The City and the Writer: In Kathmandu with Samrat Upadhyay

By Nathalie Handal

Image of The City and the Writer: In Kathmandu with Samrat Upadhyay

Special City Series / Kathmandu, Nepal 2013

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Kathmandu as you feel/see it?

The mood of Kathmandu is one of chaos and nostalgia and anticipation and depletion and rejuvenation. It won’t be pinned down.  

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

The day I left it for America, a cold day in January of 1984. Dozens of my relatives came to bid me good-bye at the airport. A childhood friend slipped a note to me just before I entered security, and I read it as the plane took off. I don’t remember the content but I remember the sweet flavor of his parting words. 

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Despite the over-crowdedness and the nightmarish commerce of the city while you’re in its bowels, when you approach Kathmandu on an airplane, it’s still a breathtaking city—in its greenery and its sunshine and its vibrancy—especially for an old hand like me who frequently bemoans the transformation of the city into something I no longer recognize.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

There is a writer, whose name I forget right now, but you can look him up. He has written these mildly interesting books, The Royal Ghosts, Buddha’s Orphans, etc.

Is there a place here you return to often?

The two places I make sure I visit whenever I return are both sacred places that have been left relatively (everything in Kathmandu is relative) unscathed in the building frenzy that’s Kathmandu. The first is the ancient temple complex of Pashupatinath. My wife’s maternal home is in Chabel, right behind Pashupati, and whenever I spend the night over there, I wake up at dawn and take the half-hour walk into Pashupati. I enter the complex through the Guheswari goddess temple, then walk through this elevated area where people are doing yoga, playing badminton, meditating, or simply picking their nose in the morning sun. By the time I descend into the main temple of Pashupatinath, I find myself in a happy mood. Then, inside the main temple my favorite spot is the wall that overlooks the Bagmati river, next to the pavilion where bhajan singers are usually singing hymns to Shiva or Krishna and whichever of the gods needs some supplication at that moment. By the time I leave the temple I feel like I’m high, as I rightly should, for the temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva, who loves to smoke.  

The other spot is the Buddhist temple of Swayambhunath, perched on a hill on the western edge of the city. Its legend is tied to the city’s origins. They say that in ancient times the Kathmandu valley was really a lake, and one day a lotus grew out of it and started giving off a bright light. The place then came to be called swa-yambhu, self-created. The great bodhisattva Manjushree had a vision of the lotus and flew across the mountains to view it. He drew his sword of wisdom and cut the mountains surrounding the valley so the water would drain, and the city of Kathmandu became habitable for humans. From Swayambhu, you can see most of the city’s important structures . . . on an unpolluted day. It’s a good place to climb up to, watch the monkeys do their antics, drink tea at the top, and haggle over small amounts in the tourist shops.  

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

When I was a child we used to rent a flat in Maitidevi, and whenever we walked by the home of the most famous writer from Nepal, Laxmi Prasad Devkota, I thought I got strange vibes. The poet had already been dead for a number of years, so I think my mind went on an active spin. Nowadays, I guess you could call Himayalan Java in Thamel, the tourist district, a literary place. There’s free wireless, and luxurious sofas where you can sit with your laptop. There was even a small bookshelf; it had a copy of my book the last time I was there. Occasionally you see a literary figure or a film personality sitting in the balcony-like area, observing the street. 

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

The city’s core—Asan, Indrawchowk, Bangemudha etc.—with its labyrinthine alleys and spice shops and cloth merchants and oil vendors soaked in oil is the old Kathmandu that I love.  

Where does passion live here?

In the bedrooms, with the curtains drawn.

What is the title of one of your stories about Kathmandu and what inspired it exactly?

The title of my first story collection is Arresting God in Kathmandu. Although I don’t have god as the protagonist, or a character, in any of my stories, the story revolves around a man trapped in his own delusions about his wife. His paranoia that his wife is having an affair intensifies during the festival of Indrajatra, when there are masked dancers prancing in the streets. The people are celebrating the release of Lord Indra, whom they had arrested earlier because they didn’t recognize him. The poor god, the king of heavens, had come down only to steal parijat flowers for his mother and people thought he was a common two-penny thief. It’s all about delusions.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Kathmandu does an outside exist?”

Cat Stevens has a beautiful song: Kathmandu, I’ll soon be seeing you / And your strange bewildering time / Will Hold Me Down. Occasionally I find myself humming this song, sometimes even when I am in the heart of the city, caught in one of its notorious traffic jams, or bargaining with a shopkeeper in Asan. There are days when I’m in the city, in a posh restaurant eating a pizza and drinking a café mocha, when it hardly feels like I’m in this city—I could be anywhere . . . until the surrounding noises intrude. Then there are moments in Bloomington, Indiana, where I now reside, when it feels I’m still cocooned in my Kathmandu, which leads me to question: outside my mind does a Kathmandu exist?

 

Samrat Upadhyay is the author of Arresting God in Kathmandu, a Whiting Award winner; The Royal Ghosts, which won the Asian American Literary Award; The Guru of Love, a New York Times Notable Book and a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year; and Buddha’s Orphans, a novel. His work has been translated into several languages. He has written for the New York Times and has appeared on BBC Radio and National Public Radio. Upadhyay is a professor in the creative writing program at Indiana University.

 

Read the other instalments in the City and the Writer special series on Kathmandu here:

In Kathmandu with Manjushree Thapa

In Kathmandu with Rabi Thapa

 

NH’s Discovery: There is something gentle in Kathmandu. Its spirit is a hum. As modern and traditional visuals confuse the senses—a book vendor beside a mobile phone store beside a curry restaurant beside a rug merchant—quietness still lingers beneath our feet. Walking through Thamel’s busy streets, seeing major sites such as Durbar Squares, Bodhanath Stupa, Swayambhunath, and the light coming down on Pashupatinath—where Hindu cremations take place—is arresting.

One of my favorite places in Kathmandu is Quixote's Cove bookstore (www.qcbookshop.com)—also a café, bar, and reading venue. Suvani Singh and Pranab M. Singh, two amazing writers and literary shakers run the place. They are, like most people I met, graceful and generous spirits. They showed me around town, introduced me to writers (surprisingly, many of the new generation authors want to write in English). I discovered fascinating poets and novelists of different generations, three of them featured in this month’s “The City and the Writer.” I also read more of Yuyutsu Sharma’s poetry, who I previously met while co-editing the W.W. Norton anthology, Language for a New Century. And Ann Hunkins’s photos of Nepal and Nepali writers are worth looking at (http://annhunkins.com/bio.html)

I’ll never forget Nepal—its indefinable force pulls you close to its heart and asks you, for a moment, to allow life to stay untitled. A feeling that still lingers inside of me today. There is one other reason. After a breathtaking day hike to the Tibetan Buddhist monastery on the outskirts of Kathmandu, Chris Merrill, Bob Holman, and I made a decisiona 6 a.m. flight the following day around the Himalayas, in a small plane, to see Mount Everest, followed by a quick shower, and a 9 a.m. meeting with Nepalese writers was an ideal morning. Maybe the prayer wheels inspired us.

We woke up at 4 a.m. and were at the airport at 5 a.m. At 6:15 a.m. we hadn’t boarded yet but were assured we would be next. Excited, we waited patiently in the lounge. Fifteen minutes later, we started moving around in our seats, and even got a cup of coffee (that might not have been the best idea, the caffeine just made us more anxious). By 7 a.m., Bob and Chris were upset. Everyone on the 6 a.m. flight had gathered in one spot. We were nine people.

Suddenly, we were asked to board. Overjoyed, we didn’t ask any questions nor realize that it was almost 8 a.m. We just erased the shower from our plans. The bus did not inspire much confidence—it was more the kind you’d expect in a small underdeveloped village rather than at an airport. But nothing prepared us for what came next. We stopped in front of what looked like a World War II plane. This stunned us into silence. Did this plane actually work? Still determined to see the great mountains, we said nothing. Then a very lively guide pointed to another plane. It’s not that this other plane was state-of-the- art, but it was, as a fellow passenger pointed out, better than the first one.

It dawned on me that we didn’t pay for Buddha Air tickets. The previous guide had ripped us off (later we found out that he put us on the cheaper airline but charged us the price of the carrier we were supposed to be on). We said nothing. There was no time for such issues.

I sat on my uneven seat, my buckle loose, the carpet on the floor peeling, and told Bob, are these mountains worth our lives. He held my hand, and I wondered how far three crazy poets would go in the name of wonder and curiosity. Apparently ‘til death.

As we took off, my eyes drowned in a fog of clouds. Then suddenly, there it was, Mount Everest. Despite the bad weather, it glistened in the distance. Everyone on the plane sighed in unison. It literally took our breaths away. They announced that we could take turns to see it from the cockpit (that didn’t seem part of safety protocol, but that’s another story). Our spell didn’t last long, the plane began to shake and descend rapidly. We were asked to fasten our seat belts—mine was barely functional. And we kept going down fast. The plane could not deal with the altitude (really?) Despite my skepticism, we landed.

Once back on our bus, squeezed between Bob and Chris, our lively guide with a huge smile said, “Don’t worry, we go back up, just a little problem in the plane. Nothing serious. Your safety is most important. Don’t worry.” I was amazed at his genuine calmness despite being surrounded by a bunch of very angry foreigners. While Bob and Chris argued with our guide, I received a BlackBerry message from my family in Latin America saying Bin Laden was killed. We were on our way to Pakistan, so I knew everything had changed. I told Chris the news. He paused for a minute, and next thing I knew we were speaking to the US embassy and out of the airport. That day, life and death were so close together, I didn’t know how to differentiate them. That day, Bob, Chris and I were bonded for life.

A few months after we returned to the US, a Buddha Air flight crashed, and nineteen people died. My body went cold. But I also knew all three of us would have done it again even if it was to see Mount Everest for a split second. 


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