So inimitable is Thomas Bell’s style and his unerring eye for the type of detail other writers might ignore, for fear their narrative might lead to stagnation, that Kathmandu is truly a one off, for I doubt if anybody else is capable of the writer’s bloody minded persistence and his facility for telling it as it.
It soon becomes evident that the extraordinary in the greatest city of the Himalaya may nonetheless be common place, such as the myriad traditions which govern the intricate and – to the Western world – unfathomably cruel caste system, or the very real presence of gods and goddesses, whose expositions by Bell are the equal of the superb The Age of Kali by William Dalrymple.
I flew into Calcutta reading The Age of Kali, a bunch of essays distilling a decade’s travel in India, and whose title is a reference to the Hindu concept of time being quartered into four epochs: the continent is now in the age of Kali, an age – in Dalrymple’s words – of corruption and disintegration, and his book, beginning with the slaughter by untouchables of high caste villagers in the village of Barra, is bookended by bloodshed. Or, at the very least, that is my memory of it.
There is, too, much blood in Bell’s city, described as a carnival of hypocrisy and sexual license and a paradigm of failed democracy.
In Calcutta, I was distracted by a local newspaper report of how a middle aged man in the Hatapara village of Malda, was drugged and tied up to be sacrificed at the altar of the Goddess Kali, but was rescued by neighbours before “the swing of the chopper.” Here was on-the-spot validation of Dalrymple’s accounts in his book, which I had dismissed as far fetched.
The would-be sacrificial victim was lured to a puja by neighbours, drugged with a plate of prasad, his face covered in vermilion and his neck placed on a block by a tantrik. This was four years ago, and it is this bizarre but ancient civilization near the top of the world, where hundreds of castes and ethnic groups are thrown together in Kathmandu, regarding each other with indifference and occasionally contempt, which is unearthed and illuminated by Bell’s no nonsense reportage.
He does not seek to emulate the prosaic peaks of Dalrymple, but his sentences, short snapshots of Kathmandu’s moveable feast, memorably and clearly explicate how the locals propitiate either omnipresent gods or flesh and blood political rulers with sacrifices or zealous devotion.
Bell’s writing is precise and lucid: not all good English is good journalism, but all good journalism is good English.
He is brilliant on the idiosyncrasies which are part and parcel of Kathmandu’s fixation with black magic and political intrigue, from the spirit infested season in the month of Chaitra when kitchkandi under bridges threatened the unwary, to the dancing priests of the Harisiddhi goddess temple, recognised by their women’s clothes and grotesque masks, from the early nineteenth century tyranny of Bhimsen Thapa to Nepal’s Maoist revolution of the mid-1990s.
Thomas Bell is impelled by curiosity and an old fashioned, almost naïve spirit of adventure, but Kathmandu, because of his resourcefulness and bravado, deserves its place alongside Richard Burton’s Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al Madinah and Meccah. I shall dip into it for years to come.