Not Quite Midnight’s Children: The Karma of Kathmandu

by Geoffrey Clarfield (December 2013)


karma  n

1. (Non-Christian Religions / Hinduism) Hinduism Buddhism the principle of retributive justice determining a person's state of life and the state of his reincarnations as the effect of his past deeds

2. (Christian Religious Writings / Theology) Theosophy the doctrine of inevitable consequence

3. destiny or fate

[from Sanskrit: action, effect, from karoti he does]

karmic  adj


They say that Karma is your fate and that regardless of what you want, you will eventually fulfill your karma. But it may not be that simple. The concept of Karma is a complex piece of Hindu philosophy, which I have never claimed to fully understand, but when invited to work in Nepal for four months at the age of 59, I think my Karma took me by surprise.

In coming to Kathmandu I experienced some of the stress of the 21st century traveller. I was extremely busy with home and family issues, my parents had just returned from Florida after my Mom’s medical insurance ran out there because, of course, she had become ill, so why insure her? I spent the night waiting for their delayed flight and once driven home, I had the same sense of relief and security that I had when my children were young and they were safely and successfully tucked in.

I then had to pack, but as this was work I had to think long and hard about which books I needed to bring with me, which papers, files, cameras, tape recorders and of course my lap top. I had also done some complex banking to make sure that all would be in order while I was gone (telling the credit card companies which countries I would be in so they would honor my transactions; it did not matter, the cards failed and they cancelled my credit while in Kathmandu) so when my wife drove me to the airport I was stressed and anxious. I was going to Kathmandu, Nepal, a country on a continent of which I had read about, had yet to  experience, and understood far less than this anthropologist at large would have liked, despite the crash course I was giving myself on Nepali history, culture and ethnography in the few weeks before my departure.

The normal anxieties of an anthropologist going overseas to a new culture and country (new to him that is) resurfaced. I knew very well that no matter how much you read, how much music you listen to, or how many documentary films you have seen about a place, the reality of a new place is always a shock. That is why they call it culture shock. I was ready for it, but in the way that a paratrooper is ready for a jump. I knew that no matter what I did, Kathmandu and Nepal would be different than anything I had experienced before. No matter how often I listened to the naïve, dated, lyrical and musically touching version of the song Kathmandu by former singer songwriter Cat Stevens, I knew that the Kathmandu of anyone’s imagination will inevitably be different that that of a real encounter. It would have its own “karma.”  “Kathmandu, I’ll soon be touching you.” I vowed to write about its effects on me during my first few weeks of culture shock. This is what I saw and felt.

Flying business to Brussels and then to Delhi on Indian Jet Airways was not difficult. Seats that fold down to the equivalent of a dentist’s chair do allow you to sleep and I did. Fine Indian cuisine proved once again that when the Indians modernize, they do it their way. That is to say they do not westernize, they modernize. During the flight I was reading about Kirkpatrick, the White Mughal who went native during the early days of the English in India before the Mutiny of 1857. He had “gone native” at the time. His brother was the first Englishman to write and travel through Nepal. I promised to read his book.

The Delhi airport was efficient and modern and as I peered through the glass to see the entrance from the Indian side I was struck by a series of sculpted metal mudras, sacred hand gestures used by Hindus and Buddhists for ritual and the arts, again, modern but Indian. I spent time in the bookshops and started to read Ganesha at the Wheel a diatribe by Indian scientists on the irrationality of daily life in India. The argument made by the authors (both skeptical scientists) was that when Indians master science and technology they compartmentalize it. Comparing how science makes of so many Westerners skeptics to the experience of Indian scientists, they point out the tendency whereby Indians can master science and then do puja to a thousand Gods – modern, but not Western.

Then the flight from Delhi to Kathmandu – over the overpopulated plains of Uttar Pradesh and then suddenly, once sees the brown “hills” (8-14,000 feet high) of southern Nepal and the unmistakable home of the Gods – the Himalayas rising to the north, spread out across the horizon like a series of abstract snow and ice sculptures.

A slow line to get a visa, three men processing it one after another, all by hand, all of them wearing British suits and Nepali hats, an airport that looked like it was frozen in the sixties, a drive through dusty, crowded Kathmandu and arrival at the Radisson hotel. Settling in and looking at the urban density and smog of Kathmandu, surrounded by steep hills and here and there in between these hills, a stunning view of the snowy Himalayas. It is the kind of thing that, if you did not know it was real, you would think some God with a sense of humor had Adobe photo shopped these mountains to take up the spaces that stand in between the hills, and when you approach them inevitably you would see it is only a massive canvas. But what you see is what you get,  which astounds the imagination. It is not a fantasy.

Organizing my room, unpacking, shower, email, nap and reading the latest glossy magazine about tourism and culture, good articles on research libraries housing ethnomusicological treasures and then an article on what seems to be the ancient Hindu drug, Soma, and a claim that it is still in use by Tantric Buddhists in one of the Temples in downtown Kathmandu. The ancient lives in the present.

As I stared out of my hotel window across the urban density of Kathmandu I could see green-forested hills with what looked like Buddhist temples sprinkled here and there (that is indeed the case). I looked forward to visiting them. I then had the first inkling that I had just come to a civilization where the Roman execution of a first century Judean would not be held against me. This was and remained one of my greatest excitements when I was in Nepal – the exploration of a preindustrial culture that is not based on the hatred of my own cultural origins. I will not pretend it was insignificant. “Kathmandu, I’ll soon be touching you.”

But I could not spend the first few days absorbing Kathmandu. No, I was here as a development anthropologist. I had to get to the office, meet my colleagues, both expatriate and Nepali, develop the TORS (terms of reference for the upcoming research study) and so off to the office I went.

As I leave the oasis that is the Radisson Hotel I realize that early morning in Kathmandu is as grey as London, but not because of the natural weather. Kathmandu lies in a valley, like Athens. It is surrounded by hills on all sides and as it is the magnet for all immigration to the capital it is a sea of motorbikes and pedestrians, buses and trucks, all crammed into the valley and contributing to its pall of grey smoke, which meets you every morning. It is man made pollution and smells like it.

We drove to the office and we began our work. I will make up the acronyms to protect the innocent. Here is what happened. The DDF of the Government of Nepal (GON) is concerned that the EFPS was not properly addressed in the previous report. That is because the consultant from the Bank (the World Bank that is) had not fulfilled the TORs that were sent to him. That meant that DFID (a real acronym) had to send someone to redo and change the terms and conditions.

It was commented that this would have never happened at AID (US Gov) or CIDA (Canadian gov-but CIDA no longer exists) but someone said that he had heard that it had happened at SDC or was it at UNDP? No matter. I was busy outlining the work plan (that is the WBS) for the PRA as before it became PRA, it was called RRA. It does not really matter as I actually knew what I and we were up to, as did everyone else in the room, suggesting that acronyms were as common to my field as they were or are in the military. But everyday reality was not ignored despite our idealistic planning, for every cubicle had an orange bag with all that you needed to survive in this earthquake prone part of the world, if you made it out of the building.

I was reminded of the film where Danny De Vito teaches English literature at an army base in the US. At the beginning of the film he asks for directions and is given a list of acronyms. During  the last scene in the film someone asks him for directions and yes, he answers them with a list of acronyms.

After a day of acronyms I am driven back to the Radisson. It is modern, clean, Western. The Nepali staff is polite and efficient. There is a gym. The food is clean and tasty. My computer works and there is a generator that kicks in as the power goes off every few hours. I am safe and I think of all those caravanserais that traversed the Middle East during the height of the great trading days of medieval Islam or those lonely outposts of the Newar traders of the Kathmandu valley who would ply the trade routes to Lhasa in Tibet until the Communists takeover of 1959 effectively closed off Tibet from Nepal. These traders could know and expect how they would be treated at each stage in their journey. They were safe and comfortable. They spoke their own language and knew what to expect. In the world of international development we were no different. But the owner of the hotel lived outside of this bubble. During my stay his car was attacked by members of the employees union, Marxist Leninist inspired, who claimed that they were not paid enough for their work.

Inevitably, when one visits the old world one begins in the present in order to get to the past. This does not mean that the people of Nepal are not living in the present. Their lives depend on it, but to access those places, buildings and behavioural patterns that are pre industrial, pre modern, what an earlier generation of politically incorrect writers and visitors had no compunction as to describing as ancient or archaic, you still start from your hotel.

And so, as I walk down the clean lines of the corridor, past the foyer with its row of gorgeous tantric Nepali sculptures of Hindu and Buddhist deities, I exit the hotel and enter the street. There, a somewhat disheveled, anxious Nepali mini taxi driver and I bargain over the fare to Durbar Square, a collection of palaces, temples and open patios that was once at the heart of the spiritual Hindu Kingdom that was Nepal until a few short years ago. Given that the former King was a Hindu King one could almost argue that he was the last divine King to be ruling a kingdom on the face of the earth.  His reign lasted a few years longer than the Soviet Union, but oddly it has been replaced by a government that is committed to Marxist Leninism and uses the hammer and sickle as its party emblem.

Yesterday it rained for hours. I pored over various technical reports, worked out in the gym and did not really leave the hotel. This morning I awoke and the sun was everywhere, the sky was blue and shot through with clouds and the smog was significantly reduced. I ventured out of the hotel with a black laundry bag and missed the tiny sign. Someone on the street outside the hotel pointed me to the right place and I walked in. A young man greeted me, showed me a long plasticized document, which had fixed prices for different pieces and said they would be ready by tomorrow evening. A colleague had warned me that the hotel charges an arm and a leg for laundry and this is a way to reduce expenses. I was becoming local.

I continued down the street pass shops selling textiles, another selling Buddhist sacred paintings and then one dedicated only to fierce Ghurka knives of all sizes, a strange contrast between the commercialized sacred and profane and then visited a book shop where I noticed that the great German mountain climber Reinhold Meissner, had written a book about his search for the Yeti, that is the Himalayan abominable snowman- hmmm.

Once I hit the main street it was chaos. The government is widening the street so it is being torn up on each side, laborers hammer the rock and mud with large hand held sledge hammers, hundreds of motor cycles jam the street, there is no side walk and you pick your way through the mud just a hair’s breadth away from oncoming traffic. There is a smell of curry everywhere mixed with mud and exhaust and occasionally the smell of sewers or sewage. It is noisy and there is no peace. After a few hundred yards I turned off the road and found myself in a quite mixed residential area.

The houses and apartments are set one against the other, cheek by jowl. In some places you could reach out and touch the other or hang a sheet between two. Along the road or path were areas where garbage had been dumped and as I went further inside there were small shops selling groceries, what looked like an open front shoe repair and people of various kinds walking to and fro. There were no foreigners anywhere. The electricity on and off the main roads comes in bunches of wires tied together and it is as if the city is held together by long strands of ubiquitous black licorice that goes for miles and is everywhere. As I finally turned back to the main road I saw what looked like a local fountain, someone was using water there to shave. The outlets had what looked like sculpted facades of the elephant God Ghanesh behind them.

I got lost and found myself on the grounds of the Shankar Hotel a former palace of the Ranas who held power before the last Royal family. I asked for a tour of the single, double bedroom and suite. The style was a combination of Victorian architecture with Newari carving and yet at the same time with a contemporary and up to date feel about it, with a beautiful outdoor courtyard and swimming pool. I walked back to the local supermarket and bought myself some imported grape juice from Australia.

Whenever I look out of my hotel window at the cityscape and see the hundreds of thousands of buildings and the hundreds of thousands of people, I realize that they worship thousands of Gods. A minority follow the teachings of the Buddha but even they have their own pantheon.

It informs who they are, what they can be, where they are coming from and how they deal with the modern world. It is not Jewish, Christian or Muslim. This world  has its own pantheon, its own epics; the Mahabharata and the Ramayana (imagine if we still believed in the Gods of the Iliad – that is what it means to live within this world). It is a story that goes back to before the Bronze Age and although much of it is Indo European, it is as close to us mentally as is Athena or Zeus. Yet to them, the majority of Nepalis, it is living and real; despite modernity, despite the Marxism of so many political parties, despite a recent Maoist insurgence that caused the death of 20,000 people and, despite a royal family that was machine gunned in cold blood by its own crown prince just down the road from my hotel and whose former royal palace I could see from the breakfast room of my hotel each morning. The Gods are everywhere. It was simply that I could not see them, although there was evidence of their participation in people’s daily life in the shrines that dotted intersections and out of the way streets.

It is the kind of thing that makes one thing twice about Jung’s concept of archetypes. If the Greco Roman World is the unconscious background of the West, then the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are the unconscious of our unconscious. Well that is the closest thing that I can come to a civilizational cultural archetype. I felt privileged to be here in this invisible world that Nepalis could see all around them.

Nepal is the only state which has a large contingent of Maoists in the National government. Indeed until a few short years ago there was a violent Maoist insurrection in some of the rural areas that called for a people’s republic. Thousands died and its full history has yet to be written. But anecdotes here and there suggest that as with any movement that adopts Marxist Leninism there were the usual atrocities, misuse of power, torture and killings. It is quite the opposite of the Shangri La image of Hindu Buddhist Nepal that so many Westerns had and to some degree still have.

That is because the East is and has been looking West for more than one hundred and fifty years. After the Indian Mutiny Lord Macaulay insisted that Indians learn and be taught in English. He rejected multiculturalism and traditionalism and so let loose the forces of modernity in their Athenian and Spartan variations, for if one looks very carefully at the recent Nepali civil war there is an intellectual echo of a failed Athens being taken on by a Maoist Sparta.

Now that the Maoists are part of the government it is hard for them to rebel so instead they have Bhonds, that is a city or country or regional wide closures. The day before a Bhond they announce that any car or pedestrian on the street can be attacked. In the past Bhond activists would burn cars and damage shops so early in my stay when they announced one I wisely stayed in the hotel. I did not see or hear anything.

In the next day’s paper I read that there were probably seventy home births as residents of Kathmandu could not make it to the hospital. That is the number of average deliveries at the national teaching hospital each day. Then there was the case of a mother trying to call for an ambulance to take her daughter to the hospital but even the hospital would not send a vehicle. Somewhere in town a family with a very sick member convinced a Taxi driver to rush him to the hospital. Instead a gang of activists attacked the car with bricks, critically injured the taxi driver who in turn had to be hospitalized and undergo neurosurgery. Yesterday’s papers did not report on his condition, as the Maoists and the other government factions were arguing on whether the chief justice should become the acting Prime Minister until the next election, or until the next Bhond.

The Radisson hotel is a luxurious building. It is colored brown in such a way that the whole thing looks as if it is built of sandstone. It has marvelous terraced restaurants and the lines of its corridors are clean. There is a faint echo in its design of the Dalai Lama’s deserted Potala palace in Lhasa, but what struck me most about it is that it looked like a modern version of the architecture seen in the 1930’s film Lost Horizons, based on the novel by James Hilton. It has an enormous entrance which doubles as a parking lot and at the end of this parking lot is a low two-story building where they have a bar.

Hotels do their best to take care of your every need. And in some ways they also do their best to protect you from the local culture when you are in a developing country. That is not always a bad thing, for here in Nepal there are continuous power outages and whenever they occur the hotel generator kicks in and you are back in action. You are more or less safe; there is a doctor in the house or nearby, a barber, gym, tasty and clean restaurants and satellite TV. They also want to provide you with some local color so with that in mind, at the invitation of an American colleague, I went to the Corner Bar.

The Corner Bar is in a smaller separate building in the Radisson Hotel compound. It is on the second floor and as you walk in on the left there is a glittering bar with every kind of drink you can imagine awaiting your pleasure, manned by young, fit Nepalis, in this case with that Buddhist look of the northern tribes close to Tibet, yet in white shirt and colored vests that makes one think of Shanghai in the thirties when Europeans and the Chinese merchant elite were living the good life. The seats are wide and spacious, and above a dais at the end of the room sit five musicians, in front of an elaborately carved series of three window like frames done in the Newari Buddhist style that has made the temples of Kathmandu valley famous.

I order a hot glass of fruit juice and talked to a friend of my colleague, a young Nepali rock enthusiast named Indra. He is a fan of heavy metal and Deep Purple, who I noted in the papers were coming to a major stadium in Kathmandu in a few days time.

The band comprised a drummer who played an electric drum kit but with sticks, a female singer, a lead guitarist, another male singer who sang from a list of lyric sheets and smack in the center an electric keyboard player who played everything with such large amounts of reverb that I imagined myself in a shopping mall in Bangkok. The woman sang in Nepali. The melodies sounded Chinese to me but with a twist that must be Nepali, and that sometimes veered into and out of Latin beats and Spanish melodies. Then the young man sang in a slightly accented American English, songs like Hotel California. They did not separate the repertoires but glided in and out of each one. Young, hip Nepali men and women in their early twenties, dressed in the latest international styles, chatted, laughed, smoked cigarettes, drank whisky and flirted with each other. 

I recognize that I am in what sociologists would call a “modernizing situation.” The music went back and forth between east and west and various hybrids thereof. There were other longhaired Nepali musicians sitting in the corner nursing their drinks and probably waiting to play. The whole thing is definitely “a scene.”

I suppose if I was Tom Wolf I would confidently declare that this is what urban Kathmandu types think is hip. But I was not sure. Perhaps there are other scenes that I do not know about.

As I look through the window of the corner bar I can see the main building of the Radisson Hotel across the parking lot and entrance looking like a post modern clear lined version of a Buddhist Monastery, with its mild rose sandstone exterior and large glass windows.

Sitting in the bar one evening eating my Tibetan dumplings I thought of a way of doubling the tourist revenue for Kathmandu without reducing air pollution, improving transportation or, upgrading the electricity and sewage systems. My idea was to make a James Bond film in Nepal. That would double the number of tourist arrivals. Here is the first scene of the film.

Suddenly I become aware of a long line or wire, extending from the top floor all the way to the corner bar. Along that line slides a well-suited Chinese man carrying a black briefcase, using those hand held devices that you see in so many spy films. He crashes through the window, tumbles on to the ground, pulls out a gun and stands up. He yells, “Everyone on the floor and don’t look up.” He gestures to the musicians to continue playing and they fearfully take up their instruments and the woman resumes singing.

James Bond comes running across the room from the back of the bar, knocks the man off his feet and a furious fist fight/kung Fu fight begins. Bottles smash, bar tenders cringe under the bar, windows are broken, there is a glitter of glass everywhere. They try to strangle each other. They place fierce kicks at each other, the camera shows the fear on the faces of the young couples huddled on the ground. It is a choreography of killing.

The fight goes on furiously for a two full minutes. It is a ballet of Kung Fu bar violence ingenuity. They use very trick in the book from every film made in the genre.

As the villain manages to wound James Bond and leaves him lying on the ground he runs out of the bar to the stairs, still carrying the black brief case. What is in it? Is it a sacred jewel stolen from a Buddhist Monastery in a hidden valley? Is it the code for a diabolical plan to bring down the Asian stock market? Or, is the list of every NATO agent in Asia?

It does not matter, for just as the villain turns down the stairs, James Bond picks up a decorative Kukri, or Nepali Gurhka knife, that adorns the wall, and like a master circus performer, delivers it into the skull of the bad guy who falls lifeless. Bond, cool as a cucumber gets up, brushes off his suit, retrieves the brief case, pulls out some Nepali cash, gives it to the now blushing female lead singer and says to her, “I liked the last song the best.” Leading the female singer by the arm to the bar he orders her a whisky. He then asks for a Martini. As he looks into the adoring eyes of the singer he turns to the bar tender and mutters, “Oh Yes, make that shaken, not stirred.

The following day I took a cab to the office. My driver and I battled the traffic, noise and dust of downtown Kathmandu. My driver was a young Nepali who was clearly of Tibeto Burman origin although he emphasized that he was a Hindu. He is in his thirties, lively, talkative and quite realistic as most taxi drivers usually are around the world. He told me that he had worked as a sous chef in Saudi Arabia for a number of years. He eventually returned home because in Saudi Arabia as he told me, “very hard to find woman, cannot have a temple, Saudis do not work, people are cruel.” He said that in Kathmandu, “I am free.” He had come home from Arabia to reclaim his Karma in the arms of a Nepali woman.

But what about my own Karma? I began reading about the Hindu world when I was twenty as an undergraduate at York University. There I studied the North Indian sitar, the South Indian mrdangam, listened to a full range of folk and classical music and read the sociology of South Asia. I also read some of the major sources of the Hindu tradition, the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. When I was thirty I took up Yoga and have read a few books about this possibly ancient but controversial aspect of this “world denying” stream of Hindu culture that has been domesticated in North America as the ultimate key to physical and mental health. I spent much time “hanging out” with people from South Asia and have followed the news and politics of the place for the last few decades.

Nevertheless this was the first time I had actually lived within the culture. My familiarity with all things Hindu, including the names of Bollywood stars, startled my young Nepali colleagues. They asked me how was it possible to get the measure of a civilization within a few weeks? I answered that it was impossible. I explained that in my past life I had been a Hindu. I then explained that as a Hindu, I had lived an exemplary life and that I had been rewarded. I was born a Canadian citizen at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto on the auspicious first day of summer, the summer solstice, on Father’s day, June 21, 1953 at 12:30 am. Not quite Midnight’s Children, but close enough.



Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.


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