The infamy of Thamel – Kathmandu’s glamourous, dangerous, fashionable city centre – is such that I first encountered it before even getting to Kathmandu. As I headed off to my first visit to Nepal’s capital city, a friend advised me not to stay in that part of the city. Later I came to know I was kept from sudden exposure with a place that is many-splendoured but did not truly understand this before I read Rabi Thapa’s Thamel: Dark Star of Kathmandu.
Thapa’s unadorned account of Thamel should catch the attention of those who still have something to do with Kathmandu, as well as for those who are in the process of entering the space that, in the author’s account, “is a bar, a parlour, a trek store, a whore, a bore, the core of the week, and of a line, flung to the future, blast from the past, blowing through as you watch another wasted sunset fade into the mauve light of night… A thousand signs clamouring for your attention, bad at the best of times, sublime when you don’t expect it, the village all grown up and demanding a pair of Levi’s.”
The book, introduced as a work in ‘the best traditions of flanerie’ – the account of a leisurely stroller, is sometimes a little too light in tone for covering some parts where the issues are deadly serious. Nevertheless, on the whole, it works well as Thapa ‘guides’ us with a mix of history, memoir and intelligent reportage of a place forever in flux. While writing on Thamel, Thapa is not presenting here the case of a ‘forbidden territory’ – rather he allows the reader to experience the place before forming a view about its beauty or horror.
Filled with rich anecdotes, which includes the author’s own ‘tryst with Thamel’, present a perfect landing for the enthusiasts to know about the place that “is today the beating commercial and cult rural heart of Kathmandu – a dizzying square kilometre of hotels, bars, cafes, bookshops and temples to which visitors and residents gravitate, drawn by its dazzle and its possibilities.”
This is a rare kind of biography of a locale that is neither bulky nor overtly judgmental – but nevertheless provides a detailed overview of everything essential in Kathmandu’s existence. In going the extra mile around the city’s temples and monasteries, Thapa makes the complex chapters of history simpler. This is truer when he opens up on king, monks and travelling merchants who laid the foundations of modern Nepal.
Thapa, as a chronicler appears to be a people’s historian – although, to his credit, he does not hide his own elite background. He suggests that the world needs to get to know Thamel’s residents – both Nepali and those visitors that arrived but never left. In keeping universe at Thamel, Thapa observes the changes in Kathmandu from the not-so-bustling city of the ‘flower-power’ sixties, the fabled freak street and the rise of ‘city culture’ at its ‘centre and periphery’.
The book gets better the deeper you go in, with its descriptions of local strongmen, aimless children, prostitutes and entrepreneurs looking to turn big in no time. Thamel’s many iconic guesthouses – both the good and the bad – also get a look in. To complete a finely detailed portrait of the place, and the whole city, Thapa beautifully includes all sorts of western and local ‘fantasies’ about Kathmandu, the place he calls his “half-home”.
One of the bits that may be of particular interest is the story of books and bookstores in Kathmandu, especially the Pilgrims Book House and its high-spirited owner from the banks of the Ganga in Banaras, Ramanand Tiwari. A city cannot have flux without of tragedies, and this book house is linked to the massive fire that destroyed many precious books and a place of counter-culture. In its own way, this undercuts the prejudice against Thamel and other not-so-posh areas of Kathmandu.
Sometime back, an engaged public intellectual Abhi Subedi had written about Thamel as, “a newly emerged space in Kathmandu.” His play, A Journey into Thamel (2003) – is one of the few significant works on Thamel before Rabi Thapa wrote his full-fledged, though not very thick, book.
Written in early last decade when Nepal was witnessing the last phase of the People’s War or the Maoist insurgency, the play was designed to show Thamel as a ‘metaphor’ that encompasses regular, revolutionary and bizarre dreams of the masses of this part of the world. Although the idea of Thamel as an emblem is not old, it seems to be a strong one that will endure.
Here elites rarely visit during the day, though some of them break the rule, to get cheap drink or to hangout, which makes sense for them as they save money and don’t get their reputation tampered. Here, though, unlike the rest of the city where the elite and masses live in different parts, things are a little more mixed together, with the local toughs or humble residents rubbing shoulders.
Slowly, though, the rest of the city and people living in their clusters are inching closer to Thamel. Thapa’s book – and its success – confirms this, as Thamel becomes more mainstream.
Nepali Writing in English (NWE) is generating interests at home and in the world, especially in India and the West. Rabi Thapa has helped this trend to get some extra traction. But in the Queen’s language, Nepal’s past and present need to be covered more. With its democratic transition and its revolutions, Nepal has rarely seen ‘normal’ times, yet this has not handicapped the creative urge of a new generation writers. This book is a great illustration of that.
Atul K. Thakur is a New Delhi-based journalist and writer, he can be reached on email@example.com