Two Years in Kathmandu

I have mixed feelings about Kathmandu: my first year peaked my interest enough to stay for a second; a third would have broken me.

Not a Picture Postcard

Kathmandu is not a beautiful city. It is dirty and polluted out of proportion to its size. Eventually, you either find it captivating or annoying. Whatever mystery the Himalayan east held a century ago has long been lost to cheap architecture, absurd amounts of traffic, toxic pollution and appalling poverty. Mysterious easts live better in the imagination. It has a uniqueness in places; crumbling traditional architecture and winding back streets. Kathmandu is a street photographer’s playground, if you can safely avoid the motorcycles. Streets abound with labourers, hawkers and old people sitting around gossiping. It’s far from romantic, yet the street has a vibrancy. Drones are prohibited; shameful really, as the city’s rooftops are an unexplored world of their own. You must get above the streets to appreciate its full extent. The anthropologically curious will find a lot to occupy them.

Yet, corruption, political incompetence, and the Brahmin division marks a country slowly committing nationalistic Hinduicide. The hatred for India’s control of the land borders is pushing them towards unity with China. You’ll soon be able to get a train across the Tibetan plateau into Lhasa. The Maoist government ensures celebrations like the Tibetan New Year take place in private, not at traditional sites like the iconic Boudha stupa. The Chinese tourists that spin the prayer wheels counter-clockwise get the harshest looks from the attendant nuns.

As a frustrated anthropologist, I’m ashamed to say I saw nothing of lasting cultural value here. The religious iconography masks social and economic misery and the widespread oppression of women. Progress is held in check by deference to the conservative and uneducated elderly generation. All those weathered idols are an apt description of the country itself. The celebrated ‘tradition’ is a euphemism for the worst kind of modernity-denying religious conservatism. The loss of these traditions couldn’t help but improve people’s lives.

The Tyranny of Family

A friend, beautiful, smart, funny, has lived her life driving up and the down the same main dual carriageway that divides the city – a few kilometres of fumes and dangerous driving. Even in her late-twenties her parents forbade her travelling abroad ‘until she was married’. The second she were wed, she would be pressured by ‘tradition’ into compulsively squeezing out one child after another. No travel permitted.

Another friend, again well-educated and middleclass, had her wedding marked by the husband’s family firing the domestic help. Her mother-in-law made it clear she was a bad wife and daughter-in-law as she wasn’t getting up at dawn and scrubbing the house. That she was working full-time and studying for an MBA didn’t matter. Nor was there any appreciation that she had come from a home with servants of her own and clearly wasn’t about to start domestic chores.

The myth persists that daughters will get raped and murdered immediately after leaving the house. Many girls are prisoners in their parental home until they are married off into domestic servitude under the tyranny of the mother-in-law. Many are prevented from working at all. Those that get the father’s approval can’t be professionals in a white-collar office but they can be nurses: daddy disapproves of modern roles for women but the potentially traumatic horrors of dealing with the sick and dying is ideal women’s work.

The tyranny of the family is widespread. Those with forward-thinking families determine their careers for them – they all end up with the same MBA. That ‘children are a gift’ is repeated verbatim. Monolithic tradition results in unthinking servitude. Mothers moan about the lack of choices, conservatism and the horror of arranged marriages, yet steadfastly impose the same practices on their own daughters. The village fear of being gossiped about guides every action.

The patriarchal domination is hard to understand, given the obvious intellectual differences between the sexes. The women are obviously much smarter than the males; social evolution, gossip-circles and the pressure of raising children has clearly resulted in greater emotional and social intelligence. The males still grunt at each other in the same monotone they did when they laboured in the fields. Girls excel at language exams, while the boys fossilise at the ‘You like? Me no like’ stage in their own idiom. Interbreeding in the valley hardly improves things. IQs go up once the land flattens out towards India.

Unsurprisingly, despair amongst the young is universal. Providers do 40,000 IELTS exams a year; young people have given up on solving socio-political problems. Only the ambition of getting out remains. Representatives of the education ministry demand to know what colleges do to stop the brain-drain.

Education is controlled by a cabal that ruthless exploits the young. When a fat Brahmin in a cheap brightly coloured suit tells you ‘it isn’t just about the money’, you know its just about money. The best the majority can do is a third in business studies. I came to loath the word ‘entrepreneur’. It seems to be an over-inflated synonym for the class aspirations underscoring the ever-present caste system. Yet, being middle-class and well-educated isn’t enough; you have to be a middle-class well-educated Brahmin.

Open-Air Cremation

The Ghats at the Pashupatinath temple complex are said to be second only to Varanasi. It is a spectacular place – an odd mix of publicly grieving relatives, feral monkeys and parties of tourists. The dead and dying are brought to the riverside. The bodies are placed on stretchers and dipped in the holy water. Relatives wail in grief. Tourists watch. People take small children there for a day out. From under one shroud, an undignified dead hand stuck out morbidly. I couldn’t help recalling Young Frankenstein. I apologise to the family, but I had to suppress a laugh. I guess we all process voyeurism at a stranger’s funeral differently.

The recently deceased are burned at sunrise; their ashes are swept into the Bagmati river at sunset. Even I found that oddly moving; a day and your physical remains are gone from the Earth. I questioned as many of the locals as I could about living in the shadow of such a crematoria, knowing that your final destination was one you passed every day on the way to work. It seemed to bother me more than them.

Conclusion

My decision to go to Nepal was made quickly as my previous job ended abruptly. The best I can say about Nepal is I enjoyed living there in the short-term. Despite the obvious socio-political issues, there was endless opportunities for a street photographer. It’s a very dense urban environment with a lot going on in a confined space. I took a lot of photos I’m proud of.

I was glad to leave; various administrative issues make long-term living financially ruinous. I left at the beginning of 2020, just before the world went into lockdown. Having heard how badly COVID was handled there, many of my friends spent months with zero income and unable to leave, I was fortunate for once in my life. All said, I saw and learnt a lot; I am glad I got to go the edge of the map. If you were to travel there for the photo opportunities, you would be going with a full of appreciation of its merits. Perhaps don’t expect any life-changing mysticism. You’re more likely to find the usual middleclass flashpackers and street venders trying to sell you tat.

Oh, yes. In Kathmandu, the security guards in the banks all carry kukris.

Published by Lee Russell Wilkes

Been bouncing around the world for a while taking photos. Like most people, I have gone to ground during the pandemic. Decided it was time to put some of them out in the world.

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