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Manjushree Thapa Reflects on Katmandu, Nepal

The Daily Beast: The Katmandu of the past lives on in present-day Katmandu. When the mountains glitter against a clear blue sky, when yellow jasmine blooms in a neighbor’s garden, or when a devotee rings a temple bell, I remember the small, sleepy town this used to be.
Today it is a city of pell-mell growth and aspiration. Every day, the sidewalks narrow as another house goes up. The roads clog with traffic and the air thickens with dust. All the familiar landmarks fall away. The ancient Bodhi tree at the center of the business district, the paddies that once circled the valley, and even the museum that served as the royal palace until the end of the monarchy in 2008: they’re overshadowed by construction. New neighborhoods crop up, confounding residents and making us lose our way.

As Nepal’s capital, Katmandu has always attracted migrants from the countryside, but it grew especially rapidly during the Maoist insurgency of 1996–2006, when people flocked here for security, both physical and financial. The war had destroyed the economy. There was little to invest in elsewhere. And Katmandu acted as the gateway for those who had lost faith in their country to seek work—or a new life—abroad.

This overstressed city can now barely govern itself. Outside of the monsoon season, residents queue up for water, and feel thankful for electricity and cooking gas. Getting a job, getting health care, and even just getting a passport to leave is a struggle here.

Despite this, an interesting thing is happening: Katmandu is turning into a microcosm of the country. Nepal is very heterogeneous, with more than a hundred castes and ethnic identities, and as many languages and dialects. Its jagged terrain enforces isolation. From valley to hill, mountain to plain, fellow citizens can be strangers to one another. But in the capital everyone is elbow to elbow now, encountering one another and the Katmandu valley’s indigenous Newar people, sometimes for the first time. Learning about others we learn about ourselves.

We also learn about the world in its complexity. By choice or necessity, the Nepali diaspora is at present scattered throughout Asia and the Mideast, and also much farther afield. Their family’s fortunes, and worldviews, are shaped by global events. And so an aspiring model and a returned migrant worker jostle together on a crowded Katmandu street. One dreams of New York Fashion Week and the other frets about the Arab Spring.

From this meeting of worlds emerges a distinct ethos. I think of it as a Katmandu cool. The Western hippies of the 1960s and ’70s blazed a trail of nonconformism through Nepal. Nepal’s duty-bound youth are finally exploring this path, stealing away to Katmandu’s discreet eateries and bars, tucked-away hotels and picnic spots, to experiment, transgress, break free, and perchance to discover themselves.

They do so in the proximity of young globe-trotters who come here for the mountains and the mystique—and for the low-budget rest and relaxation. The resulting fusions and confusions of East and West excite and awaken and inspire. Contemporary art and music and literature are thriving in Katmandu, alongside strident questioning, heated political debate, and civil-rights movements of all varieties.

As for the original hippies: many are still here, gathered at the temples and monasteries, aglow with teachings on enlightenment. Cultural historians believe that Katmandu was once laid out in concentric circles, in the form of a Buddhist mandala. Its markers still remain. Pressed by the demands of the mundane realm, modern Nepalis rush past the sacred, whereas Western dharma seekers linger, taking in each marvel.

Indeed, what I love most about Katmandu is also what I regret most about it. Amid all its growth, daily life has become impossibly hectic here.

But every now and then—when a new neighborhood confounds me, when I lose my way—I stop. And I reacquaint myself with my hometown:

A tout rolls a joint to lure a tourist, who scuttles away nervously. Urban hipsters gossip over cappuccinos at a trendy café as a farmer walks by, carrying his produce to market on a bamboo yoke. A rag picker scavenges outside a bar where the intelligentsia gathers to speculate on the latest. Young monks slip into a theater to watch a Bollywood film. A world-weary politician chants a desperate mantra under his breath. At a wayside shrine, an aged grandmother supplicates at the feet of a wrathful protector-deity.

Manjushree Thapa is the author of several books of fiction and nonfiction. Her latest novel is Seasons of Flight.

Published Date: Monday, April 2nd, 2012 | 06:55 PM

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