Book review: Kathmandu by Thomas Bell

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 Himalayas 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 civilisation 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.

Elsewhere, the city’s rapid modernisation reflects the seismic changes in urban traditional societies south of the Himalayas, but the many layers of Kathmandu’s progress are rooted to the past, from the apparent comforts of caste to the ethos of aristocracy and royalty: if you can for a moment ignore the bungled Western intervention, the environmental catastrophes, the permanent communism revolution, the daily carnival of sexual license and moral hypocrisy, Kathmandu remains, just like this book, eternally entertaining and oddly accessible despite the presence of many time warps in a single street and in a single sentence.

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.


Thomas Bell

Book review: Kathmandu by Thomas Bell

Haus Publishing, £17.99


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