Article Published in THE HINDUSTAN TIMES
Beyond The Picture Postcard
Katmandu, at one level, offers all the razzle dazzle of a loudly proclaimed tourist industry. But, mercifully, there are levels beyond, writes NAVTEJ SARNA, who moved through Nepal’s lesser known terrain and people
In the valley for below a tin roof began glinting warningly as I hastened to gulp down the breakfast in the Royal Nepal Airliner. As is usual with me, the airhostess had served from the wrong end. It was touch and go between my last frantic mouthful of the delicious omelette and the landing.
The airport shimmered in the sun as an immigration officer ushered us into Nepal with a dramatic, magnanimous gesture. We stepped out, confident that the package tour had taken care of it all. But something had gone wrong somewhere. The coach wasn’t there, the room wasn’t booked and the travel agent wasn’t apologetic. But it didn’t matter much on the first day in a new city with an entire fresh tin can of life waiting to be opened.
The large hotel window framed sweet smelling pines Peering through them, I despaired that Kathmandu had been ‘done’. Done by my reading too much and other people writing too much about it. Done by the advertisements on the package tours, by the casino-obsessed honeymooners, the hashish-puffing freak, the taut muscled trekker. Done until it is a discarded tourist has been, a land with all its mysteries revealed.
But this, I reflected is only the city of Durbar Marg, the central city lined with travel agencies who offer you exorbitant trips to Tiger Tops and Pokhara valley. The city of temples and kings and ancient townships, memories of faded history. The glistening new hotels and the conducted tour with the rat-a-tat recitation by the guide. And the string of foreign tourists who watch as a body is made ready for cremation on the banks of the Bagmati near Pashupati Nath temple. The flames crackle, the cameras click. Yes, it is all done and overdone.
I turned away from the pines standing straight and tall beyond my window. Mercifully life exists at other levels even in these picture postcard visions. Come then to the city of Bhaktapur, the town built by the Malla dynasty of kings. Look away as the guide starts pointing to the palace of 55 windows under the watchful eye of the golden statue of the King Bhuppatindra Malla. The houses are low with incredibly thin bricks, and you want to reach out to the dumb beggar boy with the beautiful eyes. Dragons take shape from blocks of wood under the chisel and hammer, a couple poses for a moment in eternity. And a boy with a running nose points possessively at a grimy stone image inside a temple and demands one rupee. A row of bawling kids is held together by determined mothers in a reluctant procession towards a vaccinator who jabs indiscriminatingly at each passing arm or leg. “Multiple puncture technique”, remarks my knowledgeable companion. I nod and stare at the police station with the intricately carved wooden gates.
To the one who searches, Kathmandu provides its own means to move off the picture postcard. Cycles and motorcycles can be hired after credibility is established by naming a respected hotel, flashing a smile and a passport, and then, through the crazy traffic of New Road with all its shops selling the same hair dryers and non-stick pans. Past the smart young woman who is the latest addition to the traffic cops and into the side lanes. Bump down a steep cobbled street and onto the ring road leaving behind the shouting squealing boys who try hard to keep pace.
Somebody talked late last night of a statue of Vishnu which lies on ten snakes and faces the open blue sky. Somewhere out there. The road curves up through the green fields and yellow flowers.
The unkempt stairs lead up to the place where a peasant had dug and found blood and ultimately a statue of Vishnu. A temple was to be erected on the spot. The God warned the builder in his dream that no room should cover his head. When the builder persisted, the pillar was struck down by a divine chakra. When the king hurried to see the phenomenon, the statue is said to have stood upright and commanded the king to stay away. The divine form and the earthly manifestation could not be together. And so, said the story of the night before, the king never visits the statue at Buddha Neelkanth.
But we were no kings, and so we went up the stairs followed by the inevitable little boys and a seller of bright yellow flowers. The statue lay calm and peaceful in a pond of green water. The pillar struck by the chakra stood by forlorn. Under the shade of the big peepal sat a blind beggar woman. A splendid picture the god made….. On the way back, a signpost points irresistibly towards Balaju. Another name, another story, another night. A Gurudwara built in a shady grove on a bamboo hill. Far below and away, Japanese cars are being washed in the river. Under a huge tree is a concrete impression of Guru Nanak’s feet, marking another place in his travels. It is said that on his birthday and on a full moon night, a pair of snakes is to be seen by the fortunate. A good omen. We waited patiently, eating sandwiches and furtively glancing at the bamboo grove. But in vain.
It can be endless, this search for a city beyond the glinting five stars and the last fateful turn of the roulette wheel in the smoky casino. Stories abound in little worlds – in the bakers shop around the corner, in the post office where dozens of foreigners look for a familiar and beloved handwriting in the heaps of letters marked poste restante. And I wonder what makes the little charming boy who serves us soup smile so much.