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 Kathmandu Valley is three medieval towns that have sprawled into each other in the last half-century. Depending on where you are, the mood is chaotic and very “Third World,” or tranquil as can be, even sublime. I see and feel the city through a prism of nostalgic appreciation, frustration, and qualified hope for its future regeneration.
What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?
Every instance of the ugly new stomping upon the old bruises me. When historic mansions are torn down for shiny department stores and bamboo-clumped hills on the outskirts are razed for housing plots, I wonder what will be left of the city and the memories it has accumulated over millennia. The disappearance of several loci of my childhood, most obviously my grandparents’ house and the rice fields that surrounded it—hemmed in, swamped, then destroyed to make way for modern concrete rises—is a more personal loss.
What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?
The fact that however overdeveloped parts of the city have become, there are still “green spaces” scattered around the Kathmandu Valley that are as they were before Nepal opened up to the outside world in the 1950s, where mud-brick houses are surrounded by fields of paddy and wheat. Also, that the much-maligned River Bagmati, now essentially a sewer through most its course, is still a living river several miles down from its source in the mountains. People feel they need to leave the Valley for a bit of air but nature is still alive here, oppressed as it is by the weight of urbanization, which gives one hope that it can be resuscitated.
What writer(s) from here should we read?
There’s not much out there in English, but I’d recommend Manjushree Thapa for her short stories and translation of Nepali writers, This Country is Yours. Prawin Adhikari is one to look out for, when he gets published. In Nepali, Buddhisagar’s Karnali Blues is an exemplar of writing from the peripheries of Nepal.
Is there a place here you return to often?
I need to get out of the convoluted, congested city sometimes, and for that anywhere close to the mountains that surround Kathmandu will do. Immediately you feel the coolness and the lushness of the neighboring forests, and the quasi-rural life of the inhabitants soothes you.
Is there an iconic literary place we should know?
The Nepali-language writers have long had spots to gather round, drink tea, and talk poetry. Those writing in English, a more recent phenomenon, are yet to form a similar community or inscribe themselves into the city.
Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?
For those of us who did not grow up in the historic, ethnically Newari core of the city, these labyrinthine “Newarrens,” alternately tranquil and raucous with the innumerable festivals the locals celebrate, are fascinating. The parts that have not been overcome by tourism or housing development take me back to a memory of a city that has been lost, but one I never really knew as a child sequestered in boarding schools. Every now and then we discover interesting little bhattis in these inner, older cities—grotty taverns that serve chhyang (rice beer) and Newari cuisine to locals. They’re far preferable to the trendy, overpriced restobars catering to tourists and the Kathmandu elite.
Where does passion live here?
Passion lives in the corners of our eyes—in the closeness of the couples snatching time together in the twilight of temple squares, away from the controlling gaze of their elders.
What is the title of one of your stories about Kathmandu and what inspired it exactly?
Most of the stories in Nothing to Declare are located in a Kathmandu as experienced by young people. They go to school, drink and smoke, have sex, go abroad, and come back and get married. But the final story “Valley of Tears,” is a millennial conceit that seeks to wipe out all that’s gone before, particularly the mad contradiction present-day Kathmandu has become. The Kathmandu Valley used to be a massive lake until, the legend goes, the divine priest Manjushree cleft the mountains with a sword to let the waters out; “Valley of Tears” floods the city to restore it to its primordial state. I suppose you could call it the ultimate expression of frustration.
Inspired by Levi, “Outside Kathmandu does an outside exist?”
Kathmandu was long known as “Nepal,” because of its centrality to the country’s affairs. The need of the “outside” to be recognized finally erupted in a civil war that raged through the countryside until a peace process brought the rebels to Kathmandu a few years ago. Yet as the rebels have grown fat in the capital, outside, still, nothing exists.
Rabi Thapa is a writer and editor based in Kathmandu, Nepal. He was the editor of the weekly paper The Nepali Times, and his book of short stories Nothing to Declare (2011) was longlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. He is the editor of the recently launched literary magazine La.Lit (www.lalitmag.com), and is currently working on a novel about a journalist who goes mad.
Read other installments in the City and the Writer Kathmandu series
In Kathmandu with Manjushree Thapa
In Kathmandu with Samrat Upadhyay