Kathmandu

Kathmandu
Thomas Bell
Haus Books 463pp £17.99

High in the Himalayas there is a parasitic fungus that grows out of the body of small caterpillars and is worth more than its weight in gold. Today, harvesting these mushrooms is bringing much needed cash into Nepal and is part of the country’s new political economy, most palpably so in its capital city, Kathmandu.

The old has never really been revered in the city, we are told by Thomas Bell in Kathmandu. This is why old structures have historically been smashed and spliced into new buildings. In his impressive debut book Bell traces the layers of Kathmandu’s past through to the present, from the remains of old doorways and windows, temples and palaces, statues and carved inscriptions. 

Most readers would think of Nepal as a peaceful, poor country, especially after the horrifying earthquake of 2015. But, Bell shows, life in Kathmandu has steadily become increasingly restless. Frustrated with monarchical rule, Maoists were engaged in a prolonged, bitter civil war that spilled out of Kathmandu and into the countryside. In 2008, after experiments with establishing a constitutional monarchy, Nepal finally transitioned from the Hindu kingdom established by Prithvi Narayan Shah in the mid-18th century to a secular republic. The Maoists won the majority of parliamentary seats and formed an uneasy coalition government, but inter-party bickering has led repeatedly to coalitions falling and having to be reconstituted.

Woven through the book is the history of this infighting, the conversations and encounters behind the news stories that the author, as a foreign correspondent in Nepal, relayed back to readers of the Daily Telegraph and the Economist. These appear as a series of vignettes, sandwiched between episodes from the journals of the East India Company officers, British residents and western travellers in Kathmandu from the late 18th century onwards. Nepal was not a site commonly connected to the intrigues and proxy wars of the Cold War. Yet, Nepal’s neutrality and its geostrategic location meant that funds poured in from the USSR, the US, China and elsewhere. In more recent times, the flow of aid monies has continued but without tangible results, which Bell attributes to aid agencies’ techno-bureaucratism and aid workers’ unfamiliarity with the peculiarities and particularities of the country.

At times, the tone is unsympathetic, cutting, the language a little crude. The author’s ire for destruction and death is understandable but the ways in which Nepali customs and traditions are described as backward or irrational is surprising in light of the author’s love for the country (and his Newari wife) and occasionally makes for uncomfortable reading. This is, perhaps, precisely the point; to make sense of the horrors for himself and also to relate that which he could not commit to copy as a journalist in a foreign land. A book full of feeling, it provides personality and narrative texture to complement other works on the history and politics of Nepal.

Jagjeet Lally is a Lecturer in the History of Early Modern and Modern India at University College London.

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