On the first page of the widely loved, wildly imaginative travelogue, Katmandu, the lauded Yugoslavian writer, poet and playwright Stevan Pešić (1939-1994) expresses an acute nostalgia for a city he has left more than a year earlier. A palpable sense of loss engulfs him as he sifts through his notes. Katmandu was first published in 1982. Serbian poet and essayist Jovan Zivlak, in an article on Pešić, writes that he had spent three months in Nepal, either in 1979 or 1980, before crossing over to India. It was the rainy season, and Pešić drifted through the city with an umbrella in hand.
Before Pešić took the overland route to the East, several Yugoslavian writers, poets and academics had already travelled to Southasia, and had given their impressions in letters, papers or books. One among them was the scholar Čedomil Veljačić, who had retreated to Sri Lanka in the 1960s to study Buddhist philosophy as an ordained monk. Writings on Pešić, as well as his own writings, reveal that he was familiar with Veljačić’s and other Yugoslavians’ work on Southasia, as well as with the flood of literature coming from Germany, the UK and the USA, including various hippie and esoteric gospels. In Kathmandu’s Freak Street near the Kathmandu Durbar Square, Pešić writes, there were many ad-hoc libraries, “little Towers of Babel of ideas”. Travellers would leave books in hotels before moving on to the next: Plato, Marx, Freud, Jung, Trotsky, Aurobindo, Bardo Thodol, Michaux, Castaneda, De Quincey, etc – titles every self-respecting hippie must at least skim through. But a book he found in an elderly cousin’s attic, in his hometown of Kovilj (now in Serbia) when he was just 11, had the largest impact on him. It was filled with pictures of Tibeta peoples, and the fact that it was in German was the least of his worries, he wrote. The Tibetans invaded his mental space, and his mother, fearing for his health, confiscated the book. Still, the images of the Tibetans stayed.
A Yugoslavian perspective
Regardless of who Pešić’s literary models or sources of inspiration were, two facts differentiate Katmandu from other travelogues on Southasia by American or European authors.
The first is his starting point: the idiosyncratic cultural milieu that was Yugoslavia. Neither East, nor West, the Balkans have always been where East and West meet, mix, occasionally clash, and produce hybrid perspectives, politics and expressions. Historically the subjects of the Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires and the Venetian Republic, the countries in the region have also been represented as the Orient by Western Europe. In this respect, the Balkans have more in common with Southasia than with the European colonial powers.
Pešić did not live to see the end of the Balkan War (1991-2001), but since his return from Southasia until his death in 1994, he worked like he was possessed. Almost immediately after publication, Pešić’s Katmandu earned cult status. It was a book that defined a period. But as it has never been translated into English, it has not joined global literary dialogue, nor has literature on Asia by Balkan authors generally defined or redefined what we’ve come to understand as Orientalist discourse. After the Balkan War, more authors from this region have been translated into English and other languages, as the world at large grew interested in the events and politics behind them. However, those are Balkan authors who write mostly about the Balkans.
Scholar Ezequiel Adamovsky argues that Western European countries began to use the term ‘Eastern Europe’ in the 19th century as a vehicle for predjudices they fostered towards that part of the world. He calls it Euro-Orientalism, because of the similarity of these stereotypes to the ones historically applied to the Orient. Bearing in mind the geopolitical position of Yugoslavia, a few questions arise. Could Pešić’s perspective on Southasia differ significantly from that of a Western European author? Is he an Other encountering the Other, a traveller from the European Orient visiting the Orient? What kind of viewpoint might a writer from a non-aligned, third world country have of Southasia?
Pešić’s travelogue occupies a unique space in the genre because of the writing technique, too. He took real people and events and sublimated them into surreality, metaphor, light irony or the grotesque. This doesn’t mean that he isn’t dealing with accurate facts or data, locations or history – some chapters resemble pages from a guidebook, but with a literary twist. Pešić also diligently transcribed his dreams and waking visions (only a few of which were prompted by drugs), and intertwined them with the dreamlike world he weaved from his surroundings. His practices followed what French writer André Breton proscribed in his Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. Breton championed the subconscious and the intuitive as a counterpoint to everything he thought was wrong with the world: materialism induced by industrialisation, the precedence given to rational thinking over instincts and impulses of imagination, naming and classifyication over taking pleasure in mystery. On the heels of Freud, he advocated associative writing – letting go of rules and premeditated structure, and surrendering to the onslaught of images, the flow. But for a writer like Pešić, who admits in Katmandu that he is “cursed” by visions, a surrealist writing technique is also an obvious choice.
“I was observing a bird and saw its skeleton, and, at the same time, its animated flight,” Pešić writes about his coming to terms with death in Nepal, of seeing it everywhere because it is not, like in Europe, sanitised or hidden from view. Walking through Kathmandu or Patan is a confrontation, a coming face-to-façade with decay, transience and the sacral. It didn’t require too great a stretch of the imagination for Pešić to populate these spaces with ghosts, apparitions, doppelgängers and the dead. Some of them are a product of his sober hallucinations; others are drug-induced phantoms. The doubles leave unpaid hotel bills, he writes, and the dead come when it rains. Dying relatives travel far to haunt the author through unfamiliar alleys, to elicit recognition and respect. By leaving his hometown, Pešić comes to realise, he doesn’t necessarily leave his past behind. “The dead wouldn’t even exist if the living didn’t think about them; we are sustained and troubled by their remembering. It’s a vicious circle for both sides,” a fictional, dead Nepali tells him.
Pešić doesn’t only face or flee his own, personal annihilation, but a cosmic pralaya (dissolution) too. Apocalypses – or their previews – are scattered throughout the book, ambushing him wherever he goes. At Budhanilkantha, he is forced to run under a roof to wait out a sudden deluge that doesn’t stop for hours. A Brahmin, also trapped there, tells him not to worry, that this is only a small-scale flood. The Big One is yet to come, when “[t]he beggars will turn into gardens of mould, mildew and algae… The Living Goddess will go mad and ride through flooded streets in a golden gondola all day long… The giant fish and tortoises will appear…”
Another time, the author is lying under a tree somewhere above the Trishuli River, reading Maurice Herzog’s account of his Himalayan conquest. He falls asleep and dreams that he is a whistling, singing Christ in a red shirt and ripped jeans, descending from the mountain, carrying a staff and sandals. He walks into his family home and finds his mother: she is three, and sobbing over strewn beads from a necklace. He takes her by the hand, and they search for his father (such collapsing of time and space is common in his writing). The next moment, his mother is wizened, and the last night on Earth is a white flurry of snowflakes.
The city seemed literarily inexhaustible. Pešić chose to spend most of his time in Kathmandu, only occasionally venturing out to Patan, Bhaktapur, Nagarkot or the Trishuli Valley. There was so much to write about that he hardly felt the need to go beyond Durbar Square. Pešić gladly took on the role of a social scribe, an astute observer of Kathmanduites and all who found themselves in the city: from beggars and trinket sellers to high society, cultural figures, expats, researchers and hippies. And though he was enticed by the Himalayas – their snow-clad peaks at times visible from the city – he left them to the likes of Herzog. For Pešić, they represented a physical and philosophical final frontier, both a challenge to his fitness, and a domain of religious thought. Pešić was more interested in exploring the terra incognitas of the text and of poetry (a system unto itself, as he claimed, not an antechamber to religion or philosophy). The city provided ample material.
Katmandu teems with eccentric, colourful characters: homoerotic, blushing lamas; young white-wearing androgynous any-sex-love seekers; misunderstood yetis with radiant bouquets of rhododendrons in their mammoth fists. There are also the tramps of Durbar Square, lazing around temple stairs by day, turning into mad pluckers of the red ashok flower by night. “Sometimes, they end up at the police station,” Pešić writes. “It’s because, they say, they haven’t found the ashok flower.”
Pešić frequented fashionable hangouts as well as dingy makeshift hotels packed with hippies in a hashish haze. In a fancy pastry shop on Durbar Marg, he could bite into a delicious chocolate cake and observe the love-stricken, shiny-shoed golden youth of Kathmandu. Hippies, Pešić felt, were “angels with one wing”, unaccustomed to life on earth. Their stories and profiles are driven by both compassion and humour, as are accounts of the Nepali royal family or the social butterflies at Kathmandu’s International Club. When researching an article on Nepali theatre for a Yugoslavian publication, he even met Balkrishna Sama, the celebrated Nepali playwright.
I have selected and translated four excerpts from Katmandu. They are passages that discuss Kathmandu and Patan, the local people and social figures, or about the author’s recurring themes and motifs, such as his obsession with death. They provide a glimpse into Pešić’s gracious, if rampant, imagination.
Excerpts from Katmandu
(From Chapter 12, ‘The Newars. Patan, the second royal city. Two dreams instead of postcards from Patan’.)
Death is alive in this country. I know I have brought my death with me, as everyone does, but here I saw it and learned to love it. In Kathmandu, death is a natural thing, and one soon gets used to it: the colourfulness of the city, the multitudes of people, friendships, loves, real and imaginary paradises make it so. Kathmandu means getting used to death, in an intimate, even cheerful way. But Patan is something even more terrifying than death. I was only twice in that city, although it’s very close to Kathmandu: first time to see it, the second time because I had to. And both times I felt there was no sun there, but that the things and phenomena themselves emanate this grey, sickly light. I have nowhere seen such dampness, cobwebs, decay and dead centuries as I have here. And I was in a hurry, running before dusk or nightfall, imagining that the night would be even more terrifying than day. The stars, I thought, would crumble, and they would fall as dust and ash on this city and bury it, and I would be entombed alive… I have nowhere felt as small and threatened as here. That was not a human or temporal disorientation, it was a cosmic one…
Before this universe there was, they say, another universe with a different arrangement of stars and planets, and different gods. Our universe succeeded that one; whether that was the first one’s logical end or there was a war between its gods, we don’t know. The remnants of that previous universe observe and prey on us. Patan is the door ajar to that other universe, or its crack through which the eyes peer into things beyond human… That is how I felt walking through this city, fearing I might die in it.
(From Chapter 7, ‘Homesickness. A slice of chocolate cake with two love stories. A soup made of angel wings’ feathers, a German-speaking trout, and nightingales flying out of wine glasses. Our Mamaki’.)
Martine and I would go to this pastry shop on Durbar Marg, in the fancy part of the city. [Martine is one of Pešić’s friends in Kathmandu, a literature graduate from Paris, and a student of Kundalini yoga.] Children [from and around Durbar Square] didn’t want to come with us, saying they were not used to their cakes. The staff don’t speak any language but English. Only if a Nepali walks in, distinguished yet conservative, will they launch into Nepali as well. The waiters’ uniforms have many lampasses and ribbons. The owner, Mr Varan Singh, has an even greater number of lampasses and ribbons. He’s got a magnificent black beard, too.
This is a famous place. You can’t tell what’s more appealing: the various kinds of biscuits, cakes and ice cream, or the golden youth of Kathmandu that come flocking here. Only here can you see the most spectacular of hairstyles, the most fabulous of dresses and the shiniest of shoes. High heels are in fashion this year: both boys and girls wear them, and constantly compare whose are higher. They love to listen to the latest LPs and talk about cars. One of them will come in carrying a book, and the rest will exclaim: “Oh, a book!” as if I was in a pâtisserie in Belgrade. The only difference is that here, they don’t hug and kiss; but how many passionate looks, sighs, whispers and letters the waiters discretely deliver from a table where He is sitting to a table where She is sitting, or the other way around!
Customs and temperaments are different here, but love is the same everywhere. If they are sick, they are lovesick; if they are healthy and happy, that’s also because of love. Young men blow heart-shaped smoke rings, and girls use their mind-power to write the names of their beloveds on the walls. Nothing could erase the name ‘Lal’; they scraped it off, then whitewashed it, but it’s been surfacing over and over again, for years now, they say, as evidence of the power and force of love. Mr Varan Singh himself explained to us why the corner ceiling was leaking: a couple in love had been sitting there for months, and it was from their sighs that the plaster fell off. But that was a small thing, he said, compared to the damage and accidents that happened here in spring. At that time, the ambulance car and police kept vigil in front of the pastry shop. Last spring they had one murder, one suicide and two deaths induced by love. This year there were two murders and three deaths. All that worry has turned Mr. Varan Singh’s hair grey, and he’s now forced to dye his beard.
(From Chapter 28, ‘Evenings at the “International Club”. A few butterflies from high society. The Fake and the Real Tailor’.)
The ‘International Club’ is a fabulous building, and if the flags of all who come here were hoisted up, it would also be the most colourful one in Kathmandu. Then its outside appearance would perfectly match what it actually is: a bouquet of flowers plucked at every meridian and displayed here as an ornament to the city…
Here you could see all of those who represent Society, Politics, and Money, and who had found themselves in this city by the whim of some unfathomable god, or had been sent by those who look after the world, or had ended up here by their own mistake…
On Wednesdays, She appears, from the Rana family. In her face you could read all the nobleness and pride, and in her appearance the century-long rule of that family. To her, they say, Balkrishna Sama had dedicated a poem, in which he sings about the flowers that envy the lotus in her hair, and of the five metres of blue sky that went into her sari. An American lady, who studies Hinduism in her free time, said about her: “This is how I imagine Parvati without her Shiva.” She has been, namely, a widow for the last couple of years. Two noblewomen attend her, resembling two bright satellites of the Pole Star. Passing by four separate tables, She bats her eyelashes in greeting. Her eyelashes are very long and reach halfway down her cheeks. The three ladies blush from satisfaction at being seen. One of them greets Her back in the same way, batting her equally long eyelashes. When She approaches her table to sit down, the chair is on the verge of exclaiming, “Finally!” She orders the dishes that He, while alive, would have there. They used to come on Wednesdays. That’s why She also comes on that day. The chef of the restaurant personally waits on Her, along with six waiters. After she has finished with those dishes, the ladies in attendance beg her to order her own. She replies: “But I should watch my weight!” And then the ladies say: the first dishes were for Him, you should eat for yourself now.
Her friends, and those in Freak Street, where she goes, call her ‘Cher Madam’. Many from here also knew her by that name, while one of the princes, the uncles of the late king, was still alive. Now, when somebody mentions her, they just wave it off. She dresses hippie-style and is at war with the city’s most important people. She’s got a villa, the rent, and four servants. The Prince, her great love, had left her a lot more, but local lawyers found a loophole in the law and through it siphoned off much of that and returned it to the Prince’s successors. From time to time she threatens everyone with memoirs, and that, she says, shuts them up. She has made several attempts at those memoirs since. She would put on her pink nightgown that the Prince adored, and sit at her writing desk. But her enemies outsmarted her. They had trained a pigeon to fly in through the window, pick up a written-out page with its beak and take it away. She would bolt the windows, the servants would try to catch it. The pivotal moment came when the bird grabbed her pink nightgown, which lay folded by the bed, and flew off with it. Those who had sent the bird want to strip her of her dearest memories as well.
Her lawyers have been trying to persuade her for 30 years now to return to Paris; they would transplant her villa there, the rent, and her young servants, too. She will not leave Kathmandu, never. Here, one voice calls her from all the rooms, from the garden, from the sky: “Nanette! Cher Nanette!” That’s his voice. Sometimes he comes by night, and then they reminisce about the old-time French lessons that he, because of her and with her, learnt, their soaking in the bathtub filled with champagne, and other wonderful eccentricities. He visited her recently as well. They were young and beautiful, like in those days when they knew each other in Paris. They were strolling through a marvellous park that looked like Kathmandu, and in Tundikhel, only bigger and more opulent, there was the Eiffel Tower. On top, the King, the Queen and nobility had already been waiting for them. She was wearing a wedding dress, the Prince a cylinder hat and a rose in his breast pocket. Their wedding was supposed to be performed on top of the Eiffel Tower.
(From Chapter 29, ‘A visit to the Nepal Academy. On their calendar. Yogis in rice paddies. Balkrishna Sama. On how to improve efficiency in the Serbian Academy in regard to some experiences with the Nepal Academy’.)
While waiting for days for the Director of Nepali Theatre, I was getting to know their Academy. Then Mr Director and I visited the famous Balkrishna Sama. We were lucky enough to encounter him personally, and not some of the kings and queens, historical and mythical, gods, demons, elves, throngs of peoples, plants and animals, or anything else from his plays. The envious claim that the artist, with age, has been turning more and more into what he wrote about. The Theatre Director, his [Sama’s] student and devotee, fiercely negates that. While the grand artiste will welcome a person in his demonic avatar or proclaim that Shiva isn’t receiving guests that day, it’s just a joke to get rid of boring visitors. Sometimes, he says, he will turn into something else out of sheer despair from not knowing what to do with himself.
He is quite old. He has written countless plays, comedies, tragedies; he was an actor, director, singer, dancer, painter, composer, maker of masks. He was able and skilled at everything. He has outlived several kings. His enemies accuse him of writing plays for those kings’ coronations, which were really always one and the same piece, but with the characters’ names changed. He would refute them, saying that the King is an incarnation of Vishnu, therefore always one and the same person. They also claim that his name is not his real one: in the times of the almighty Ranas, he added their name to his, and when they were dethroned, he changed it again. To that, he retorted that an artist creates worlds as well as himself – he simply got tired of his old name. It’s not at all unlikely that he will change his current one, too – he’s had it for the longest time now. For months, even years, he will not leave his house, but then he takes a walk around the city, so that the young writers who attack him can see he’s still alive. They bow and greet him, but you can read the terror in their eyes: he’s still alive!? He looks at them and laughs, the way old people do – a soundless laugh. In his writing and acting, he says, he would die and be reborn so many times that he can hardly tell which shore he’s stranded upon at the moment.
I wanted to ask the illustrious man about his art. The old gentleman just waved it off: “That’s a memorial, young man. And memorials, you’ve seen, are decaying and getting eaten away by dust. Let’s talk about happier things.” A young and pretty maid served us tea. She was barefoot, as the old gentleman demanded; movement of bare feet excited him. Evil tongues prattled that he richly rewarded girls and boys, the most beautiful among them, just to look at them and occasionally stroke their cheeks. But even those tongues admitted that the majority of those beauties, male and female, willingly agreed to that even without asking for presents, because it was Balkrishna Sama who was looking at them. He judged everyone by their beauty and their ability to love. He’d ask young artists how many times a night they could make love, and by their answers decided upon their talents and prognosed their lifespan. To his students he would say that physical pleasure is the source of life and art.
The walls of his room are covered in pictures and photographs, shelves stacked with books, his and other people’s, and cupboards overflow with medals and diplomas that kings, foreign statesmen and various academies showered on him. Then he showed us a photograph taken at the beginning of the century. In it were 20 men and women in shiny costumes, crowned and garlanded, carrying swords and musical instruments. Those are, he said, members of the most distinguished families of Kathmandu, and those beautiful women actually cross-dressed as young men, all in a theatre piece. He asked us to find him in the photo. We looked closely: they could all have been him. The old gentleman said he couldn’t remember the name of that play anymore, or when they had performed it. For years now he’s been trying to recognise himself in the picture, but can’t. He was looking at us while saying that and, it seemed to us, laughed. A soundless laugh.
~ Lora Tomas is a writer and an indologist.
~This article has been republished after being revised at the author’s request.