Everything about Kathmandu is expectedly familiar. Incessantly honking vehicles, dusty roads, throngs of people, decadent architecture, wonky-looking structures, messy wires on electric poles – all reminiscent of Indian cities, seamlessly merge into each other and appear like a dust storm rolling away in the rear-view mirror of the van as we swiftly pass by.
The van passes through a ‘welcome’ arch and the painting on it, of a border-less face of a man (or a woman? I can’t tell) grabs my attention in a flash. The face has a pair of semi-shut eyes as if high on marijuana and a question mark – seemingly wondering where the hell is he after smoking pot.
I’m sure my interpretation of the painting cannot be right, so I ask the van driver.
“Buddha eyes, sir”, he replies.
I instantly cross myself apologetically. I have visited Buddhist temples in India, but I have never seen Buddha Eyes before.
I’m curious to know more. Why his eyes are semi-shut?
“He’s meditating, sir”
The hotel that we have booked for our stay is associated with a Buddhist nunnery, and since the van belongs to the hotel, the driver knows a thing or two about Buddha eyes. He continues, “Buddha knows everything and sees everything”
“I see”, I say thoughtfully. After a couple of seconds’ gap, I ask, “Why’s the question mark?”.
He explains in Hindi that the curved mark symbolizes the oneness of the universe.
I nod to show my acceptance of his explanation, but I haven’t got that logic. If it’s about oneness, I would have preferred a straight line.
In the rest of the short trip to the hotel, I see more Buddha Eyes, mostly from the many stupas on the way and now every time I look at them, they appear to be fiercely staring at me and I begin to think that he’s angry at me for my initial sinful assumption. I need to find a way to appease him.
Our hotel is a quaint place and co-exists with a Buddhist nunnery within the same compound. It’s an oasis of serenity in the middle of chaos – of Kathmandu.
I spend some time reading Nepali newspapers in the nunnery’s library. An old monk watches me with interest. I keep my head down and continue to shuffle through the pages of a local English daily. The newspaper is full of election news. Nepal is shortly facing its very first election after declaring themselves Federal Republic in 2008.
I suppose a quick look into the political history of Nepal is warranted here. Nepal’s journey from monarchy to democracy was long and topsy-turvy. Along the way, there were conspiracies, revolts and bloodshed.
The journey started in the 1940s when the country began to toy with the idea of democracy. The king took matters into his hands and decided that democracy is crazy and scrapped it in 1959. The quest for democracy didn’t stop there. In 1996, the Communist Party of Nepal started a violent bid to replace the royal parliamentary system with a people’s republic and this led to the Nepali Civil War. Then, in 2001, the most important turning point in this journey happened. An event that shocked the world. It was the Royal Massacre.
On June 1, 2001, crown prince Dipendra went on a shooting spree, decimating an entire line of the Shah family including his father King Birendra of Nepal and mother Queen Aishwarya because – according to official report – his family disapproved his relationship with a woman from the arch-rival Rana clan. Conspiracy theories say something else. However, the next day the Royal Council declared Dipendra, the 12th Shah monarch much to the bewilderment of the world. He was in a coma having shot himself in the head after killing nine of his family members. He never came around and died two days later. Thus, Dippy (as he was called), becomes the only king in the history of the universe to ascend to thrown, live and die as a king without ever knowing it.
The massacre hastened the end of the monarchy in the country. The next king was hugely unpopular, and the civil war soon forced him to relinquish his power. Finally, after a long and protracted fight that consumed more than 15,000 lives, on 28 May 2008 Nepal was declared a federal republic and thereby drawing the curtains down on the country’s 250-year-old monarchy. So much for history.
The newspaper I read now expects the communist party to win in the upcoming election which is around the corner, just a fortnight away. It also runs reports of attacks on party candidates in rural Nepal. In Kathmandu news, I see that a mob had set fire to a police jeep and a small bomb had gone off somewhere in the city yesterday.
Not a bad time to be here in Kathmandu.
In the evening, we make a pilgrimage to Thamel. Thamel was an important stop in the Hippie Trail in the 1950s to 1970s. These days it’s more of a pre-base camp for trekkers.
It’s easy to see why trekkers flock to this street. Hundreds of trek providers and trekking gear shops operate alongside dance bars, pubs, budget hotels, massage centers, money exchangers, souvenir shops and woolen cloth stores, and through the narrow lanes that separate the shops on either side, cars, cycle rickshaws, two-wheelers and taxis fight for their way. It’s a crazily crowded place.
Thamel also has an ‘other’ side. A friend had issued a warning saying that Thamel is like Thailand. And, I will not have to wait for long to see that side.
A man accosts me. “Sir, are you from India?”
“Yes”, I say.
“You must be looking for a massage!”. He is certain. Why, because I’m from India?
I shake my head to signal a ‘no’ and walk away. AP and SV are walking ahead of me and I need to catch up with them.
The man follows me and whispers in my ear, “Sir, we have very beautiful Asian girls. You will like them. Only 100 dollars for the whole package and the girl will come to your room”
“What do you mean by the whole package?” I ask, although I know what he means by ‘whole package’.
With a wicked smile, he says, “Special services, Sir”
In most cases, it’s these agents who force a masseuse into performing ‘special services’ for extra money. There are also instances of masseuses keeping hold of customer’s clothes including underwear and demanding an excessive amount of money in return. I don’t think I will enjoy running naked in the crowded streets here.
I shake my head firmly this time and attempt to flee.
He runs after me. “Only 100 dollars including special services. You won’t get a better deal than this in Thamel”
I must say that only with great difficulty I somehow manage to shake him off my tail. Phew.
I poke around for cheap trekking gear but end up buying a ladies’ pant – for my wife – which also doubled up as a skirt in a piece of innovative design. Like all husbands who forever stupidly believe they have a measure of their wife’s taste, I look at it and think, ‘she’s going to be happy.’
[When I return home after the trek, she will hold it up high, take a long hard look and say, “What a disaster.”]
I also buy a Buddha Eyes fridge magnet. Getting him on the wrong side of me especially when I’m here for a long trek isn’t very smart.
When we are done with Thamel, it’s well past 9 pm. We settle down in the courtyard of a small hotel for dinner. Red and blue bulbs are strung across the courtyard. The smell of weed wafts through the air.
Soon the night is cold and old in Kathmandu. I hear shop shutters rolling down. People hurry home hugging their sweaters. I sip on my second Gorkha beer and take a bite of the buff chilly (buffalo meat). Overhead red and blue bulbs go on and off, and on and off. I fish out the fridge magnet from my pocket and show it under the bulbs.
In the glittering lights, Buddha laughs at me.