On a recent Friday evening, Jatra Café & Bar in Thamel was crammed with a veritable who’s who of Kathmandu literati. Artists, writers, publishers, and academics squeezed past each other, cradling shot glasses of aila and Newari snacks on leaf plates. The mass of people spilled outside, where they chatted under the heavy pre-monsoon air. Behind them, the silhouette of an old Rana palace, once inhabited by the early democrat Ganesh Man Singh, contrasted with the setting sun.
The crowd had gathered to celebrate Rabi Thapa’s new book, Thamel, Dark Star of Kathmandu. The book is about the “many-splendoured” neighborhood, which Thapa sometimes describes to the uninitiated as “this tourist quarter, which used to be a medieval monastery, where we grew up going out.” Because the book had already been out for some months, the author was emphatic: this was not a book launch. (If one insists on labels, the promotional posters called the event, part of the Kathmandu Triennale, an “art nebula.”)
As darkness settled, Thapa appeared on a stage with two musicians, who looked down attentively at their control boards of electronic sound machines. The murmuring and clinking of glasses subsided, and atmospheric music rose slowly. A projector flashed images and videos of Kathmandu: fires from the urban unrest of recent decades; the cityscape from above, with its concrete boxes advancing ever further towards the valley rim; cosmopolitan fashionistas and confused tourists; faded black-and-white photographs of Newar traders and Rana autocrats. It was a disorienting, sometimes dystopian, display, but one that was also well-rendered and beautiful.
Thapa brought a microphone to his lips and began to read. Among other passages:
Thamel has a trump in that it lives by day and night like nowhere else in Kathmandu. If you walk a line by day you won’t see it once the sun drops out. I have no need for a cheap midnight kebab with a hundred kitchens to test by day. I welcome the words that greet me in bookshops, come dusk I wish to be rid of them. The rhythms of the quarter, the directions in which we ebb and flow are dictated by the opening and closing binaries of time, space and mind.
In my mind, Thamel merited just this sort of event, which paralleled and evidenced many issues raised implicitly in the book. The slim and fast-paced volume ostensibly tells the story of a neighborhood. And yet, in tackling that square kilometer of chaotic juxtapositions, Thapa has simultaneously illuminated something that transcends the space itself. He has also captured the ambivalence facing so much of contemporary Kathmandu—namely, the precarious navigations surrounding cultural, generational, and urban transformation.
I first met Thapa in March 2015, when we had both recently initiated research into Thamel. My own academic project seeks to understand the relationship between urban space, globalization, and cultural transformation. Thamel is a space saturated with divergent cultural meanings, and I am interested in the way in which various Nepali users assign significance to the neighborhood. Writing about Thamel in academic jargon is a mixed bag: precision often comes at the expense of accessibility, explanation at the expense of simplicity, nuance at the expense of elegance. As Thapa and I both progressed into the writing stages, I was excited to hear how he intended to present Thamel to a wider readership.
When Thamel hit bookstores earlier this year, I eagerly spent a morning at a café poring over every page. I have summarized and reviewed the book elsewhere, but a point from that earlier review should be stressed again. One of Thamel’s central achievements is the quality of Thapa’s prose: the shifting narration, the lyrical turns-of-phrase, the puns, and the renegade tone. These are the literary tools with which an elusive, shape-shifting neighborhood like Thamel deserves to be portrayed.
Before the Jatra book event, I sat down with Thapa for an interview, a shortened version of which is transcribed below.
How did you come to write about Thamel?
Essentially, it was a commission. It was not an obvious topic for me, partly because Thamel is one of those things which everyone who is living here—everyone of a certain age group or mentality or demographic—passes through and kind of outgrows. And then there’s not much more you want to say about it. You don’t look back and reflect on it. I had my mind on other things. I’d already written a book about Kathmandu [Nothing to Declare], which featured Thamel in at least two or three stories. But my editor was interested. He was like, “Why don’t you write about Thamel?” It was a place he’d never actually been to, even though he is of Nepali origin. So I said, “OK, I can try that.”
Can you explain the title? What makes Thamel the “dark star” of the city?
It seemed to fit in a number of ways. From what I understand of the astronomical meaning of a dark star, the dark matter is so heavy that it’s crushing all the light that’s coming out of it.
As an author, what challenges did you find in writing a story as complicated as Thamel’s?
I think one of the main challenges is deciding what to write about, or what not to write about. Obviously you have certain ideas when you start out as to how you’re going to go about it. You probably have a structure that looks very neat and tidy and organized, but as you move through the research and the reading and all of that, you kind of get distracted, diverted by other things—other things prove to be dead ends. I thought I would cover everything, but pretty quickly I realized that that was not feasible at all, so I started leaving out things. I think I started at the beginning, as I saw it, which was Tha Bahil [the old Newar settlement from which the neighborhood derives its name], and I just took it from there… You know, Thamel is a place that is splitting out at the seams. How do you put that in a bag which can be presented to a reader and not come across as something ridiculous?
Covering it chronologically, you pick out the things that stand out to you. You’re fully aware, as you pursue this brightly lit path through the woods, that there are shadows all around you saying, “Me! Me! Me!” You just have to ignore them. Hopefully, if you’ve got your radar on, by the end of a particular time period, you’ll have this package which can be shaped and molded into the finished product.
What works inspired you as you pursued this project? Were there books or writings that you looked to, either as models to follow or as cautionary tales of how not to write it?
Well, I’m glad you didn’t ask me who my favorite authors were [laughs]. I read a bunch, but there are three or four books that kind of stood out for me. Maximum City was one, by Suketu Mehta, in terms of how he covers Mumbai—as a resident, somebody coming back to it, but also as a cautionary tale to not get too close to the flame and distort what you’re seeing.
A friend also sent me a few papers written by Walter Benjamin and [AbdouMaliq] Simone, and I found it fascinating that there was this way of writing about cities in an academic way, but which was also beautiful and literary and poetic, and which also brought the author into it. And Mark Liechty, of course. I mean, the way he has managed to illuminate, at least to me, certain ways in which caste and class bodies move and co-exist simultaneously in this city kind of alerted me to certain aspects…
Ah, Open City by Teju Cole. That was probably… a prototype of the kind of book I would like to read and write about the city. There are many city books, and many of them are excellent. But the way in which he [Cole], as a literary writer, manages to take New York, go to the middle of Manhattan, and uncover these artifacts, which may date back to Native American times, and so on; and then to interpose himself into it as an immigrant, with his own stories, his own impressions of a place, and kind of juxtapose all these things and juggle them around and play with them. He can hold these several angles in front of you, like a crystal ball of some kind, coexisting, this constellation. I loved the way he did that, so that was an inspiration as well, but there are many more.
One of the entries in your bibliography is Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. In that book, he wrote, “You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.” Did Thamel give you any answers? If so, what was the question?
To me, [Thamel] is the answer to the question, “What the hell happened to this damned city? How did it go from A to Z in no time at all?” People come here, and they only see the surface of this place. There’s no coherence in Thamel when you look at it like that. That question, which I guess has been in my head with regard to Kathmandu as a whole, was answered by Thamel. As I said in the book as well, Thamel is this microcosm of Kathmandu, which is a microcosm of Nepal.
You write that Thamel is a “mental artefact,” a “many- splendoured thing,” and “a place that won’t sit still.” What makes the neighborhood so untamable and indefinable, so difficult to pigeonhole and encapsulate?
Well, just referring back to what I said before about Thamel bursting out of the seams. There’s just so many things here, right? It’s overwhelming, in terms of sights and sounds and what’s on offer, the things you can buy, the things you can experience, whether those are negative or positive things. There are so many businesses going on, apart from sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, so many things for a writer to latch onto. It’s all of Nepal’s social and political issues mashed into the economy of this place. And the whole love and hate relationship that a lot of people who live here have with Thamel: this idea that, “It’s great!” or “It was great, but now it’s shit.” People have very conflicting feelings about this.
You prominently deploy a striking juxtaposition in the book: the side-by-side architectures of Bhagwan Bahal and the mammoth Chhaya Devi shopping complex, which is under construction. What symbolic value did you see in these two spaces being next to each other?
Bhagwan Bahal is, to me, the enduring past of Thamel, of Tha Bahil. It’s where it all began, or at least that’s what I’ve been told. It was there at the beginning, and I find it remarkable that this place continues to exist in this maelstrom of whatever is around it. And to have this abomination, this Chhaya Devi center right next to it—it’s almost laughable. It’s as if somebody went up to Nepal’s top architect and said, “We have Bhagwan Bahal, and we have this space right next to it. Give me something opposite, completely out of the box.” [Laughs] And then he’s come up with this monstrosity.
So there’s the contrast in the architecture of it, but it’s also what these spaces represent…Vikramsila Mahabihar [another name for Bhagwan Bahal] is this ancient place of learning, where they have this 800-page manuscript, the Pragyaparamita, the Buddha’s teachings. So it’s this completely tranquil, non-commercial space. [The Tha Bahil Pradhans] are very traditional, and I appreciate that. In a place where—in a neighborhood, in a city, in a country—where everyone’s sold out to money, Tha Bahil remains as it is. I’m not saying it’s this idyllic place without any conflict within it. There are conflicts, which I’ve hinted at in the book, but for this place to still be here is remarkable. The contrast with the Chhaya Devi center, which as it happens is being built on Tha Bahil land—it is being built literally on the lotus pond, which is supposed to supply the water for Bhagwan Bahal’s ceremonies. For outsiders, so to speak, to come and drain this place, lay claim over the land—14 ropanis or whatever, through a number of devious land office dealings dating back to the Ranas—to claim this place, and then to erect this phallus, is completely offensive.
In a way, it’s also probably fitting, you know? Because, as much as you go on about the Buddhist teachings and the Tha Bahil Pradhans and all their festivals and whatnot, they also draw their genealogy to Singhasartha Bahu, who was the first trader, who left Nepal for money. Everyone else who went with him [on his mythological journey] got devoured by these Tibetan demonesses. Their lust for sex and gold did them in, so that’s representative of this place also. It’s probably the inevitable conclusion. It’s the past and the future. This is the journey that Singhasartha Bahu is on, right?
What’s the best aspect of Thamel?
It represents a certain part of my life, which was not all good, but it was fun. The good aspects of it are the good times: my memories of Thamel, of going out with people, my family, my cousins, going out with my friends, intoxication, good music, revelations, all these kinds of things. It’s all packaged in there. I owe that to Thamel. Whatever else happens to it, that part of my life is always there.
What’s the worst aspect of Thamel?
The bad aspects are just what you see on the surface, and Thamel misrepresenting itself—just the aspects of it that make it seem like a cheap tourist trap when it is so much more. That’s its own fault, and there’s not much you can do about that.
What’s your next project? Is it already in the works?
It’s something that I’ve been building up to for a long time. I would like to write a book about the environment. More specifically: how Nepalis and humans relate to different aspects of nature in the city and outside of it—outside of it, particularly—to kind of explain, again, how we got to the state we are in today, not just in Kathmandu, but in Nepal and in the world. It’s something that I’m always thinking about.
After I shut off my recorder, Thapa and I spent another long while chatting about Thamel, that “many- splendoured thing” that has captured so much of our time in the past few years. As in his writing, Thapa was candid in expressing his ambivalent impressions of Thamel and Nepal, and did not shy away from scathing criticism. However, I got the sense that this stemmed from a deep fondness for his city, an abiding affection for Kathmandu.
Writing comprehensively about Thamel is an impossible undertaking; there will always be more to say about it. Thapa has produced the first book-length treatment of the neighborhood, and it is a welcome counterbalance to years of reductive misrepresentation. The neighborhood is, indeed, a “mental artefact,” and Thamel, Dark Star of Kathmandu goes a long way toward illuminating the space’s bald paradoxes, excavating its hidden histories, and untangling its knotted threads.