A Lahori let loose in the Nepali capital
The bell rings. It is Sugrat. He is here for advice.
“I am going to Kathmandu, give me advice.”
I look at him, sizing his desperation. “Karachi to Kathmandu. Sit on the left. Window seat.” He thanks me and leaves. I am the wise one, people come from all over for my advice…
Outskirts of Kathmandu. At the feet of the great Swaymbunath. I am amidst. Tibetans matriarchs spinning their prayer wheels, clockwise. Everything is clockwise here. The mo mos are closed with a – clockwise twirl. The tea is stirred clockwise. Eyes are rolled clockwise.
This is TCR, Tourist Corner Restaurant to you, which is not on a corner. Raju is looking cool in his 132.T-shirt, he’s playing Jim Morrison. Some locals are savouring their thukpas on the next table…I am, sipping my veggie soup and staring at the posters on the wall. The panoramic sweep of the Annapurna range. The walls are pastel green. A German couple enters and suddenly the quetness explodes in a barrage of “Ya ya”, “Ya ya”. The woman laughs at her own jokes like a doll on batteries. The man, it .seems achieved enlightenment a long time ago but then it got lost in his hair or beard. He wears a lost expression. Ye shall find it. Ya ya.
Raju’s mates are here and the card game is on over whisky. It is still .afternoon.
“What are you doing in Nepal?” he asks absentmindedly, eyes fixed on his cards, “trekking…visiting..: sight seeing…?”
“…Thinking…,” I say after a pause.
A nod of the head which says, ‘Of course, naturally, I know what you mean’. What other city can give such a weird answer such understanding? The thukpa is yet to arrive. I look out of the window towards the Kimdol centre. The women are perennially drying their hair, sweeping the front steps, filling up water. The ubiquitous dog is lazing in the sun. The rooster is strutting. The hairdresser is dozing.
Suddenly the front door is wrenched open and a scruffy white man blurts in a French tone “CNN?” Raju has to oblige and grudgingly flicks the channel from the laidback cricket test between England and Pakistan, to the latest typhoon about to hit some one-horse town in the land of the free. The nasal correspondent is calculating the damage in millions of dollars. “Thank you Marty, we’ll catch up with you later.”
The Frenchman watches this news as if his life depends on it, and maybe it does, but when he sits through the ensuing basketball scores and list of hotels showing CNN with the same wild eyed raptness, I suspect something amiss. The monsieur finishes his tea and leaves. The locals exchange bemused glances, shakes of the head, smiles and a laugh—foreigners.
We flick back to cricket. The Kathmandu Post is full of news about Pakistan and India; a committee has been formed to organize celebrations for King Birendra’s birthday; a survey has asked what you’d like to be considered, sexy or smart. Cindy Crawford says smart, Jennifer Lopez says sexy. More news. Nepali boys are providing sex to tourists. A 30-something Belgian lady has been interviewed in this connection. “They are sensitive and look me in the eye when I talk to them,” she is reported to have said. The remote control has ended up with one of the young monks, in their maroon robes and shaven heads. Flick, flick—Mithun Chakraborty, pause, two rhinos copulating, a motorcycle crashing—flick—Karishma Kapoor in white tights—pause (guilty one)—flick, flick, flick—Robbie Williams, CNN weather, a wrestling match, the habits of the spider monkey—flick, flick…
Stop man, correction, stop monk. This fickle flicking. You’re supposed to know all about stillness and patience and watching time go by and detachment, I shout in my head.
A monk with a remote is a dangerous monk. He will fill up all the emptiness and shatter all the stillness that you have garnered over the years with a few fickle flicks.
On my sun-washed terrace I’m having a sangtra, very slowly. Serendipity takes you to the books left by others in rooms and my lot has been The Naked Ape.
“I love you, I love myself,” rises the voice. “Peaceful valley, shakti radio, HBC 94.7 FM”. The messages are supposed to work subliminally. Supposed to. We are soon to be reminded that this technique isn’t very effective by a certain unknowing film star called Hrithik Roshan and much later, by a berserk crown prince.
I go down and I’m out. Kimdol is a microcosm. Tibetan prayer flags flutter languidly setting afloat free prayers for everyone as far as the breeze carries the words. I walk down to the square. On one side is Sudhir the hairdresser’s shop, opposite a butcher’s with expectant dogs a picture of patience outside. The D.S. Cold Corner offers cold drinks and film editing facilities. A few general stores and a beauty parlour signboard with a painting of a beautiful woman who looks like Oscar Wilde. A new shop has sprouted, “Email, Hotmail and Plastic Flowers” proclaims the sign outside.
Inside, incense fills the cyber space. A woman is talking to her in-laws in the U.S over the internet telephone. Yes, it really is plastic flowers our young entrepreneur is selling. A bouquet for NR 150. I wish him luck and walk on.
Taxis. I get one, a green Maruti which sputters, and wait for the question: “Where you from?”
“You tell me,” its like an auto reply function.
So I tell him and watch his face to see it lit up by a smile and sure it comes right on.
Why are taxi drivers in South Asia pleased when you tell them that you are from Pakistan?
Be it Kathmandu, Colombo and yes hard to believe, even Dhaka. Is it part of some SAARC resolution?
Over time I have figured out this. Taxi drivers in South Asia are happy to hear that you’re Pakistani because:
- a) You’re not Indian.
- b) You’re not Indian.
“Pakistanis very good,” gushes the Maruti driver. I nod sagely as we unconsciously switch into a mixture of English and filmi Hindi, the lingua franca of the Subcontinent.
“One man from Pakistan sat in my taxi and said, `Bahadur I want a girl’, so I arranged a girl for him, young and beautiful.
Then they go for lunch and send me a beer outside. Very good man. Then I took him to Nagarkot for one night with the girl and he gave me one thousand rupees. Very good man. Would you like me to arrange a girl? Bahadur is no pimp but it can be arranged.”
Bahadur I’m sorry, you’re no pimp but I’m not a very good man.
Bahadur’s taxi has taken me through Dhalko, past Sunshine laundry, past the wholesale woman on whom I have a wholesale crush, past the “Vote for Sun” wall chalking and past the leaning house bolstered up by wooden beams. My meeting point is Naradevi, which I later found out is the temple of Kali.
He was supposed to be here ages ago. I watch children in grey uniforms go by. A young Buddhist monk appears clutching a piece of paper and looking lost. He drifts towards me and without uttering a word, hands me the paper. On the paper is a curse that two thirds of our people face at least once in their lives—an address and directions written in English.
My Nepali, Hindi and Punjabi fail spectacularly in the first 35 seconds. I don’t manage in showing him the way, but I do manage in attracting a small crowd. Finally someone suggests in rapid Tibetan that he should start with taking a right and the rest will take care of itself. The crowd disperses and I heave a sigh of relief and return him the cursed paper. That’s when the monk looks me straight in the eye and says with an effort:
“You are a kind man,” and melts back into the crowd.
Still reeling from the simplicity of these five words, I see Kiran appear like a ray of the sun. He kicks his Bajaj and his Bajaj kicks him back and we’re on our way. Motorcycles in Kathmandu have attitude. Chinese and South Korean, sleek angry machines which growl and prowl weaving in and out of the cycle rickshaws and the popcorn sellers. Girls hug their men who are also growling and prowling. Two –helmets in love. A closer look and it turns out that the intimidating machines are actually 125 cc dornestichearted two wheelers and won’t climb the Swayambhu uphill even if you swore at them in Chinese or South Korean.
Same goes for the drivers.
On to the promise of a place called Jatra, which lies in Sat Ghoomti, a peaceful nook of Thamel. Jatra is inconspicuous and unassuming, an old house with secrets inside. The secret we are to unravel tonight has come all the way from Mustang—apple and peach brandy.
Amit Gurung is here. He’s got the guitar and he plays 0 Zindagani. He’s from Nepathya,
I am told, a very famous band and Amit is an icon himself. I wouldn’t have known, for his ego isn’t showing. The guitar is passed on and now Manod is playing it. How come every-other guy in this city can play the friggin’ guitar?
Alok has just become a father and everyone’s congratulating him. Before Jatra, he and his partners almost bought a petrol station. Someone puts on Abba and the rest follows.
The whole place is lit up with oil lamps, they line the walls of terraces and rooftops. The drone of prayers carries across from the monasteries.
“So what’s going on here?” asks Kiran puzzled, as he is dropping me off in Kimdol.
“It’s the Dalai Lama’s birthday, of course,” I say almost scoldingly and walk away almost in a huff. Down the road to home a pack of playfully hostile dogs joins me as an escort.
Behind my back I can feel Kiran sheepishly kicking his Bajaj.
The bassist was singing Wish You Were Here, as if he meant it. This is the band Criss Cross and we’re at the washed out party of Deependra Gauchan and his brigade of 20- somethings. The struggling bonfire is trying to infuse half a hope into the half optimistic revellers, but the spirit has been dampened. The song has ended and the earnest bassist comes up to me.
“I was singing that for our former guitarist. He died of drug abuse.”
“So am I,” he flashes a guilty look at the beer in his hand. “But I only drink beer not whisky.” Oh, this sounds interesting.
“Why is that?”
“Because I’m only half Muslim”.
I don’t recall, if his father was the Muslim or his mother or one of the grandparents, but this young man was definitely 50 percent Muslim and therefore 50 percent alcohol proof. I was in half a mind to suggest that he should stop inhaling when he smoked, but let it go. Who says an identity crisis can’t be sorted out.
Deependra comes in. He wants me to stop being such a bore and dance. I assure him that I was already at it, just that he is just too drunk to notice. He looks unsure but doesn’t press me anymore. This is the man who fronted Kathmandu’s consciousness band, The Naked Truth, long years ago.These boys were rebels, they wouldn’t stop short of a revolution. One fine morning they upped the heat and did away with the ‘Truth’, becoming simply The Naked but the revolution still did not arrive. If they were still around, they’d be called The Knackered.
Deependra is still a live wire but already many of his sentences are beginning with, “When we were your age… ,” as he exhorts his apolitical and apathetic brood of media boys and girls. Let it go Deependra, these kids are 50 percent gone.
Manod comes and drags me to the dance floor. I can’t demur because Manod has seven brothers and each one’s name begins with an ‘M’. It’s a rooftop. I can see the jail.
In the taxi going home, Kantipur FM comes through crystalline. The subject of the discussion in progress is “Plastic bags: good or bad”. Callers are giving their opinions.
“I think plastic bags are bad,” says Ramyata.
“Cool, Ramyata,” chuckles the D.J. in his yankee twang, ‘Why do ya think so ?”
“Because ummm, they get, ummm, stuck.”
“Yeah, right on,” gushes the yank.
“Who you wanna give a shout out to?”
“To Himani, my bestest friend.”
“Oops… I did it again.”
“You got it,” and he laughs the universal fake laugh of all FM DJs. And as Britney Spears started lamenting that she had done it again, the desperation of the taxi driver finally peaked, he turned down the radio and turned around to me:
“Where you from?”
U.G. is Bhutanese. Not only that, he is illegal. Not only that, he used to be a monk in Bhutan. And not only that when he arrived in Kathmandu he traded his robes for a leather jacket and partied for two years straight. U.G. works at his uncle’s antiques shop but his ambition in life is to go to New York and drive a cab. He goes bright red by the third drink.
Alka is looking bored behind the bar, Kishna and his mates are having a mini party on the house, as it is Kishna’s joint; the almost-always deserted Classic Bar & Restaurant.
U.G. is with friends, Naresh, Manoj and Sunil. They are drinking Tibetan beer and local whisky to celebrate U.G.’s first date with a girl he has been wooing. It is only a matter of time when U.G.’s redfaced entreaties draw me into their magic circle, “just for five minutes”.
“So what do you think of Nepali girls?
“I think they are beautiful.”
“I think Pakistani girls are beautiful.”
We both nod sagely. “Where have you seen them?”
“I think Nepali and Pakistani girls are the most beautiful in South Asia.”
“That is so true.”
“There are 18 beautiful girls in India and all of them are in the film industry. The rest are like, like”… he was struggling… “mathematics students.”
“Yes, but they are better to talk to than Pakistani girls,” I venture.
“Who wants to talk yar?”
Silly me. Of course, who wants to talk.
“I once went out with a Muslim girl,” Sunil.
“How was it?” “Very hard.”
“I went out with a Sikh girl,” Naresh.
“You know what 1 like about Nepali girls?” I hear myself saying.
“When they are wearing jeans, they are in the jeans. Like the jeans become them and it, the whole Western aesthetic just… just… goes with their hairdos and footwear and eyes… you know.”
Everyone nods philosophically. They have no idea what I’m going on about. Neither do I.
“Whereas when a Pakistani or an Indian girl wears jeans, it looks like they are wearing jeans. Something outside of themselves.
They don’t become it.”
This is getting thicker. I am waiting for the goddess of political correctness to send forth a bolt of lightening any time. In the meantime…
“But you know what?” We all turn to Amit who has emerged from behind The Kethmaudu Post.
“Princess Anne looks like a man.”
“Masculine,” calls out Alka from behind the bar. “You should say ‘masculine’,”
“Yes, right, ‘masculine,”‘ agrees Amit,
“like a man.”
This is hopeless.
Outside on New Road, there is trouble. The Bollywood superstar Hrithik Roshan, who my friends believe to have evolved from a mule, lookswise strictly, has offended Nepali sensibilities by allegedly saying something as stupid as, ‘I hate all Nepalis’. The beauty of it all is that he is supposed to have said this two weeks ago. And as it later turned out, he didn’t say it at all. This morning I had been one of the bemused onlookers as a group of young men assembled an effigy of Hrithik. Fat housewives wrapped in saris cackled and little kids looked in puzzlement at the sight. This motley assembly of the morning had given way to a grim and grave mob by evening. Is it Hrithik’s effigy they are burning ?
New Road with its flash of electronic goods and fat Indian seths is closed. Shutters down. Lights off. I go close to the bonfire, on a wall close by a handmade placard addressed to Mr. Roshan explains painstakingly how the superstar has so much in common with a dog, especially a dog in the act of fornication. There is an attempt at explaining this rather convoluted connection visually as well but it makes things even more complicated. In the flickering firelight I can make out the words: “Your eyes are like twinkling testicles.”
While all twinkling hell was breaking loose in the anti-India wave that swept Kathmandu that night, trust only a Sikh to keep his business open. The Sher-e-Punjab restaurant with its Coca Cola sponsored neon sign, was trying to live upto its name. ‘The Lion of Punjab’ was braver than the clock- and camera-selling merchants, well half as brave at least, as it kept half a shutter open.
Inside, the telly is showing a cricket match between South Africa and Zimbabwe accompanied by the sound of swearing in Punjabi. I’m very much at home. One look at the menu and my mouth waters, dial with achaar and roti and raaita. The sardarji behind the counter is curious as he sees me fall on the food. Punjabi flows freely across the divide between us. “So what have you been eating around here?” he finally pops the question.
A flash of pain crosses his face. “Mo mo?” he blurts the word out in distaste, nose wrinkled.. What he actually means to say is “Why?” Disapproval. If a man is known by the company he keeps, a Punjabi is known by the food he eats. The Sardarji at the adjoining table gets up and comes over.
“You from Lahore? I’m from Jammu. Professor of Geography at the University. These are my students, we’re here for New Year’s, and this is my family.” A sweep of the hand, a wife with shopping in her eyes, two children with glazed eves transfixed by the cricket of the day.
The group of voting boys who are here for New Year’s is eating in silence. Sher-e- Punjab teases them in the typical Punjabi juggat or one-liners, “Whoever is feeling scared should have an extra roti.” I laugh despite myself. “So what do you do?”
“I’m a patakar.” My Hindi has become polished.
“Oh which paper do you write for?”
“The News on Sunday, sometimes.”
I look at the professor and try to fathom the geography of this question. But in the end it is just a Sardar thing. I get an update on the politics of Kashmir and he on our general. Kathmandu magic again. Where else can Indian and a Pakistani discuss Kashmir in Punjabi, while watching Gary Kirsten bat, with angry Nepalis demonstrating outside?
The shutter of Sher-e-Punjab is like a half cocked gun. Down at any second. Suddenly I’m not a Pakistani anymore. How can anyone tell? The irony of the situation is too fantastic. Some 50 years ago my grandparents were huddling in their homes scared of Sikh mobs and now ill another time and place 1 am huddling with the Sikhs, in this scene straight out of Partition.
On the way out, I have to stop at J.S. Photos. This is the best place for black&white prints. lima has led me here and I keep coming back. “Namaste Salik bhai.” Salik is a Muslim name, `namaste’ has not much to do with Islam and neither does Salik himself. He is a Shrestha. Out of the nine or so men I have acquired a nodding acquaintance with since my arrival, four are Shresthas. A low-intensity terrorist act in Nepal could consist of going to the cinema, a jam packed hall, much like at our friend’s blockbuster Kaho Na Pyar Hai, before it got chucked out of Kathmandu cinemas, and in the middle of the film yell out, “Mr. Shrestha your house is on fire!” A mini stampede is guaranteed.
On the other hand, I’m in half a mind to stumble into a Tibetan chai shop and collapse on the floor with the words, “Tsering, I love you.” It would leave all the men red faced and every other woman blushing. And the one person who would not be called Tsering, would not be a Tibetan. Salik bhai hands me the photos. I say goodbye and walk straight into a wedding band. 1 bounce back into the shop. “A Marwari’s wedding,” says Salik bhai wryly with an undertone the connotation of which I can only guess at. Every community has their Marwaris, rich and bloated traders, who’re always complaining how bad the business is.
The bridegroom seems malnourished. Women decked in gold waddle around, men in awkwardly fitted suits follow the brass band listlessly. Boy, weddings are the same everywhere.
When the procession is past, I make my way towards the budget tourist quarter. Past the allegedly yak wool shawls 1 head towards Thamel. On the way the Chhetrapati bandstand, Thahiti with the Mona Lisa music shop. Years ago we had rented motorbikes from here and gone to Nagarkot. A little detour at Jyatha and into the obscure little shop in a cove for my annual visit. This is where I have returned over the years to buy hand-drawn images of mandalas and mythological animals with no names.
“You’re from Pakistan,” says the shop owner who is also the artist. For the first time, someone has it right and I am relieved. “You work for TV,” he adds. I’m surprised at how much he remembers and kick myself for not even remembering his name.
He’s been at work at some new images. It is a tough choice and as always I agonise and oscillate. Finally I decide on a dragon and he gives me a generous discount.
“Because I’m your regular customer,” I beam self-congratulatingly.
“No, because you’re my neighbour,” he states matter of factly.
We say goodbyes and I’m back on the main road, eyeing rice paper calendars and herbal teas. Yes, I remember now. His last name is Chitrakar.
“Monkey Temple sir, Monkey Temple, I’ll show you,” a young guide latches on to me. This derogatory name for dumb tourists never fails to raise my ire. “It’s called Swayambunath!” I feel like hollering in his face, but just holler inside my head instead and walk on. As soon as I start hearing revoltingly sugar-coated ‘Namastes’ and grovelling bows and smiles, I know I’m in Thamel. I think of Madhu and how this anti-Bombay sweetness got on her nerves.
“Hash, sir!” a passing form murmurs. Oh no, I hadn’t shaved or combed my hair, and I walk in a daze normally, so it was going to be a bad day. Another one, ‘Smoke sir, very good hash, right here I have.’ Shake of the head, polite ‘no’. By the fifth or sixth approach I had had it. “Hash?!! What?! You’re selling HASH??!!” That did the trick, the pusher slunk off.
It is only the next morning I realise how close things had been or how far they had gone. Two people dead, one little girl playing at home. Stray bullet by the trigger happy Nepali police. I am angry and disgusted. Everyone is talking about it. Raju, Sudhir, Bishnu, Didi. I detect a sense of surprise in the atmosphere, an unfamiliar fear.Then I realise that unlike my violence-immune Pakistani self, my Nepali hosts are not used to people dying easily and unnecessarily.
To get my mind off the events I go into “Email, Hotmail and Plastic Flowers”. Nur Jehan is dead, long live Nur Jehan; Clare is in Australia; Huma has had another baby boy; A friend from BBC radio wants a first-hand account of what he calls a contradictions in terms—’Nepali anger’.
“What is Hrithick Roshan upto?” he has written. I type back.
‘Nothing, it’s just a twinkling thing, you won’t understand.’
The sun is bright; the day is crisp and friendly and does not judge me, just like Kathmandu… or do I speak too soon. It’s the day after the violence, a bandh is in force. The roads are empty, people stroll down the middle with families. I see Ma nisha lounging about in her night clothes with friends, Alka is learning to drive the motorbike. I walk through Tahachal into Chhauni, the cantonment area, where soldiers are returning from home leave. This area is green and peaceful, the National Museum is close by. If you visit you can see a cannon used in the war of 1857 against the British, a whale bone and half a tiger sticking out of a wall. And that is exactly what it is, half a tiger, sawed off at the waist and stuck onto a wall. I checked the other side of the wall to see if the tiger made it through but there was nothing.
This is a rich area so perhaps that’s why Sri Rajneesh’s ashram is housed here. It has a closed and austere face, unwelcoming. Backroad s take me to Kalimati where I hang out on the footbridge with the chicken and vegetable vendors, down below pigs are feeding off the filth in the river, or what used to be one. The Bagmati is an open sewer now.
I stroll around aimlessly. In one corner elderly men are having a very competitive game of marbles with their grandchildren. Onlookers are family and friends who pass jokes and taunts, egging the players on. Where has this Kathmandu been? Strikes are good to remind us of our purpose on earth, i.e. play marbles with the young ones. Something hits me on the back of the head, I swivel around. It’s a wild berry, now rolling away on the pavement. I glower at the giggling girl selling tomatoes on the ground, but she’s not the guilty party.
A sarcastic voice from behind me calls out, “Khan Market, Khan Market.” Oh I see. I’m a Dehliite. My list of suspects narrows down to a gang of boys sitting on the bridge rail and I try to stare them down but blink first. Brother, if only you knew what I would have to go through to get to Khan Market.
With my idyllic vision of the pacifist Nepalis lying cracked with the berry, I walk up to Ma ru Tole (“…this is where travelers used to rest on their journeys…” a guide says breathlessly to a tourist aunty and they both hurry past a wooden structure). A few more steps and the panorama of the Kathmandu Durbar Square unfurls dramatically.
Time for tea. Naresh, Sunil, U.G. and Amit are already at the Classic. From the window we can see the hawkers of Basantapur square. Antiques, curios, blackened by shoe polish, brightened by tooth powder, burnt, new stuff paraded for the tourists.
“Japanese tourists are like ants,” Naresh is explaining. He should know, he runs an antiques shop. “They all go where one goes, all do what one does.” Tell me more Naresh. He launches into his routine of The Nepali Guide with a group of Japanese tourists.
“This is the temple of Shiv,” he says in the Nepali guide voice. “Cleek, sleek, deck,” he clicks the cameras in Japanese with a Japanese face.
“This is the Royal Palace.” The invisible cameras whirl to the right, “Cleek, sleek, deck.”
“This is my grandmother.” “Cleek, deck, sleek.” The square is wrapping itself up and the burgundy of its brick floor is revealed. If there is any intermingling of myths, it is in this very place. Gods are manufactured at will, new masks, expressions and powers, the Tantrik god of wrath, the Kathmandu god of rains, this goddess, that consort.
Somehow talk has turned to religion, history, the whole lot. “Muslims were very cruel,” Naresh expounds over his third whisky. “When they invaded India, they raped women and killed children.” I stare at my glass. Naresh has studied in a school in Amritsar, it’s not his fault. My info on Hindus is not much different from my history school books. Out of the corner of my eve I can see the others exchanging nervous glances. I make as if nothing has happened.
Evening is falling. They’re playing No Woman, No Cry on the stereo.
Madhusree is my friend from Bombay and she is feeling social. Bang in the middle of Thamel she starts chatting to a Kashmiri shop owner, a young man who looks tired and frightened. She listens to him intently as he pours out his travails of leaving home and coming to this place.
“There are people who are on your side,” she assures him as he listens vacantly. know what she’s going to do next.
“You see this man?” No Madhu, don’t do it. “He’s a Pakistani and he’s my friend.” The Kashmiri’s eyes widen.
“How can that be possible?” he finally manages. I shake hands with him and don’t know what to say. On one side is Madhusree on the other myself and in the middle a Kashmiri immigrant selling carved wooden boxes to Israeli tourists. Oh Kathmandu.
“It’s a fight between the two of you nor beech inein maarcy hmn Jan rahay hnin,” he says without any fight or accusation in him. Now even Madhu doesn’t know what to say.
The Kashmiri exodus has turned to Kathmandu and they’ve become like migrant birds, going south in the off-season to Goa. Uprooted, the only trade they know is the tourist trade and there’s a visible change taking place in Thamel. More shops with Muslim names, more shops with the number 786 written in Arabic numerals at the top of the entrance. Numerologically 786 translates into th.e Quranic verse read before beginning anything, Bismillah or Rahman ar Rahim, “I begin in the name of Allah the most Benevolent the most Merciful.”
We end up at Maya Cocktail Bar. Low key, low lights. Usually they play Miles Davis but tonight is Latino night so things are getting nauseous. As it sometimes happens in this Jungian world of ours, I overhear the conversation of an old British couple at the adjacent table.
“The Kashmiri immigrants are on the rise, dear,” observes the man as he sips his wine and looks out at the street below.
“Oh are they ever,” agrees the woman. Through the window I see Nightingale Book Club. I was there a few weeks ago. A young Japanese man was browsing through Japanese porn. Cleek, deck, deck and send it to your mom.
“No thanks, I don’t need a bag,” l restrained the shopkeeper from putting my book in a Nightingale Book Club plastic bag.
“No solution to pollution without revolution,”he declared with mock gravity. “Well said comrade, but don’t despair, the revolution shall come one day,” I assured him playing his game.
“Not in our lifetime, it won’t.” So I paid for Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey and came out. He was talking in Japanese when I left.
Disillusioned idealists are on the rise, dear. Oh are they ever.
Bhai. Rattan. His shop is like nothing 1 have seen before. Sea shells, conches and all kinds of crustacean stuff line the shelves. One shelf rack is dedicated entirely to pebbles. What on earth is this all about, in landlocked Nepal ?
“These items are sacred for the Buddhists, they use them in their prayers,” Bhai Rattan enlightens me. He goes on to give me minute details about the levels of sacredness of a shell with a clockwise twirl and a one in an anti-clockwise twirl. By the end of it I’m in a twirl myself, clockwise. Bhai Rattan, who is not a Buddhist himself, brings the shells over from India and that’s why he is quite articulate in Urdu. So after the formality of showing me the shop is done with, we come to the real business… tea and. gop shop.
Between me shouting into his deaf ear and him wandering off from Urdu into Nepali, the two of us have an animated political debate on democracy in Pakistan and Nepal. Bhai Rattan has seen it all, a supporter of the late Nepali icon B.P Koirala, he is bitter and disillusioned with the current circus being passed off as democracy in his country.
“Your Zulfiqar Bhutto, father of this Benazir,” he says. “When he was hanged me and my friends protested on the roads.”
“In Kathmandu?” I ask incredulously, but it’s more of an exclamation than a question.
The image of a youngish Bhai Rattan chanting pro-Bhutto slogans on the streets of Kathmandu is beyond my apolitically hampered imagination.
I am humbled.
A brown dog curled up in the middle of the dirt road is asking to be photographed. Dogs sleep like cats in Kathmandu. On the steps of temples, in the middle of squares and roads, they curl up and doze. They come alive at night but compared to the level of aggression of their cousins in Lahore, they are a jolly lot. And why wouldn’t they be? They are worshipped in this place for heavens sake. The Dog Puja day is a day which I have the fondest memories of. Dogs with garlands and tilaks on their forehead, being fed and washed and generally made to feel important. In Nepal every dog has his day. Every second home has a dog. And each of them has the same “Beware of Dog” sign which would lead you to believe that it is an Alsatian but it is not.
I think of the dogs in Lahore who are leading a dog’s life. If you make eye contact with them they cower and slink by, expecting to be hit by a stone, and more often than not they are. It’s a game for small kids and adults alike. And when its night and you run into a pack of them, boy are you in trouble. They are vindictive and vicious and it is very understandable.
What if the dogs of Lahore came to know of the dogs of Kathmandu? I wonder. “Rhubarb,
rhubarb, rhubarb,” excited yelps and corner meetings.
“…Kathmandu is the heaven…”
They would clamour for it. Clamouring for Nepali visas, learning how to bark in Nepali, “Immigrate to Nepal” would say the posters in every Lahore alley. “No need to know Java script.” Entire packs would cross the Indian border at night to steal their way to Kathmandu. Those who would get across would sponsor the rest in Lahore. Some would be deported. Some would marry locally for nationality. Then they would have puppies not knowing if they are Nepali or Pakistani.
Dear Mom & Dad, I hope you are well, I am fine. Kathmandu is a wondrous city full of free food and dark alleys. 1 have already found a job, lying in the sun; My howling and growling prowess is coming in very handy here, as the local dogs are very soft spoken and easily pushed around. In fact in some areas our competition is with the monkeys. Can you believe it? Will call for you soon, woof. Moti.
“Ball!”—some kids playing cricket bellow in my direction. I pick it up and flick it back, almost causing a run out.
“You know cricket?”
“Where you from?”
“Pakistan…” think, think, think, “Your
I rock back but recover quickly.
“Right. And your God?”
“His Holiness the Dalai Lama.”
“Your English is very good.”
“Okay, see you.”
Yes, the English of the young ones is good indeed but even otherwise I’ve had no communication hiccups at all. Laziness, or not feeling the need, my Salvation Army
Learn Nepali book remains unopened. Usually Urdu with a few Hindi words thrown in works, if not, English is very widely understood. And when I get stuck for a word and all else fails, I very quickly learned to try a Punjabi one and many a time, it worked. Strange.
Even the names of Nepali months are exactly the same as those of the Punjab. When I had reported this to Nazneen, my Pakistani friend who has adopted Kathmandu as home, her thoughts were similar;
“Very strange,” she had said.
Perhaps it’s not so surprising, as Buddhism itself once extended across the north of Punjab right into Afghanistan… as we’ve all been reminded recently.
I make my way up the small hill opposite Swayambunath. It’s an unwinding path, a drunken boy stumbles by, up ahead 1 meet a broken beer bottle still foaming. There used to be a lake where Kathmandu stands. And one day the sage Manjushree took a boat-ride to a hill in the middle of the lake and ordered the construction of a magnificent stupa. This is where the Swavambunath now stands. On the way back, Manjushree stopped at another spot. That is where New York Pizza is now.
One last climb and I’m facing the flat grassy summit with what look like huge volcanic rocks minding their own business in the middle. Schoolchildren here as well. They’re stealing smokes. On the edge, two lovers look across the city. The yellow building on the summit which I could see from my terrace is the Olix Ling Monastery and it regurgitates a clutch of tiny monks with freshly shaven heads. They play and gambol like children, which is what they are, but for some reason I expect them to be different, serious perhaps
More and more to my horror I’m discovering how my eye of looking at my own people has become Westernised, and I haven’t even read the Lonely Planet book yet. The little monks should be new for me, not exotic. The pair of lovers sitting on the edge is a different story though. That is as exotic as they come in Pakistan. Whenever I see a couple in love, holding tight on the motorbike, in a bar, on a grassy hilltop holding hands, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, which it is, I curse Lahore. The most romantic city in the north of the Subcontinent and vou cannot walk down the street or laze around in the sun and certainly not clutch your beloved on a motorbike… unless you are very foolhardy or belong to the same gender.
I sit against a volcanic rock, and watch an eaglet testing its control in the stiff breeze. Who did I give my copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull to?
I have to pick up some gifts. A poster of the panoramic snow mountain range including Everest and rice paper handbags. Suqrat has written from Lahore. His nieces have been squabbling over the bags he bought from Patan and he needs more.
I take solace in The Walker’s Guide to Patna, a rare document.
“Kupondole: If Kathmandu is a jungle, this neck of the woods would be inhabited
by developmental mammals.”
This is not very helpful is it. I rummage in my bag and fish out The Flea Market Guidebook
and open it at random.
“Cows are sacred, they go and sleep where they want. Watch out for them, if you must stretch them out while sitting on the floor. Never step over anyone, and always move your feet to let people avoid stepping over you.”
Thank goodness I read this because I was planning to stretch the next cow I came across. Miffed, I stuff all the guide books back in the bag and step into Patan at random. “Badaam, badaam, badaam,” the vendor directs his spiel towards me. Hmmm… almonds won’t be a bad change. But as I move forward, it turns out that his ware is peanuts. Strange quirk of language has turned the Urdu/Hindi word for almonds into peanuts in Nepal. Well, okay, let’s have peanuts then. Sitting in the sun, munching on peanuts, the most natural thing to chat about is if there is any work in Pakistan. The peanut man tries to convince me that he can cook and do goldsmith’s work as well. 1 try to convince him that:
- a) There is no work in Pakistan.
- b) I do not own a factory.
However these inanities do little to put a damper on the conversation and we stumble along in broken Urdu, Hindi, Nepali, Punjabi and body English. Which brings him to the next logical question:
“Where is Pakistan?” A valid question and not very simple to answer when, as I suspect, one is not too familiar with the world map.
“You go to India and turn right,” I say hopefully.
“And where is America?” I try and then realise that it is futile.
“It’s big,” is all I can offer.
“Actually I want to be a waiter in Hong Kong,” he confides. His cousin is already there and any day now he’ll call him over. Wise choice.
“These peanuts are stale aren’t they,” I ask my man matter of factly.
“Yes, by a month at least,” he answers with a sheepish grin and makes to return my five rupees.
Now that we have shared our life stories, dreams and geography, there can be no lies between us. There can be no reimbursements either.
Time to go.
Sitting at TCR again. Hardcore trekkers wolfing down food. Kantipur FM blaring Nepali songs. Raju playing cards and sipping whisky in the afternoon. Discovery Channel is showing a documentary on Crows.
The Mao rebels have commandeered a helicopter. Dudley Moore’s career is in doldrums. The taxi driver lugs my bags on to the back seat. It’s a red Maruti, what we call Mehran in Pakistan. One last round of Kimdol before we head for the airport. Sudhir is giving a widish in his hair salon which is as audible as it is revitalising. Schoolkids in blue sweaters returning from school. The dog and the rooster are basking in the sun side by side.
Bhai Rattan’s shop is closed. The scrawl on the piece of cardboard says “For Sale”. My idea of Kathmandu remains surface, but my love for the place runs much deeper… story of my life. The flyby ends and we’re off on a tangent towards the airport. The topic of discussion is of course the riots and the taxi driver enlightens me as to how the whole game was a charade to destabilize the government of prime minister Koirala, “a very shrewd man”.
“So what do you think will happen?” I ask him.
“I don’t know, all I can say is that sena sarkar is the best for this country,” he professes. An ominous prediction—and when it comes from a taxi driver, you’d better take it seriously. We ride in silence past the Royal Palace.
“Where you from?”
“You tell me.”
Oh man. It really is time to go.
I turn to the radio for rescue and barge straight into Cat Stevens. Kathmandu soon be seeing you. And Your strange bewildering times won’t hold me down…
The bell rings. It is Suqrat. He is here for his bags and posters. A cup of tea, chit chat, this and that. I am prepared with a piece of advice in case he asks for one; “When eating popcorn, never make eye contact with a monkey.” But there’s no such request. He collects his gifts and gets up to leave. At the door, he pauses and turns around:
“Kathmandu to Pokhara. Sit on the right. Window seat.”
Nevertheless, I remain the wise one.