We were on a mission to dine at every single recommended cafe on Trip Advisor and that euphoric madness led us to Gaia! A boutique restaurant on Kumari Marg, Thamel. A stone throw from our hotel but we still needed two of each, brains, cell phones, GPS navigation systems and apps to triangulate the position. Thamel district in Kathmandu is an explorer’s paradise. The diversity of what is on offer is spell binding. The city’s cynosure, this area is an epitome of Multiculturalism. Americans, Hispanics, south-east Asians, folks from down under, one can spot the entire world within a few blocks of the suburban landscape. Bob Marley and BB King on this side of the road in an upscale lounge and “Tip Tip barsa Pani” in a makeshift, basement dance bar on the other. Authentic Pashmina shawls on the first floor and Gucci and Northwest replicas on the ground floor.
The buildings have more hoardings and banners on them than bricks and the same structure of 4-storey could very well have a hotel, a spa, a café, a pizzeria, a bakery, a mountaineering gear shop, artifact stores, another café, internet parlor, salon, a zoo a space station…you get the idea, don’t you! Exhausting just to recreate the imagery!
Right before we turned left to enter Gaia, I heard what I never expected to hear in this lifetime, not in India and most certainly not in Nepal. A remixed version of “Zindagi Maut Na Ban Jaye” from the Bollywood movie Sarfarosh with Bhangra beats, and I knew the barber shop it was emanating from had to belong to a Bihari (no offense).
Dressed in black dungarees and a Nirvana t-shirt, with cropped, gelled hair and rings on every finger, we had met our first subject for this blog!
Jai Ram Thakur from Saharanpur had moved to Kathmandu 17 years ago. A decade and a half later he was still adjusting to the “rough” hair styles of the young Nepali boys as he described the undercuts and spikes. His parlor had an orange decor – oh, not the shade you associate with orange but the color of the Sindoor they put on Indian brides, right from the tip of their noses to the base of their skulls! Instantly appealing to the ridiculous sense of impropriety the brain is programmed to get attracted to.
“I am going to give you the latest Ranbir Kapoor look from the movie he’s doing with Salman’s ‘item’”, he exalted, on my mention that I was there for a haircut and possibly a change in hair style! The feminist in me was about to intervene when a wry smile spread across his face and he unapologetically uttered “waise Didi (Katrina Kaif) hain badi acchi, pehle u ek chotta (translation: petty criminal) ke chakar me phans gayi (referring to Sallu) fir Ranbir ke chakkar main. Ab bataiye, jo Deepika jaisi ka nahi hua, uske character ka aur kya test.” I was amazed at the depth of knowledge the man possessed about the latest in Bollywood gossip! This was going to be some haircut experience, I muttered to myself.
“A lot has changed in the last 2 decades since I moved here,” he proclaimed. The streets have gone murkier and dirtier. Though I knew what he implied, I had the most candid and earnest encounter with a drug peddler only last evening in broad day light as he walked up to me at a crossing and enquired, “Bro, do you smoke? I got hashish, grass.” Before I could answer in a negative, prompt came my other alternatives, “No? How about some crystal, heroin? No? A line perhaps (referring to cocaine)?”
But given how much I enjoy interacting with strangers who are determined to express themselves with limited inhibition I decided to indulge Jai Thakur a tad bit more. “What do you mean, things have changed around here?” I enquired. “Sir, Is jagah ka naitik patan ho chuka hai (this place has morally degraded).” Such chaste dialect, “naitik patan” and I could barely conceal my laughter.
He went on to further explain how a plethora of massage parlors employing young girls has mushroomed in hundreds over the last decade, catering mostly to the white pot-bellied Caucasians and “couldn’t afford a ticket to Pattaya – Indians!” The streets are infested with teenage boys selling drugs for a quick buck! There are alleys in Thamel that are unnavigable after 10 because of chain snatchers and perverts trying to grope you, something that was unheard of when I first moved here, he concluded. Working here isn’t as exhilarating as it used to be, was my conclusion for him. 17 years of monotony would do that to anyone, the city was little to be blamed!
There was a hint of frustrated exaggeration about his verdict, maybe a haircut went bad and the client refused to pay but a large part of his assessment bordered around the reality. Nepal through the eyes of this hyperbolic barber was a dream destination that had lost its charm, nothing worth looking forward to, addictive none the less. It was as impossible for him to palate the dynamism witnessed over a long career as it was to just hang his boots. By the time the hair wax had been applied and a final nod of OK was made by Thakur, I was looking like a rough, Nepali porcupine and Ranbir would turn in his grave if he were to know, someone thought this hairdo resembled his!
The fascinating 1-hour of the interaction was priceless and I did go back to Thakur the next day for the leftover insights into the mesmerizing city of Kathmandu, Jai was married to Nancy Thapa a beautiful lady that also managed the women’s section of the salon and together embodied the amalgamation of diversity Nepal truly is!
Hari, was our cab driver assigned to us by our Hotel administration. A polite man in his mid-forties, a tour guide plus travel agent plus spiritual speaker and everything in between. His facial expressions often read of boredom having repeatedly done the same thing day in and out for inquisitive and sometimes annoying tourists like me. For the most part sporting a feeble smile he eventually even got our Lumbini trip canceled with a whole lot of conundrum resulting in unavailability of return flights to Kathmandu. At the end of the first day of the tour, Hari was very keen on taking us to Nagarkot, apparently to view the snow-capped peaks of the lower Himalayas and also because the place was outside city limits and hence he got to charge us a premium over the city package of the day!
The time set for departure from our hotel was decided to be 4 in the morning. We left as per schedule only to realize half way that the thick cluster of clouds would make it an impossibility to get a view of anything beyond 500 Ft. So, there we were, parked at the edge of the highest cliff in Nagarkot with no further trajectory to navigate. Chilly winds and drizzle welcomed us at 5 AM in the morning with no signs of any other living person or organism anywhere around.
As I reclined in the rear seat of the car, I saw a young lady in her early 20’s appear out of nowhere! Bleached locks, fiery red lipstick, a Hawaiian-patterned dress and a glass of chilled beer in her glass trot gently towards my friend. For a moment we assumed she was the owner of the small but neatly done hotel right behind where our car was parked. That’s when we were informed she was there to relax with a couple of her friends. She was jarred with all the drinking through the night and dancing in the discotheque. No wonder, she was having more alcohol at 5 in the morning. Good high sometimes eliminate the perils of a bad high.
Sujata – This 23-year-old fiery bombshell would have hung Jai Ram Thakur like a goose on a rotisserie and watched him slow cook to oblivion had she heard him address Sallu Bhai as “chotta” (ruffian). This pocket dynamite, married at 14, a single mom and abandoned by her husband at 16 could very well be Salman Khan’s fiercest fan alive. In a span of 2 hours with her, she had already gulped down half a crate of Carlsbad and smoked 21 cigarettes (yes, my astonishment made me keep a count). Accompanying on the same table was her older friend she loving addressed as “Don”. Don was every bit of the woman you can picture in your head right now! Big, loud, brash, rambunctious, uninhibited, encapsulating and someone who would walk inside the room one second and own the atmosphere the next. Together Sujata and Don reminded me of Thelma and Louise or if you missed that classic, Butch, and the Sundance Kid!
Don was the support system for Sujata, helping her raise her 9-year-old son Tanmay and also with her business. In conversation with them, I realized a few things. Every individual can be strong when facing an adversity but none could be as resilient and determined as a single mother. Women exude this sense of character and their beauty, elegance, and appeal amidst all that life was throwing at them, transcends borders! Sujata was still hoping to find love, love that happened to Bodyguard Lovely Singh but today she isn’t afraid to be inebriated to the brim and instead of taking a cab, purposefully walk inside a police station and request to be dropped at home.
What also struck me was for all the penchant Nepalese possess for Indian cinema and Bollywood, they are equally in love with their culture and traditions. As Sujata later said, she could dance all night as she did the night before coming to the mountain top on songs ranging from Tamma Tamma to Chikni Chameli, the sense of true happiness and a connection with everyone lay when the music was from the biggest Nepalese hits from Bhuwan KC.
Sujata and Don were the cannons of reprisal fighting the dogma of an early marriage and patriarchy that seems to be a part of Nepalese culture. A bit on the edge to our liking but they were living it up in style. A reflection of a society that was transitioning from cognitive and cultural bondage to liberty and empowerment, with a touch of an overdose of a few vices!
While exploring the Bhaktapur Durbar and the regalia it would have boasted when first created, we found ourselves bumping into the Nepalese and academic version of the African child soldier from the Bosnian civil war days!. This child guide knew no less about the Durbar, the history, the iconography, the dates than the adult guides we had through rest of our prior visits. While we were engaged in some rather fascinating revelations we saw a young girl walk briskly past us. She was barely 10 and made a rather abrupt halt right where we were seated. The axiomatic reaction was to enquire about her as ardently as we had done about the boy. She was Sunita – the boy’s classmate. Spoke fluent and flawless English. Her linguistic proficiency could have very well put many Indian parents on the anti-depressant Prozac! She was poignant and stupendously confident of both, the context and the content. Thoroughly impressed by their skills we were more than keen to offer them a treat or an ice cream bonanza given how brutally and unrelentingly the sun was scorching down on the city.
Sunitha and the boy gazed into each other’s eyes for a brief moment and before we could unravel the dilemma, she asked us to buy them books from the local book store instead of treating them. The heart just warmed up to the request and we agreed with as much gusto as we did with eagerness. Walking behind them from one lane to another, we were informed that Sunita’s education was being funded by a man from San Fransisco. God bless that noble soul, I thought to myself. In a world that’s defined by the ills and evils here was an example of someone doing something spectacularly humane and selfless! Eventually, we reached the bookstore and told them they could buy whichever book they needed for their curriculum and just waited for them to decide.
Sunita looked at the shopkeeper for a moment, spoke to him in her local language first time that afternoon and a book was placed on the front desk. The boy followed suit and asked for the same book. Seeing them both purchase the same question bank we were inclined to suggest that they should buy 2 different books. However, we didn’t pay much heed to the fact that they were both quite adamant with their decision. My friend took out her wallet to pay for them and asked for the price. 5000 NRS for both, the man said with an expression as calm as that of a torrential flood that had just receded after having lost its motivation to cause more havoc. That’s when I felt something just didn’t add up. I checked online and found that the price for the book was merely 400 NRS. 80% less than what was quoted to us. We informed the shopkeeper and he didn’t even resist bringing the price down from 2500 to 400, which felt even more mystifying. As soon as that happened, the boy refashioned his choice and asked for another book. This time the price quoted to us was 600 NRS. Google informed me that the original price was 200 and we intimated the shopkeeper and yet again he agreed with sublime nonchalance and with an alacrity to stupify. Right at that moment, the boy altered back to the original choice and that’s when I requested my friend to just fold her wallet and just walk away.
The children never needed any books. They only needed tourists to agree to their request for purchasing a book. They would take everyone to the book store and have the hapless and unsuspecting tourists buy them a rather expensive book. Thanking the tourists for their benevolence and kindness they would later return to the book store and return the book for cash deducting some commission for the role played by the shopkeeper. The plot was laden with rather minimal loopholes to be apprehensive about.There was hardly an aroma of flippancy about the script and demeanor. This was a very well thought out, racket. Like my friend later said, it’s a SCAM!
These kids were also the Nepal we were there to discover. Rendered impotent with government apathy and deploying their skills and knowledge to survive in this ruthless world without much caution or care for morality, I wondered if they realize the gravitas of the priceless knowledge of historicity they acquired rather accidentally or was it just means to an end.
They made me realize that people anywhere in the world are just that, people. They do the best they can with what they and when they can!
Sujata, Hari, Sunita, Thakur were what Kathmandu is! Mysticism integrated with modernity or the banality of it so to speak. A forward society with its own share of repressions, a depredation of a glorious legacy, a crossover to the fast times of sex, drugs and rock and roll and yet pristine and the virgin in its aura of religiosity defining the way of life.
Kathmandu and Nepal through their eyes was a treat to savor and cherish. When memories of the grandeur of history embedded in those royal pagodas and the divinity of Symbhunath begins to fade with age, those faces and their view of the world is what shall remain in me of Nepal…