How does one capture the spirit of a place? E M Forster, in his guidebook Alexandria, said that the best way to know a city is to wander around aimlessly and to have all your antennae out in all directions so that nothing, absolutely nothing, is uninteresting.
Travel writer Jan Morris in Michael Shapiro’s A Sense of Place—Great Travel Writers Talk About their Craft, Lives and Inspiration says, “What you call the spirit of the place is the spirit of the confrontation between two forces, the city itself and the writer.”
Thamel: the jottings of a flaneur, could have been the sub-heading of this gem of a book on a vibrant neighbourhood of Kathmandu by writer-editor of La.Lit magazine, Rabi Thapa. Thamel occupies a square kilometre in Kathmandu, and houses 4,000 businesses, “Which five decades earlier was nothing more than a sparsely populated neighbourhood of ethnic Newars grouped around a medieval Buddhist monastery of Thabahi.”
As a flaneur, a “gentleman stroller of city streets” (Charles Baudelaire), Thapa chats with people in tea shops, monasteries, and homes, jaunts down memory lanes with dons and wrestlers and cabin girls and an eclectic cast of characters, and generally adopts a journalist’s crow-like curiosity about the place and its inhabitants.
Just like a flaneur who weaves in his own memories into the tale, Thapa revisits the haunts of his youth, and confides how it took him “the longest time to feel ‘at home’ in Kathmandu”. Interspersed are succinct and vivid autobiographies: metal rocker, trucker, a cabin girl, a hair dresser, a recovering drug addict, and a domestic moonlighting as a doughnut maker who becomes a travel guide and then the owner of a travel agency street, and so on. This is done without informing the reader who grasps the person’s identity only while taking a jaunt through the story. A great way to transmit the spirit of the place for its immigrants and emigrants.
Thapa is an interesting and irreverent narrator who takes us on a whirlwind tour of the histories and stories swirling around Thamel, where facts bleed into myth and dreams. Even those who don’t know Nepal would have heard of Freak Street, where in the 1960s and 70s “hippies lounged around low tables drinking sweet tea at 25 paise a glass, mixing tobacco with hashish”. In 2006, the monarchy ended and democracy reigned; today the Nepal Tourism Board presents Thamel as a destination for a stag weekend.
Sometimes the names are confusing, but one is swept away by the sheer exuberance of the narrative, which gives us a sense of who is an insider/outsider, of the immigrant and the emigrant. Thapa succeeds in doing all this in only 164 pages, which capture the rhythm of Thamel’s beat. “... Company doesn’t want to talk in Thamel. It wants to indulge in banter seasoned with meat and drink, it wants to whoop and holler, it wants to pull the stops out.”
This book is a definite keeper, to be savoured and re-read. A particularly wonderful nugget in the book is a translated excerpt of Stevan Pesic’s Katmandu, a cult classic in his native Yugoslavia. “Kathmandu is the promised land of the hashish brotherhood. Nepali gods, generous toward everyone have promised and given it to them, but not for keeping. Because even in promised lands, one stays only temporarily, and perpetual migration is the destiny of the chosen.” Thapa delivers this sense of movement, which animates the spirit of Thamel: The Dark Star of Kathmandu.