Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 7th May, 2016
Late last month people across Nepal commemorated 2015’s fearsome earthquake. That disaster shattered communities as well as buildings, yet the Nepalese have been pulling themselves together and rebuilding. Some of the old houses and temples in the Kathmandu valley will probably never be restored, but as Thomas Bell points out in his riveting account of Kathmandu and its surrounds, Kathmandu (Haus, £17.99), the city has been used to change and regeneration for decades, even centuries. The place I knew as a student back in 1969 later grew exponentially, ugly concrete blocks spreading out over the fields and replacing some of the brick and timber buildings that were falling down or were torn down in the interests of progress. We travellers in the Swinging Sixties saw Kathmandu as a Himalayan Shangri-la, and it was rather special, despite the evident poverty and the excesses of the more drug-fueled hippies. Most of them had gone by the time Tom Bell arrived, fresh from Oxford, three decades later, trying to carve a freelance journalistic career for himself. But there was enough of the old magic around to enchant him; moreover, with the rise of the Maoist insurgency he had a real news story with which to keep his journalistic strings occupied.
In the book, he recounts visiting Maoist groups in more remote parts of Nepal, as well as his experiences coming to terms with life in a culture so different to that back home. But Kathmandu is so much more than just memoir or conflict reporting, as its text is a rich and sometimes complex weave of reportage, history, speculation and gossip, as well as the retrieved impressions of European travellers and officials who managed to penetrate the country before it opened itself up to the outside world in 1951. At first the author is seduced by Kathmandu’s exotic appeal, but gradually his tone changes, as he begins to understand the ramifications and injustices of the country’s intricate caste system as well as the extent of the corruption that pervades almost every level of society. As a personable young Western journalist he was able to mix with high and low, observing acutely but sceptical about much of what he was being told. He met his future Nepalese wife there, which is presumably the main reason he returned to Kathmandu after a stint as a South East Asia newspaper correspondent, but Nepal itself had got under his skin warts and all. This book therefore swings in mood as it does between subjects, at times comical, at others quite the opposite, the richness of its texture, the words interspersed with dozens of small black and white photographs that are as serendipitous as many of the book’s themes.