Forget Kathmandu, Majushree Thapa, 2013 (2005)

Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy, by Manjushree Thapa. New Delhi: Aleph, 2013 (originally publihsed in 2005).
Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy, by Manjushree Thapa. New Delhi: Aleph, 2013 (originally published in 2005). Purchased in Nepal.

The best, and first book that anyone should read, on Nepal. I wish I had read this as soon as I had arrived in Kathmandu, it would’ve helped me understand the politics and history much quicker. Manjushree Thapa is a brilliant writer, no less so in her non-fictional works than in her fiction. Forget Kathmandu begins with the infamous 2001 massacre of almost the entire Nepali royal family (including the king), and ends in the midst of the Maoist insurgency in Western Nepal in 2003. The essays in between are all attempts at explaining contemporary Nepal–both to explain it to others, and for Thapa herself to come to terms with the chaos and instability of her country. Much of this book is akin to her novel The Tutor of Historyin its elegant style as well as its vigorous, political content.

An admirable and unusual characteristic of Thapa’s writing (here and elsewhere) is her owning of her bourgeois urban privilege. When she travels, in 2003, into the heart of the Maoist insurgency, she admits her background that enables her to make the judgments she does, far removed from the realities of Nepal’s rural working class, yet she doesn’t apologise for it. There is a fine balance to be struck–between an over-compensatory liberal guilt, and an arrogant dismissal of the ‘masses’–and Thapa does it perfectly. She strongly disagrees with the Maoists, particularly their violent and disruptive tactics, yet concedes that if she were an uneducated young peasant woman, she, too, would have been drawn to the movement. Thapa’s bewilderment at everything that is happening in her country around her could come across as naive or self-indulgent in a lesser writer, but her anger, her deep knowledge of politics and the centuries-long inequities of Nepal turns what could be a book of catharsis into something so much more important.

Forget Kathmandu, though several years old now, is certainly not outdated. The events recounted here are important for Nepal’s history (and its present) and Thapa’s speculations as to what could happen to Nepal are still largely relevant today–things are far from decided, here. Yes, parliamentary democracy has been reinstated, and a fairly successful election was held this past November. But democracy here is young, and there is still no constitution (successive Constituent Assemblies have failed to produce anything) and here the country is, six years later, treading water. The subtitle of Forget Kathmandu is An Elegy for Democracy, and in the years since the book first appeared, that subtitle could very well have become A Eulogy for Democracy. This updated edition, published in 2013, includes updated paratexts, but in 2011 Thapa produced another book to follow the story. The symmetry is clear and jolting: the final essay in Forget Kathmandu is called ‘The Massacres to Come’, and this newer book The Lives we Have Lost. I started that immediately after finishing Forget Kathmandu, to complete the picture.


The Living Goddess, Isabella Tree (2014)

The Living Goddess by Isabella Tree. New Delhi: Penguin, 2014. Purchased in India.
The Living Goddess by Isabella Tree. New Delhi: Penguin, 2014. Purchased in India.

Isabella Tree’s The Living Goddess narrates a fascinating and unique part of Nepali–or, more accurately, Kathmandu Valley–culture: the tradition of the Kumari, the worship of a prepubescent girl as the physical home of the female mother goddess. Despite living in Kathmandu (Patan, to be precise) I have seen or heard little of this tradition since I’ve been here. Isabella Tree’s personal history, then, of not just the Kumari of Kathmandu, but of surrounding areas (such as Patan, Bhaktapur, and other places that were perhaps once separate kingdoms or entities, but are now suburbs of Kathmandu) was an enlightening read. Tree first came to Kathmandu in the 1980s as an eighteen year old, living in a house on Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, opposite the Kumari Chen, or house. She became fascinated by the tradition then, and made it her mission in subsequent visits to Kathmandu to find out more about it.

After buying my copy in Jaipur in January, I have noticed that this book has sprouted everywhere in Kathmandu, the type of book that will likely sell well among tourists. And it should, it’s an interesting book, but it did have its problems. I have written before that the contemporary re-telling of mythological or religious tales have a tendency to take a stale narrative form. Roughly every second chapter of The Living Goddess is on the religious tales and traditions of the Nepali people, of relevance to understanding the Kumari tradition. But I found myself skimming through these chapters, bored by the unimaginative style. OK, these are tales that have been told again and again, and deviation from the understood narrative could risk offending the sentiments  (god forbid that anyone should do that in India) of those belonging to the religion whose stories are being told. But I don’t see why this should be an excuse for bland telling-not-showing. Tree could have done much more with these sections of the book, considering they take up so much of it.

There was also a rather forced defense on Tree’s part of the Kumari tradition against its detractors. In the past decade or so, questions have been raised from various quarters on the dubious nature of the tradition in terms of the human rights of young girl children. Kumaris, particularly the Kathmandu Kumari, are not treated like normal children, so are often prevented from attending school and from playing and interacting with others of their age. Ex-Kumaris themselves have come out in defense of the tradition, saying that they gained much more than they lost from the experience, and do not feel that any human or child rights were violated. Assessing both sides of the debate was essential for Tree, and while some semblance of a balanced discussion is presented, she at times falls rather too easily back on the side of the defenders. This is her opinion, but I found this particularly problematic when she reiterated the empowering aspects of Hinduism on women because of the importance placed on the divine feminine forces. Such an easy equation between female worship and the actual condition of women is dangerous and usually very misleading. Take the following passage, for instance:

“The question remained as to why UN reports had included the Kumari tradition alongside the most brutal examples of child abuse and sex discrimination in the country when evidence existed suggesting that, far from constituting child abuse, the tradition actively protected and championed the rights of women and children; and that ex-Kumaris themselves supported the practice. Sloppy research must be partly to blame. Like most journalists it seems the UN reporters had also been persuaded by the prevailing rumours and had failed to examine the tradition closely, including the Newar beliefs and intentions behind it. But then, perhaps the answer was simpler than that. Perhaps no one, let alone the UN, could conceive of a tradition anywhere in the world where a little girl was genuinely worshipped as a Goddess.” (p. 229)

I don’t doubt that the UN’s research can be sloppy, or that it may have been inadequate in this case. But I (and a great many other feminists) do not equate any type of religious rituals around the worship of female deities, humans, spirits, or energies with the actual well-being of women in general. Tree seems to make this equation far too uncritically.

For anyone interested in Nepal, this is an interesting book, though certainly not the definitive one on the Kumari tradition.

Shopping for Buddhas, Jeff Greenwald (1990)

Shopping for Buddhas, by Jeff Greenwald. Originally published by Harper and Row in 1990. Ebook edition published 2011, purchased for Kindle.

I first read this travel narrative about ten years ago. I was studying at the University of Otago, and aside from the books I had to read for my English major, I would select my reading material by browsing the library bookshelves and picking whatever appealed. I haven’t read like that for a long time, my habits dictated by firmer intentions now. But this system set me on the path of South Asian literature, as it was usually the Indian books that caught my eye on the shelf. One can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can be attracted by it.

Shopping for Buddhas was selected this way, I remember it clearly as it made a strong impression on me. I knew very little about India then, let alone Nepal, and there are three things that I clearly remember from this book: being surprised to learn that Nepal was a Hindu kingdom (it still was, in 2004), as my half-baked impressions of it were of a Buddhist country; being fascinated that in Hindu belief, Buddha was an incarnation of Vishnu, and that the first few incarnations were lost to human memory–I didn’t, and still don’t, really understand Hinduism, but there was something revelatory about this fact; and finally the visual image of Kathmandu that the book conjured stuck with me–until I came here! I imagined a city perched on snow-capped mountains, and when Jeff Greenwald wandered them purposefully on his hunt for the perfect Buddha statue, the streets were steep–probably a result of my living in Dunedin at the time, the city home to the world’s steepest street!

I probably should have left this book in my fond memory. It is not that I know so much more about Kathmandu these days that led to disappointment, but that I have read so much more travel literature, most superior to this. The basic premise of the book still holds–Jeff Greenwald is a young writer and traveller, who has spent a lot of time in Kathmandu from the late 1970s to ’80s, and embarks upon a mission to find the ‘perfect’ Buddha statue to buy. The more he learns about the iconography and craft of religious statues, and of the Nepali antiques business, the harder his quest becomes. I still liked this part of the narrative, but Greenwald’s forays into the Nepali politics of the time seems forced. Not just that these parts were out of date (that is inevitable), or basic (if one doesn’t know much about Nepal then they’re not basic at all, as my twenty-year-old self found) but they felt like padding, like the author had intended to write a story about shopping for Buddhas, and some editor along the way told him that this narrative alone wouldn’t pass muster.

It’s a light and enjoyable read if you’re in Kathmandu–I read it primarily whilst hanging out in a cafe near the Patan Durbar Square, so near to many of the shops that Greenwald would’ve perused, so it was easy to visualise the world he was trying to invoke. But ultimately the author’s overly-flippant tone (meant to be humorous, but sometimes just not) and meanderings between the world of politics and that of traditional art, with no real integration of the two, left Shopping for Buddhas very flat.