Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Mopping Up The Culture - Kathmandu

You can’t help but wonder if Crown Prince Dipendra of Nepal watched John Goodman in “King Ralph.” Whether you wipe out the entire royal family in a fizzing plug-in-a-puddle stunt, or in a hail of bullets, the result’s the same: a clean slate. In a drunken killing spree, in 2001, Prince Dipendra turned the royal palace into the set of Caligula, littered with corpses, to put himself on the throne. He didn’t stay there long enough to have his picture on the banknotes, however, being comatose for his three-day reign, thus disinclined to pose for the Royal Mint engraver. Uncle Gyanendra became King of Nepal, when his trigger-happy nephew died, giving the conspiracy theorists fat to chew for decades to come.
None of this had a very stabilising effect on this troubled little nation. Gyanendra’s segued from autocrat to figurehead, as the country officially becomes a secular republic, instead of a Hindu monarchy. Fascinating times. The concomitant unrest’s not done a lot for tourism, it has to be said, in a country where there are seven good uses, for every rupee wrung from the juicy wallets of the west.
For what it’s worth, I think they’re wrong about the secular bit. You can’t fall over, here, without banging your nose on a temple, with a resident monkey or two, cheekily thieving fruit from the offering-bowl. (“You like Nepal?” Monu asks, taking charge of our bags at the airport, back in Mumbai. “Yes, we’ve seen four hundred and twenty-seven temples,” I say. “Four hundred twenty-seven,” he says, impressed, in spite of himself. I can see that I need to explain artistic hyperbole, but I’m too tired, tonight.)

Two calves sit, top to tail like a pair of commas, in the middle of Kalimati Chowk, impassive, despite the jamming traffic on either side. “These cow here five and six days,” says Shyam, treating them as a bovine roundabout. Killing a cow, in Nepal, carries a two-year jail sentence. “Hindus people like me, they pray the cow. Like god, no?” Later, we see a cow wandering through the crowded market. A man passes her without stopping, but strokes her back gently, then touches his head and his heart in one fluid movement.

At the Monkey Temple, a posse of boys watches the tourists, watching them. Like any other gaggle of rascally schoolboys, except these are infant lamas, trainee monks. At the age of five, they come to live at the temple school. Unimaginable. Three shaven-headed graduates pass by, resplendent in orange and red, just as they’ve looked for centuries, except the middle one’s on his mobile phone. We meet a full-grown lama, Bijaya Rana, at his Thangka shop, in Bhaktapur. Cross-legged in front of his canvas, a two-hairs-wide wisp of a brush in his hand, he’s in civvies, understandably, not wanting to get paint on his robes. His apprentice, Anil, has two years training under his belt, but needs another four, to be a master Thangka artist. He’s already a qualified salesman, though, unrolling and explaining canvas after canvas, in a ceaseless patter. He addresses himself to me, but when we make our choice, he shakes hands with Mr Roland. Whether this is to do with etiquette-nicety or credit card-location, we’ll never know.

Shyam reckons the cost of living’s rocketing, in Nepal. The price of rice has more than doubled in four years. Not only is petrol rationed, but so are water and electricity. Water’s only available for twenty-one hours out of twenty-four, the timing of the three-hour cut-off rotated to keep people the smart side of mutinous. (Still, better than in Dharavi, where the inverse ratio applies...) Surrounded by medieval stupas and golden temples, the women queue to fill their bowls and jugs with water. When the water’s turned off at source, the women leave their vessels queuing in their stead, and go away, until the supply’s reconnected. They carry home every drop they use, in vast pots balanced on their heads, or yoked to a bamboo rod, across an aching back.

There’s obviously not a lot of capital investment on infrastructure, either, as the crumbling roads testify. Up in the villages, just outside Kathmandu, the roads degrade into rutted cinder tracks; small wonder the suspension’s shot on every vehicle we climb into. If there’s so much as a large beetle, coming the other way, one of you has to pull over onto the stony verge, to let the other through. The road to China’s what Shyam calls “very jig-jag,” with an eloquent twist of his hand, perilously off the driving-wheel.
At first, the absence of street-dwellers fools me into thinking Nepal’s more prosperous than India, but more than thirty percent of Nepalese live below the poverty line, compared with twenty-five percent of Indians. Not a competition anyone wants to win, is it? Driving south out of the capital, to Patan, we see a no-lakh housing estate, huddled by the river. “This poor poor peoples,” Shyam waves again. “Bihari,” he says, by way of explanation. I wonder what he’d make of Mumbai, with its under-flyover villages and traffic-light communes.
Now, though, he says, the tourists are beginning to drift back. The Himalayan Times (2 May) has a picture of a blonde woman, buying pottery at the market in nearby Bhaktapur, to prove it. The previous day’s edition carries a picture of Labour Day demonstrators in a peaceful but lively procession through Durbar Square, Kathmandu. You can’t actually see Mr Roland and me, in the paper, because the procession’s busy processing between us and our car, but we’re at the kerb, trying to blend in.
Driving back, we nudge down streets as wide as the car, plus a chickpea on either side. We could reach out and touch the shops. The driver of the ambulance in front does just that, buying himself a pair of trousers. I’m hoping he’s on the way back from a hospital drop-off... We gawp shamelessly out of the windows, and they gawp shamelessly back, tit-for-tatting. A lot of smiling goes on, the entente is very cordiale. At the crossroads, the traffic policeman on duty pulls down his surgical mask, and licks his ice-cream. In fairness, it’s very hot, although I don’t think they’d get away with it at Piccadilly Circus.