Not Quite Midnight’s Children: The Karma of Kathmandu

by Geoffrey Clarfield (December 2013)



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

3. destiny or fate

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.

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