Time Warp in Kathmandu

Sorry, but I must tell you one last story of Kathmandu…. It was the day before we were leaving; our consultancy debriefing session was over, and we had one free afternoon to relax and do some sightseeing.

My two Danish colleagues hadn’t been to Durbar Square – the place I was telling you about last week – which has the old royal palace of Hanuman Dhoka, the house of the living goddess Kumari, and a bewildering collection of ancient pagoda temples with their cascades of wide-eave roofs and intricate carvings.

It was the second day of the important Hindu festival of Dasain. Along the streets on the way to Durbar Square we saw many baskets of chickens and tethered flocks of goats waiting for the sacrifices to come. One of our Nepali colleagues had told us that on the next day the gutters of Durbar Square would be flowing with blood. In that morning’s ‘Himalayan’ newspaper there had been an editorial criticising the wholesale and cruel slaughter of animals that goes on during Dasain.

The roads were busier and more chaotic than work-day rush-hours. When the taxi eventually deposited us, we found the square thronged with people – some tourists but mainly Nepalese and mostly young; women squatting on the pavements selling fruits and garlands of orange marigolds; men calling us into their open-fronted shops festooned with lurid pictures, carvings and puppets, the whole pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses.

Then there were the sadhus with yellow robes, long white hair and painted faces, sitting in front of their little shrines. One of them beckoned us over. Intrigued, we approached. He came straight to his point: ‘I am a holy man,’ he said. ‘Give me money!’

‘I guess he is not so different from us,’ my companion said. ‘I am a consultant – here is my invoice.’

Disney could not have conjured up a more bizarre and fantastic scene as Dubar Square on a religious holiday. Oh, yes – I have been forgetting to tell you about the soldiers. On guard outside the Hanuman Dhoka, wearing tight-fitting black and white uniforms and carrying long muskets, some could have been in medieval times; others were wearing the modern khaki of the Ghurkas, with their distinctive slouched hats.

A crowd had gathered outside the old palace. We chatted with some teenagers who had made strategic seats out of the steps of a temple. ‘We are waiting for the King to come,’ they said. ‘He will be here in about two hours’ time, we think.’

So we carried on with our shopping and photographing. We went inside one of the kiosks selling prints of gods and goddesses.

‘So the King will be coming here soon,’ we said to the shop-keeper.

‘No, not the King. He can’t come here now.’ And then he said in whisper: ‘The King – he is a killer.’ So the controversy about who was really responsible for the massacre at the Palace in September 2001, when the mild-mannered King Birendra, his Queen and his sons were all shot – the suspicions still persist.

We retreated to a rooftop cafe, where we ordered tea and momos – the small scallop-shaped dumplings of chicken and buffalo. In the courtyard down below, the Maoists were holding a demonstration. Against a backcloth of red banners emblazoned with the hammer and sickle, they were making ranting speeches and releasing balloons bearing up into the clear blue sky slogans saying ‘Down with the monarchy’, or some such.

I remembered what a Nepalese friend, a civil servant, had said to me the day before: ‘If you want to understand this country, you must realise that we are trying to live in three centuries: the 18th century of kings, the 20th century of Maoists – and the 21st century of trying to become genuine democrats.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation