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The Pictures Were Nice

A snapshot of Kathmandu’s hot zone is not designed to please the armchair tourist

Thamel might be useful to a tourist in Kathmandu, but is of little interest to a lay reader who wants to read about a place.

Name: Thamel: Dark Star of Kathmandu
Author: Rabi Thapa
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Pages: 174
Price: Rs 399

Thamel is Kathmandu’s “square kilometre of action”. For someone like me who hasn’t been to Nepal, the closest parallel to Thamel would be Paharganj in Delhi.

Primarily a tourist quarter, it has 4,000 businesses and 500 hotels, bars and cafes, trekking and tour agencies. Thamel has “survived the Malla unification, the Shah invasion, the Rana encroachment, a Maoist civil war, a deadly fire, earthquakes and the economic blockade of 2015”.

In this little book, a biography of the place, Rabi Thapa, a native of Kathmandu, introduces the reader to a host of colourful characters: a death metal vocalist, a nonagenarian ex-cop, a trekking company boss, a recovering junkie, a tranny and a bar dancer.

At the Heartbeat day-care centre for street-children we meet glue-sniffing boys rummaging through piles of donated clothes; the only question they ask is: “This one isn’t for girls, is it?” Thapa mentions The Voice of Children survey that states that “a third of the respondents have been involved in oral and anal sex with adult men and women, though only a minority are foreigners.”

Thamel also boasts of gangsters but as a bar owner tells Thapa: “They weren’t dealing cocaine or anything like that. They were moorkha fighters, foolish thugs without any vision. Milan, particularly, mimicked the film gangsters. ‘If Sanjay Dutt wore 50 tolas of gold in a movie he had to wear 30 tolas.”

In the mid-1980s, the Marines stationed at the US embassy would come down to Thamel on Fridays: “They had some amazing fights with the Manangis and local Newar boys. The security would show up, the Americans would take off in some kind of huge armoured vehicle. And the Nepalis? Some kind of police van.”

But Thamel isn’t just for foreigners. From the 1960s on, “the demand was increasingly local.” A friend of Thapa’s sister recalls the time: “We couldn’t afford the five-star bars…Thamel was the only place we could go and have a drink, and hang out — till about seven in the evening!”

Kathmandu has seen rulers come and go. The kind of people who came to visit depended on what the ruler wanted. Some wanted the acid-dropping hippies; others high-end tourists and mountaineering expeditions. Thapa quotes from a Nepal Tourism brochure, ‘Wild Stag Weekends’: “Don’t forget to have a drink at one of the local dance bars where beautiful Nepali belles will dance circles around your pals.” After the Maoists won in 2008, massage parlours and dance bars were routinely harassed by “vice squads” linked to the Young Communist League. Dance bar owners and dancers were carried off to camps in the Balaju Industrial Estate and tortured.

Thamel might be useful to a tourist in Kathmandu, but is of little interest to a lay reader who wants to read about a place. It doesn’t draw you in. The clichéd ‘flanerie’ approach makes it a bewildering mish-mash of tiresome facts, second-hand anecdotes and Pico Iyer quotes, that simply don’t hang together. A book without a centre needs an author with a strong voice, which Thapa lacks.

The biggest drawback is the lazy, schoolboyish writing: “the crowd went gaga over our heavy stuff”; “East and West met in a tremor of release”; “the pain of its patrons was palpable”; “bazaars selling fast-wearing knock-offs”; “crummy coffees”; “the young-bloods staggering past us, the impulse beating them on to the known unknown.” What ‘impulse’? Beating them to where?

The pain of this pen-wielder — me — is palpable. My patience was fast wearing out. When I finished the book, I experienced the tremor of release. The black and white photographs are nice, though.

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