Please kindly click the link above to view video.
Please kindly click the link above to view video.
This is among the few first pictures I took while I leisurely strolled on the streets of Thamel that overflowed with vibrance of food and music. I came back home briefly in the summer of 2018 to pursue a research study and visit my family. Back in the U.S, old sub-urban towns and mini eatery lanes never fail to remind me of the bustling streets of Thamel; it’s imageries, grittiness and ensuing serenity that comes from much familiarity and yearning for home.
Thamel is unadulterated and so are its colorful gullies. I normally tend to not compare and contrast places but Thamel, my neighborhood is ubiquitous to the world and almost synonymous to Kathmandu for foreigners. It’s where they start their journey into the heart of Nepal. For me, it’s not exclusively a touristy spot or a quick escape into to laze of Kathmandu, but a mandala of belongingness. It is my neighborhood to say the least and it is where my mother and my uncles in particular resided and spent their childhood in their maternal home circa mid-1970s right around the corners of Thamel, where fancy hotels stand still in the present time.
Along these busy streets, I once used to come on festive visits dancing to deusi-bahili in Tihar festival who bestow blessings during night of worship for Goddess Laxmi; my friends running amok and bewildered with happiness at hard earned petty cash on their hands. Now I come here for a casual stroll, a cup of masala tea or for concerts as I want to find spiritual deliverance along alleyways stacked with old buildings, and store shutters seem glued to each other with its flamboyant garments, souvenirs and gaping visitors. These streets, these tiny spaces and lines of houses have turned overtime into local shops, pubs and buildings for trade and commerce, and roadsides have become a solace for young drunken souls at midnight.
Thamel (at its most) is probably a point of departure in my adult life; socializing, and close knit gatherings at the heart of it. I frequented Thamel for coffee/tea in the afternoon and a couple of drinks, chatting with friends in the evening. The bunch has spread across the globe now. A bitter sweet memory ensues as I can recall ourselves jolly in a myriad of joints while I miss them at the same time. Despite the sweet feeling revisiting Thamel, now one can feel a sense of void to it. The sad thing is, although infinite places have opened up, spaces have shrunk, and I see less people, or rather most faces are new.
I wonder how has Thamel changed since or if it has changed at all. Probably there’s a huge shift in the intensity of social lifestyle; a pinch of growing absurdity of modernity and shifts in culture. Nonetheless, I am to find more food options now that [I think] I have had a broader taste of cuisines. I still want to continue to listen to the local bands and artists that play, appreciate our artisans, and perhaps get to exchange conversations with diverse people that want to know what it’s like to be in Kathmandu, or of (Nepali diaspora). And of course having conversations with Nepalis topped with a little bit of local tone, and exaggeration over the meaning of life. [starting off with ‘how’s life?’, ‘kasto chalirako cha jindagi?’ and often ending with ‘estai ho jindagi!’.
~~~~~ To this day Thamel is its own belly of a culture that is a paradox of youthful and traditional lifestyles, cotton-hemp businesses, elated foreign faces, Nepali tea and Himalayan coffee, cozy pubs, Buddhist prayer flags, Hindu shrines, Muslim streets, Chinese cafés and a burgeoning momentum of Nepal’s version of its own peculiar modernity ~~~~~
There’s WORK, there’s HISTORY, there’s CULTURE, there’s IDENTITY, there’s TRANSACTION, there’s LOVE but there’s also LUST, there’s WARMTH, and there’s a lot of WALKING in the end.
[I wrote this before COVID-19. I did not know when I would be able to go back home, or be able to frequent Thamel as I had imagined amidst this global pandemic].
-Shrey Shrey is a contributing author to The Kathmandudes.
I tell myself not to turn into Josheph Conrad. If its not accommodating, then make a home out of it. Every time I concede to wistful lust of Africa, I reprimand myself being such a pussy. A pussy is warm and tender. I can’t be warm and tender now can I? I need to be strong, adventurous and arrogant like a dick.
The country is immense and the people are kind but I still have not quite found a profound sickness that suits to my temperance. It’s the mojo that I have lost that I am grieving over. I am in need of a heart. A heart that can bear my sporadic self-professed darkness which I keep going back into where I find comfort and where I find it homelier than home thousands of miles away that’s cuddled between the dust and green hills which almost never bars the sight of snow capped mountains. Oh what a relish! I wish to see those mountains again. Not because it appears splendid or grandee but I need the feel of my old ways. To find my way into the mojo that I have seemingly lost.
I abhor my own body. Its crowded with sweat, flies, beef and avocado. I feel it wants to give way to the anguish that such climes bring forth but I hold myself tight and think, this too shall pass. How many of my brethren have been here, I wonder. A man from the Himalayas in Africa! That’s quite a sight in servitude and suffering. I tell to my most un-Serb of a Serbian, ‘Vlad, brother, I feel the sun but I don’t feel the warmth’. He replied back sheepishly, ‘You need to do weed man’. He he is wise. He lives in the jungles of Tanzania doing who-knows-what sort of research pertaining to trees. He gives me warmth for he is as outlandish as I am. I am pretty sure that he thinks first and then he feels the thought rather than opposite of what most people would do. That’s why he is wise. His mojo is intact.
For the first time in my life, I got asked ‘Have you climbed Everest?’. It was quite a feeling. That of nostalgia and the feeling of being a Nepali residing outside the country I so much hate. It was quite interesting for me because never had I knew such a calamity of loving my country. A series of fleeting facebook memes about ‘Don’t you fucking dare ask a Nepali that’ passed through the neurons of my brain which usually filters down any feeling of love, desires and bad memes automatically.
But in sooth, I was quite happy that I was pressed with such a ridiculous enquiry. Aha! This is what an expat feels like in lands far far away. The feeling that my little brother always laments of but I always had failed to understand him. I usually end up shrugging his stupid feels but here I was empathizing with him. He has always been known to be an emotional bloke. He’s quite our baby. But so am I. I don’t dwell on bothering’s of real time situations. I once cried watching a movie trailer on Youtube.
So, here I was thinking over where I am physically standing in context of globe and I was quite amazed that now suddenly a paroxysm of fear and uncertainty held me to my guts. The fear of being really alone as a citizen from Himal and the uncertainty of if I can really accommodate myself into this strange land. I knew I can adapt but to find oneself homely is another thing. I live in an apartment and I pay a hefty sum for it but it still feels like living in a hotel. Living in a hotel is perhaps more accommodating than having to do all the things that I never quite ever did in my life, like cooking, doing laundry and dishes, checking the electricity meter, shopping for groceries and looking into weird sites for expats who want to be friends is beyond me. It sounds like a first world problem, but what am I to do if I have always lived like a vigilante till date in my own country. Lately made myself so homely at a restaurant (which my dear friend and brother owns) that the waiters would ask me where I was if I even missed a day. So now I here I am associating Everest (which I have actually never seen except in photos) with homeliness.
Its quite strange to even think of home at the moment. It never felt like home all my life. I don’t even miss Nepal. I don’t think I will ever. But this creepy new feeling that Nepal is fucking awesome never ceases to amaze me. I always complained and whined and cursed about everything. But now people ask me ‘How’s Nepal like?’ I can’t believe of the things I say to them. I am hyping up the bloody country. It’s certainly not because I am homesick or that I rather enjoy my life in Nepal than in Tanzania. For the first time, I am actually describing (not analyzing) Nepal and I am finding it hard to stomach that it’s actually a really good place to spend your life in. It’s hard to digest something that you truly believed to have sucked your whole life. And now suddenly that it doesn’t suck comes in with the epiphany that nothing in life is constant and in its entirety. Just like happiness and sadness. No one can be entirely happy or sad.
A dear Neapolitan, Stephano is at home in Tanzania. Not just his fluency in Swahili but his temperance is that of a citizen of this wonderful country. He probably just hates it here as he hates it in Italy. He knows who he is and knows what he doesn’t want. Well, he will be a first time father this July and will probably loose his mojo for a brief time but he will surely regain it back effortlessly. ‘I have been in your stage in life and have had my fill of it. It’s not that I don’t like parties and weed but there are more important things in life’ he admonished us like an older brother. He is used to sweats and avocados. He has his mojo intact. His mojo reminds me of my own strength and perseverance. How far I have come. How through the vicissitude of teenage angst and existential crisis, I managed to retain my hope for humanity and accept that beauty of human consciousness which glides in crescendos and diminuendos of the good and the bad. To accept both and move forward is truly a feat for any individual living in our times.
It’s merely been a month here in Africa and I am lost in the wilderness of entitlements that expats living in Masaki probably dwell upon. The land is a far cry from rest of the country but I cannot avail from thinking that it is disengaged from rest of Africa. The only thing African about the peninsula is the climate. As I promenade through the much embracing blue beaches of the city or sojourn in touristic islands nearby, it makes me forget how much I am detached from Heart of Darkness that Conrad so magnificently yet preposterously went on about. Stephano warned that one can easily forget one is in Africa. By that he means that I shouldn’t forget that I am in another man’s territory where I am more than welcome but that I shouldn’t forget about my roots back home and live modestly. That is to say, smile more and show more gratitude. It is very good for one’s soul too. I think its high time get back my mojo, drink a lot of water, consume a lot of avocados and accept the sweats.
The Self-Taught Man came in to the café expecting me. I was scheming a public suicide in a short fiction I was working on. He came in through the sliding door, almost in rapture. His aquiline nose never ceases to fascinate me. Today the nose seemed slightly sad. He expected to die sooner because of his nose. ‘I inhale too much dust. I am surely getting an asthma in my early forties. Hear-Hear Kathmandu. Our love will kill us.’. He was convinced. I never doubted him. In fact, I never doubted him at all.
It’s late afternoon and I am dizzy. Saala. I just had an Espresso. Double Shot. I smoke too much. The waiter waved a glossy pink slip. A thousand rupees. Eight hundred for Surya Lights. These cafes charge too much for cigarettes. I merely recalled my new habit, recording expenses in a mobile app. It’s futile. What would I do if I had an inkling of my expense pattern? Why, I know what I spend on? Last week, I had bought a little book on Chinese poetry. I thought it was cute. Today, I got myself a shirt from one of a footpath dealer because it was cheap. I didn’t need it. My mother always harangues on the virtues of making a pilgrimage to Pashupathinath. I made it along with her. I was broke by the time a fourth sadhu brandished his parched palm towards us. She screwed her eyes. I grinned nervously.
I pick myself up languidly. A guilt similar to post-jerking engulfs me whenever I am leaving cafes. It’s the same morbid lament. The deed is done. I have an urge to run away. It’s mildly disgusting now. The Self-Taught Man caught up with me as I was leaving the vicinity of the sin. The motorbike didn’t start. I check the dashboard. It’s empty. I slap my forehead. I go back the cafe. He is resolute. He is awake. I am tired. He’s about a song now. Cotton Eye Joe. He’s memorized the lyrics. I try to keep up, but I jumble up the words. I keep telling myself that he’s a freak.
I get mail. Invitation to sit for an interview at an NGO. I look for their contact pages. I don’t recognize anyone. To get a real job is all about knowing people in Kathmandu. I will be skipping the interview then. I haven’t done anything substantial today. I feel sad. I think of Dali. Talent and hard work. I lack both. At the age of six he wanted to be a cook. At seven he wanted to be Napoleon. In mid-twenties, I still haven’t figured out if I like mo:mo or mo:mocha more. I light a cigarette and smoke nervously. Should my mother wake up, she would reproach me not with fanged words but with monstrous faces. The bland breeze of the night calms me down.
The June breeze is as lazy as me.
My little niece tells me that I am boring. She doesn’t know what sort of porn I watch incognito.
It’s deadline day. I merely finish the story on time. I send it to my editor. He promptly rejects it stating that it’s obscene. I reply that his self-righteousness is what’s obscene. He’s artless. Maybe that’s why he’s an editor instead of a writer. I am fuming. Some beautiful girls eyeball me. I bonhomie enough for one of them to blow me.
I apologize to the editor. ‘It was a paroxysm of rage and to tell you the truth I was a little bit drunk’ I entreat. Damn it! A cliché. Nevertheless, he buys it. I wonder if he gets such responses a lot. He’s a nice lad. He offers me coffee and biscuits. His office is huge. The loft even has a window overseeing the city. It should be nice to be an editor. I promise to come up with a social critique of commercialization in medical sector by the end of the week. He consents. He’s such a sweet lad. I am good at chakari.
Having spent half my day, walking from one room to another, I questioned myself, in the dreariness of the afternoon, ‘Why does it even matter?’ In the sanctity of my house, I seemed to have collapsed under the influence of an ennui so dreadful that I only realized in the evening, the condition of my mental faculties.
At dusk, I observed a fly banging itself on the glass window. The fly flew voraciously towards the pane and having banged itself on the hard, polished surface; it repeated itself. ‘It is rather foolish of the fly’ I reckoned but thereafter soon grasping how I had been banging myself into an invisible window in the form of employment, I was aghast of the similarity between myself and this fly. We were the same. Well, at least, I got bored of the meaningless, incessant banging and got myself out my situation. At least I had the privilege of leaving my window pane on a whim. Then I realized that the poor fly will kill itself and in a paroxysm of sympathy, I drew the window, letting the poor creature fly off to wherever it fancied.
At bedtime, I list my inspirations.
Hemingway. Ganeshman. Kathmandu. Lalitpur. Bhaktapur. Girija. Oli. Prachanda. Nima Rumba. Underside. Cruentus. Tashi dai. Bhimsen Thapa. Maldini. Dostoevsky. Apple. Freud. Woody Allen. Camus. Tolstoy. Star Wars. Peanut Butter. Guevara. Napoleon. Corleone. Manjushree Thapa. We didn’t start the fire? I sigh. I am tired of all these influences. I am a mere scumbag.
I am sleep deprived. I am in desperate need of a routined life. Well, I left my job which somewhat scheduled my time and now I can feel my entrails revolting against my mental faculties. This bohemian life of a story teller is rather repulsive. All I had to do was dispatch diplomatic mails. Here I am trying to get published and I can’t even write a decent paragraph. The office does want me back and I could use some dough. I am almost broke. The Self-Taught Man thinks it’s disgraceful to ask for money with one’s parents. I could use some filial reproaches. They are nuts in the most loveable way. The whole nation has gone nuts anyways. Well, history has it that the bewildered sati of Bhimsen Thapa cursed the country from the burning pyre. If one thinks about it, Kathmandu was probably cursed by a hundred thousand satis. I think I am cursed three times already. I am cursed for being a man. I am cursed for being a resident of Kathmandu. I am cursed for my mere birth in a so-called high caste. The whole of the country is excommunicating people like me for the sake of positive discrimination. The sins of the fathers do remain with us younglings. I should go back to sending mails.
Everyone told me that I shouldn’t quit my job until I had obtained another appointment. Friends. Cousins. Parents. Strangers. When one feels reduced and the learning curve is on all time low, how can one endure the tyranny of monotony, politics and unyielding gossips at offices? When I go to work, I don’t want to think that I am going to office. I want to feel that I am going to work. And how I worked when I did so. The slow gratification from working, I guess, that’s what life all about is, waking up each morning hoping to add to the foundations of yesterday’s work.
The rickshaw screeches to a stop by the blue wooden doors of the shop, not even tall as its proprietor, having to duck every time you take the doors. It’s a series of doors, sturdy wooden planks that open like a Chinese folding fan, metal hinges needing oil in the cold. Opening the doors in a series of grumbles while its clacks lets fluorescent lights pour into the dirt street and the rear end of the rickshaw. Dumping a squeezed cigarette pack with ‘555’ on its side while brushing his shoes on a rubber mat on the doorstep, he enters his shop. It was also home of late.
The rickshaw driver looks through the open doors at the shop. He sees a sleeping shop. Done with all its labors the harmonium shop lies in chaos, at least for the rickshaw driver. He sees the gentleman coming back, cash in hand. He takes it graciously, the green notes crispy in hand.
Pulling out of the dirt, he pushes and jumps onto the pedals, the road is empty now, and he is in a hurry. He shoots through the streets that take him to the middle of the city. Now they have made the road go around the ground, in a circle to the dark statues of the persons long past. He didn’t mind he had to go all the way around that new road, paying homage to kings, generals, tyrants he never knew. He didn’t mind that the way took him longer, under the gates of the dead heroes of things long past. He whistles through cold winds of a sleeping city nestling in the warm embraces of stillness.
Doors to the harmonium shop closes. There is a sharp note of a harmonium key when it shut, maybe not. The front of the shop is crowded with unfinished pieces with jut out wires like bones of an unfinished being on the table of creation; wood scraps and dust lie on the floor, bile and excrements. Through a small cream-colored door in the back, a darker and even narrower space exists. All the junk on the shop floor was meant to be here, in the storage. Now there is just a bed.
“Anything happened today?” She asked every day. Every day like this, seven months. He said nothing.
They knew. He pulls, presses a switch hanging itself on a spiral blue wire. A smaller fluorescent light up reflecting down from tin with badly printed logos and rust spots where nails hammered through wood and metal was what remained of his life. Dropping off his coat on a hook behind the door, he pulled his belt and took a breath.
“It isn’t easy hunting a ghost.”
The love of his life looked up at him with pained eyes. “Did you ask her?”
“What did she say?”
“………. “, she bows her head at that.
“She knew about my father and the curse the moment she laid her eyes on me.” She looks up at that with hopes in her eyes. Her sharp chin sharpened when happy. It was excited and hopeful. The small face dwarfed by golden moons in her ears broke his heart.
“There is a man by Pikal lake. Apparently, he is friends with ghosts of priests.”
“Tomorrow?” He sighs, exhausted.
“Need to go by the temple and the market to get some offerings for him first. Come on, that is tomorrow. Let’s eat now.”
The radio is silent as they eat. It is past midnight and people at the radio sleep, to start early prayers in morning. “I can see him, child! He stands Tall Powerful! I see his frowning face! He rages!”
Well, that sounded like the Red Pundit he knew.
He was kneeling, hopeful with marigolds clutched between his hand, held before and above his head, bowed before powerful visage of the ancient shaman. Throwing half a handful of red rice over the pattern of a mud floor, the near-nude, red lined shaman shakes around in a trance. He listened, in hope.
“He sees you, child! He wants to tear you apart and feast on your blood. He curses, even in death! The lords of death ride him, disturbed in the mortal world, the tranquil beings of eternity.”
Now Bikal prostrated on his knees. His forehead is on the brown floor, and he screams his pleas and begs the ghost of the holy Brahmin. He seeks removal of the curse. He seeks redemption for his family, put out before it started.
“Forgive and bless my house oh father! Lift this curse, we are thy own blood.”
“Death! Destruction! Annihalation of Everything!” The shaman was trembling, no rhythm to his trance now, just a leaf in mercy of tempest.
“Father! Forgive me, our family, remember the face of our mother and lift this curse.”
The storm slowed, winds died, and everything came to a silent stop. The Pikal shaman had aged a decade in the last hour. The white-haired man pushed against the floor to the wall and lay there, eyes closed.
“Your father,” the shaman spoke with eyes shut, “will not be dissuaded. His anger is too strong to be dismissed, his righteousness too stubborn for forgiveness. This curse is non-trivial.”
There is a way out still.
“We have to do a Calming ritual on Monday. The shaman says it’ll take the whole day and night of fasting. This is one of those big ones. Great sacrifice will be necessary. I’ll get a goat tomorrow, why don’t you get started on the fire?”
“Think this’ll work?”
“Yes. There is something about the man. I think we will know for once and all. This is the last stop. Then we stop trying.”
He didn’t know that before he spoke. That act of speaking persuaded him to make his mind, his own voice that seemed distant did reasoning for him. No more, this was last. She looked up at him, her eyes welling up, she buried her face against his shoulders.
The rickshaw hurtles through the wide road on the northern corner of town. A newly expanded area and you can still see the sharp edges of gravel and tar on the side of road. There are few houses around, sure to change in a year, this city is fattening up. Undisturbed by pedestrians or stupidly maneuvering tin cans of town, the man enjoys the wind against his face. Beneath his feet the old metal and wood contraption is gliding, no burden under its bamboo shed. In the great straight road, there’s a single and subtle bend that takes you around dense bamboo bush keeping to your left. Keeping on the bend, bushes hastily retreat to give way to a small fork on a stream that goes under the road. It’s hard to notice, and most people usually don’t. High yellowing grass.
A small corner just off the road and by the stream, full of coals that never looked more than a few hours old. They never were. It could be mistaken as a ghat, a place of pyres if not for the fact that no one on that lonely road had ever seen a lit pyre there. It was because they only went through that road during day. It was no secret that the ghat by bend lit brightly every night. People didn’t know about it, but it was no secret.
For the rickshaw man, whose work and riders took him to every corner in the city, from European mansions of the blood rich to disgusting sacks he dragged drunk customers home to, this place was not unfamiliar.
Tonight, as he hurtles towards hills at the end of the road where a two beams tall mud house with a cowshed lies. His wife used to work in the city, when they first came here. That was years ago and now she lived at home, taking care of their six children, two goats and a horde of angry chickens. Kids were expensive, he wished someone had told him that. Not like his days, he had nine other siblings and his parents did fine.
The bonfire didn’t surprise him. What did was loud wailing coming from a figure by the ground near the burning pyre. He didn’t notice, the pyre seemed a bit different today, a bit bigger lacking a bit browner and darker shade of death. The fire was huge still there was a hunger for more wood.
He slowed. He had stopped by here before and had talked with the creepy priest handful of times. When his eyes got used to the glare of the pyre he could make out a woman lying on the ground. She had that familiar swooning fit that only comes with death of love. He was focusing much on the woman, the man took him by surprise.
He has a familiar look. He raised his hand showing, reflecting white palms of his hand seeing a startled look on his face.
“Sorry to surprise you like that, friend.”
The rickshaw driver said nothing, he looked around, sweeping his gaze from man to pyre and woman and back to man. No priest present and there are usually no visitors in this ghat. The people they burn here don’t have visitors. The rickshaw man dismissed his slight unease, he had nothing on him after all.
When the man didn’t reply to his greeting, the stranger ventured, “Not a good hour for conversation, eh? Do you drive this route often?” He pointed to the Rickshaw.
“I live at the end of the highway over there.”
“Well that’s a long way to go, isn’t it? Please take some of this offering with you. It was my father-in-law’s funeral today.”
It was an unusual place and time for a cremation, but the rickshaw man didn’t feel right to comment. You don’t refuse food at a funeral; the dead eat what you eat.
“I thank you. Sacred things are always welcome. Where is the priest and everyone?”
The stranger invited him towards the pyre with a gesture while he answered, “Oh you know the priests nowadays, interested only in coins in the offering, not even the grain. Read a half-assed hymn and excused himself with something about another funeral and slipped out. We are strangers to this city, …my father-in-law suffered an accident while we were here.”
The men stood a respectful distance from the burning pyre. The woman was a bit silent now, her throat raw lungs empty of any air. He looked intently at her with pity. To lose your father in a city…..
He barely saw the khukri coming towards him from left with a blurry vision, but it was too late then. Although he could feel the gush and wetness all round his left side, he didn’t feel any pain while the stranger grabbed him by his waistcoat, on his blind and dead side and dragged-threw him into the fire, back first.
Surely the stranger didn’t mean it this way, but the rickshaw man was conscious; a few moments away from the birth of pain in his mind, facing two burning figures in front. The stranger’s eyes were wide, afraid, yellow and horrified. He could look them both in their eyes while he died. He knew who she was crying for.