Kolkata and Kathmandu

After living for three years in Kolkata during the mid-1980s, when I returned to Kathmandu and started re-familiarising myself with the Nepali capital I would often be struck by commonalities between the layouts of the main parts of the two cities. The striking Dharahara tower loomed over the roadside hawkers of Sundhara, just as the Shahid Minar towered over the Dharamtala flea-markets. The Dashrath Stadium and the area extending from there to Ratna Park, with all the football played in between, reminded me of the Kolkata maidan. Even today, the wall graffiti bears similar phrases – Down with expansionism! Down with imperialism! Translated into English from Bengali or Nepali, these sound peculiar. The politics-breathing citizens of the two cities perhaps found solace in the search for the various nuances of these words. The tax havens of Makhan and Indrachowk in Kathmandu resembled the streets of Burrabazar in Kolkata – in both, the Marwari traders spoke the local language fluently even without treating the city as their home. Their various committees and religious fraternities were little oases made in the image of their own little Rajasthan or Haryana in their adopted cities.

On a recent visit to Singha Durbar, the seat of Nepali government, I become nostalgic about the corridors of Writers' Building in Kolkata. Only the squeaking fans are missing in Singha Durbar, but they are in winter replaced by weirdly designed heaters. The way 'tea money' changes hands, the way signage is meant to confuse rather than guide, the manner in which the Khardars treat you – all these do not differ from how things are at Writers' Building and the way the babus there treat visitors.

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Himal Southasian
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