Sunday, February 03, 2008

Kathmandu. A little piece of peace

If Kathmandu is the face of a nation emerging from the chaos of a people’s war, her bruises are yet to fade.

Just eighteen months after a massive uprising of the people forced an end to the Royal Coup that gave rise to the Mao insurgency which often saw the city blockaded or shut down for days, it is hard to tell if Kathmandu is crumbling or struggling to rise from the ashes of the smouldering piles of uncollected rubbish littering the city streets.
Tourism and foreign aid are the first industries to enjoy the fruits of the optimistic peace promotion; visitors are up thirty percent but a quick scan of the daily newspapers reveals the cracks behind the thinly papered walls of peace. It is a peace that reads like lawlessness.
Almost twenty months of an interim Government with no election date in sight, the Mao are not giving up the ‘back to the jungle option’, doctors threaten to hit the streets to protest ‘government apathy and Mao high handedness’, Tourism operators are protesting the revival of forcing donations from trekkers by Mao, a temple is shut in protest over Mao behaviour. Jimmy Carter arrives on a peace junket, the Supreme Court announces that it will employ its own security personnel to guard courts in the districts and a Disappearance Bill is to be passed by the government in response to the surge of abductions in the country.
The news is reported in an almost clinical fashion, like an overworked intern discussing symptoms of a critical patient. The legacy of press censorship in Kathmandu is a thriving rumour mill, often the chief source of information and opinion in a city where journalists fear for their lives and democracy moves in and out like the tide.
I put the paper down and take to the streets, heading for the tourist area of Thamel where I have arranged to meet a friend living in the city after twenty years living abroad. Every foot step must be negotiated in the narrow alleys; I swerve in the slipstream of a bicycle, swivel my hips to avoid a direct hit from the side mirror of a motorbike, dodge a porter carrying a bed on his back, veer past groups of children sniffing glue, and pause at every street corner before small temples smeared with red powder and garlanded with marigolds beside which piles of uncollected rubbish fester in the afternoon sun. Shops sell gold and trinkets, pashmina shawls and the many masks of god, next to it another shop sells Nike, turn left down an alley and raw meat hangs in rusty tin shacks.
A small alley by a stupa leads me to Kantipath, a road that runs towards the Narayanhiti Palace. On the corner whispering widows with small babies and empty bottles beg professionally, UN vehicles flash by and street hawkers offer tiger balm and trekking. Nearer the Palace, the roads widen into broad avenues that saw the funeral procession of the entire Royal Family in 2001 after the Crown Prince allegedly went on a rampage over his parent’s refusal to allow his love marriage.
While the official story is that Prince Dipendra (who was right handed) shot himself in the left temple after a shooting spree that left ten members of the Royal Family mortally wounded or dead, the true story is never likely to be revealed.
Every conspiracy theory in Kathmandu centres on the Murder at the Palace.
“Did you hear,” says a Buddhist nun as we wait at the traffic lights by the Royal Palace. “That over one hundred members of staff at the royal palace were also murdered that night? They say the Ghats at Pashupatinath burned all night.” “No witnesses survived,” she mutters darkly before disappearing into the swirl of people and traffic.

“Indonesian commandos,” says my friend. We break straight into the rumour mill as we wait for coffee and chocolate mousse in Thamel. “They did the executions on behalf of...well, take your pick. The King, the Indian government, the CIA, there are theories for them all.” “And the palace staff? Did you hear...?” He nods, confirming the rumour at the traffic lights. “Only high ranking army who are loyal to the Royals survived.” The interim government? “Organised chaos designed to fool the outsiders; it’s just another farce of democracy. The fact is that the Mao had an ideology but are not really educated enough to understand or support the path to democracy. As for the old rule, the systems of privilege they belong to are ancient; they are not going to hand over their power so easily. So they bicker and fight inside the halls of power while we wait and speculate.”
“What about the story I heard about the American embassy?” I ask. The newly built US Embassy is directly opposite the Palace and twice as large. “Every brick, every nail was brought in from America!”He says, slapping the table. “And did you know that not one Nepali was employed in the construction?” “Nepal is paradise lost. Everyone is making money out of our situation except for the Nepali. Can you believe that a poor country like Nepal needs five or six casinos? NO! So, why?”
“To launder money?” I am warming to the conspiracy theories.“Even the beggars come from India!” He laughs in the way of glass splintering. I part with my friend at the edge of Thamel, taking the route that will lead me through the ancient Hanuman Dhoka square where the virgin child chosen as the living goddess Kumari is held in palatial cloister, nearby the glue sniffers of the afternoon are comatose around the temple steps, and the hijari ply their ancient trade beside the old palace walls.
A lone motorbike weaves its way around idols and temples as the noise of the city begins to fade into the mists of an early winter night. Kathmandu has finally exhausted herself.


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