guilty of. One can sympathise with his sentiments. India, like other countries, did extend assistance to the Nepali state in its battle against a violent insurgency. Our constant urging to respect human rights was not always followed by the Nepali security forces but there was certainly no complicity in their violations of these norms. There was a consensus among India, UK, US and the EU that one should promote an understanding between the monarchy and the democratic political parties so as to contain, if not defeat the Maoists. India extended considerable assistance to the Nepali Army and security forces up until the time when the then monarch, Gyanendra, decided to launch a veritable coup, in February 2005, taking the reins of government in his own hands. It is this act which led India to support the 12-point understanding between the Maoists and the political parties, thereby isolating the monarchy politically. It is true that political instability continues in Nepal but one should be thankful that the violence and blood-letting which brought so much suffering and pain to the people of Nepal, has at least ended.

Despite its somewhat disjointed nature, I enjoyed reading Bell’s book. The best parts are those dealing with the rich history and culture of the country but the commentaries on its current state are also noteworthy. There are some nice black and white photos, but without captions they remain unrelated to the text.

The writer is a former foreign secretary. He was India’s Ambassador to Nepal in 2002-2004

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